…so ran the BT advert, one of the most successful advertising slogans in corporate history. For the 10% of print impaired people in the population the sentiment applies as much to their learning resource as it does to their social lives. It’s good to have web pages that talk, documents that talk, e-books that talk and so on.
But why is it good to talk? Isn’t audio content just something for a minority of people with disabilities? Don’t we sort the problem by buying special software for special computers in a special room? Or, for the lucky ones, by buying them special software from their disabled students allowance?
No. Audio content is changing and with it learner expectations are changing too. Audio books are one of the fastest growing areas of the publishing industry. And text-to-speech with synthetic voices is becoming mainstream. Why?
There are lots of different reasons. For some people, listening is less effort than reading. Others want to read a book when they are doing something else (walking, washing up etc) and listening gives them that option. But surely there’s a difference between listening to an actor read a book and listening to a synthetic voice read your tutor’s handout? Yes, I believe there’s a difference, but it’s a lot less than there used to be and synthetic voices are now part of mainstream life on phones, the car satnav and so on.
The uninformed six million
In education the technology tools now exist to make good quality text-to-speech available to over six million learners in the UK - for free. That’s six million plus learners who could choose between reading text or listening to it; who could listen to their assignments to proof read them; who could use text-to-speech to pursue hobbies at home as well as study at school.
This would not only benefit the hundreds of thousands of print impaired learners throughout our education system but would also benefit similar numbers of international students whose aural English is more confident than their reading speed in an unfamiliar script.
So why hasn’t this revolution in opportunity hit our educational institutions and our learners' homes? I think the answer is simple. Few of them know about it because learning providers are complex organisms and communication is often limited.
The ingredients of the revolution are simple enough:
- Free high quality synthetic speech voices – in England the Jisc TechDis voices are available to post-16 learners in all sectors from offender learning to further education, skills and higher education. In Scotland and Wales all publicly organisations are entitled to the Scottish Voices and Welsh Ivona voices respectively
- Free text to speech software – this is available as:
Simple steps to make a difference
The problem is not technological – the voices can be installed across a network in a couple of hours using the .msi files. The problem is coordination.
To make the revolution happen you need these actors:
- Someone to install the tools and voices
- Someone to tell the students they exist
- Someone to show staff and or learners how they could be used in teaching and learning
- Someone to tell them they can download a personal copy for home use
- Someone to ensure the grand statements of equality and diversity policies actually translate to practical actions like the four above!
Catalyst for action
Given the availability of free high quality voices and free or open source text-to-speech software it is very difficult to argue against it being a reasonable expectation within any post-16 learning provider. Disabled learners have a legal entitlement to getting information in an accessible format and text-to-speech, for many, is exactly that.
Lack of action is rarely lack of will; more often it’s a perceived lack of urgency. But the urgency is increasing. We recently coordinated a piece of work with a range of disability organisations across the UK to create a guide for learners as to the ‘reasonable expectations’ they should have from any post-16 learner provider. Site-wide text-to-speech was one of the key expectations. The more disabled learners know what is a ‘reasonable provision’ the more risky it is not to provide it.
Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and it provides a perfect catalyst to get the appropriate team together in your organisation to make it happen: to speech-enable your learning platform, your documents, your e-book systems. Visit the Jisc TechDis website for more information.
After all, it’s good to talk.