Speech recognition allows you to speak aloud to your device and have words typed as you speak. The software is not quite ‘Star Trek’ quality yet, but it has improved so significantly in the last few years that it is now a real option for text entry. Even better, it is included free in many operating systems.
Many versions of the software only work when they are online as your speech is literally sent across the internet, interpreted in the cloud and then returned to the device in text format.
With Bluetooth, wireless, and cloud technologies you can do cool things like talk into your phone and have the text come up in a document on any computer screen (in the same room or in a shared document across the other side of the world), all in real time.
The question is, should 21st-century learners labour to write with a pen or keyboard, or can they simply speak their writing? Is it cheating and how will it impact on their literacy and learning?
Is speaking cheating?
It depends on the learning intention.
If the learning intention is for students to express themselves or to show their understanding, then speaking to write is just as valid as writing with a pen or typing. It is simply the means of getting your word onto the page.
If the intention is to develop the ‘skill of writing with a pen or keyboard’ or spell words correctly then of course speaking is not appropriate. These intentions are often important for younger learners and less of a focus for older students.
Pros — why use speech recognition?
It is fast. The average adult writes at about 31 words per minute* while they speak at more like 150 words per minute. Speech recognition software uses context to recognise speech so most work best when you speak at your normal pace in whole sentences or paragraphs rather than individual words.
For those with writing difficulties or a strong preference for speech, it is critical because so much of the work produced and assessed in the education setting is still required in written format. Speech recognition gives these students the opportunity to show what they know rather than repeatedly defining them by their writing difficulties.
It offers options for those with who have writing difficulties. For those who have physical disabilities, poor fine motor skills, handwriting legibility, and other writing problems (e.g. very poor spelling), speech recognition offers another way to get their words onto the page.
It has huge (and largely untapped) potential for communication with students who are hearing impaired or Deaf. A speaker can use the technology to convert their voice to text, enabling immediate, real-time access for a student who cannot hear the spoken word. This option is not nearly as good as sign language or real-time captioning but is starting to be a reasonable third choice for students who are Deaf or hearing-impaired and can read well.
Cons — what are the down sides?
Speaking to write is a very different skill to speaking in conversation. The student must compose sentences in their head, speak (preferably the whole sentence) clearly and then review what has been written for accuracy. Speaking to write is a complex skill that will need to be learnt and practised. We should not expect that just because a student can speak, it will be easy for them.
The software is not yet capable of 100% accuracy so the student will always need to review the text and make corrections (using voice or keyboard).
There is currently no Māori speech recognition engine so te reo is not an option. Some of the products can recognise a few Māori words or can be trained to recognise new words.
The use of speech recognition in a classroom requires careful consideration. Many students are reluctant to speak their work aloud in front of their peers and although microphone technology is improving all the time, a quiet setting will give greater recognition accuracy. Because of this, students are sometimes sent to other rooms to do speech recognition. This, in turn, may lead to the student being isolated from their peers.
NCEA externals are still handwritten, so longhand is still necessary. This is very likely to change in the future and NZQA has already begun digitising assessments. Unfortunately having reliable speech recognition available for any student who wants it in our NCEA assessments is still a long way off. For more information see Innovation at NZQA.
Speech recognition requires power and in most cases, a good internet connection. We only need to think of the recent terrible crisis in Nepal, or even closer to home, the handwritten ‘HELP!’ signs hastily scribed by those trapped in high-rise buildings during the Christchurch earthquakes. Handwriting was crucial when all networks were out and power was lost to some of us for months on end.
Are crayons, pencils and pens out? What does the research say?
Recent neuroscientific research clearly shows us that students acquire early literacy skills most effectively by learning to write by hand (James & Attwood, 2009; Longcamp et al, 2008; James & Engelhardt, 2011). The tactile, physical act of writing by hand recruits the visual area of children’s brains used in letter processing, and the motor regions seen in letter production, in ways that don’t occur through tracing or using keyboards (Alonso, 2015).
So, perhaps surprisingly to some of us, using a range of ‘old digital’ (in the finger sense) media —- e.g. plasticine, sandpaper, paint, crayon, pencil, pen and glass (tablet finger writing and using a stylus rather than a keyboard) — remains important for now, especially in the early years of emergent writing.
For older students, there is also evidence that note taking by hand rather than keyboard may help comprehension. Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) showed that college students who take notes longhand take fewer notes overall, with less verbatim recording than those who use keyboards. But they perform better in both factual and conceptual learning.
So we shouldn’t be throwing away those pens and pencils just yet. Writing by hand is still an important skill that has a significant role to play in developing early literacy skills. It also appears that handwriting notes supports comprehension and retention of information.
Speech recognition though, is one of the many great tools that students can use to produce written content. It definitely has a place as an option for writing so let’s add it to our learners’ repertoire of skills – especially for older learners who already have handwriting in their toolbox.
What is sure, is that ever-widening opportunities are becoming available to our students. Those who learn to use these amazing writing tools – whether separately or in combination – will find truly inspiring, supportive, motivating and exciting prospects in our evolving classrooms and learning spaces.
For more information and reviews of a variety of speech recognition tools see:
Speech Recognition on the assistive technology VLN
Alonso, MAP. Metacognition and sensorimotor components underlying the process of handwriting and keyboarding and their impact on learning. An analysis from the perspective of embodied psychology. Social and behavioural sciences (2015); 263-269. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.470
James, KH and Engelhardt, L. The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and education (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001
Mueller, PA and Oppenheimer,DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science (2014); 25(^) 1159-68.
doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581. Epub 2014 Apr 23.
The University of Stavanger. "Better learning through handwriting." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm