Today in higher education, there is an increasing amount of educational content provided in many different formats, which means an increase in the barriers to consuming this content for those with sensory impairments (blindness, low vision, eye strain), motor impairments while using computers, special needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, or cultural barriers such as low language proficiency in the case of visiting students or immigrants.
Assistive technologies with text-to-speech functions which permit the computer to read textual documents or web documents aloud, presenting them in a bimodal (visual + speech) manner, help to ease these potential accessibility barriers.
Results from the pilot Multimodal Campus Project at Barcelona University, carried out by Marina Salse Rovira, Mireia Ribera Turro, Rosa Maria Satorras Fioretti and Miquel Centelles Velilla, seemed to avail the existence of widespread reading and writing difficulties among higher education students and the utility of speech technology to minimize them.
The main aim of the Multimodal Campus Project was to evaluate 1,200 freshmen students when text-to-speech reading aids were added to the university’s Moodle Learning Management System and measure need levels and the added value of the technology. Students were taken from different disciplines and different classes in order to ensure that the research stretched across a range of diverse student profiles.
To evaluate the needs and results, questionnaires were administered to students and teachers to identify potential reading difficulties and attitudes towards the implementation of reading aids, use and preferences, overall satisfaction and to evaluate the integration of the assistive technology tools into teaching. In-depth interviews of a small sample of students were also conducted.
Highlights from the research include:
- 35.2 % of the respondents had some degree of disability diagnosed (mainly visual problems), followed by dysorthography or dysgraphia, ADHD and dyslexia or dyscalculia, with the most common reading and understanding problems being attention deficits, followed by difficulties in numerical operations and vision problems.
- 20% admitted that they had issues concentrating while reading or understanding long written texts.
- More than 60% of Spanish-speaking students stated that they had issues knowing how some English words were pronounced.
- ReadSpeaker was viewed as an easy-to-use program with a good integration of functions and a low learning curve that didn’t require external support. More than half of the interviewees stated they would keep using the reading assistance programs if they were available.
With ReadSpeaker software, results show that users experienced significant improvements in memorization (25.2 %) and reading comprehension (24.5%).
It is worth noting that users perceived ReadSpeaker very positively and no change was required from 53.16 % of the students.
Overall, results of the study show both a need for and the usefulness of reading assistance tools in a university context, not only for students with special needs or with disabilities, but for all students.
According to the Multimodal Campus Project report, “ReadSpeaker is a suitable program to solve deficits in web and learning management systems, as well as in homework learning resources.”
Information technology offers technically and economically feasible solutions to complement learning resources by adding audio output. A multimodal presentation of materials is indeed helpful for a significant amount of students, and particularly for those with difficulties in reading or writing, as found in previous studies (i.e. Neerincx et al., 2008).
Similar studies completed at Ohio State University (2013) and Uppsala University (2004) measured the usefulness of reading assistance tools, like ReadSpeaker, following over 1,000 students over the course of a single semester and tracking their progress through interviews and student logs. At the end of the semester, ReadSpeaker text-to-speech tools were seen to minimize widespread reading and writing problems among higher education students.
Taking into account the worldwide trend to promote inclusive universities and learning accessibility, it behooves universities and other higher education institutions to use text to speech tools both to acquire and retain students, as well as increase their institution’s overall learning results.