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Text to speech usage has spiked along with online learning. Does that mean schools must pay more for the technology?

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread school closures. Those school closures led to a rapid expansion of online learning, across nations and grade levels. And remote learning, it turns out, leads to more use of text to speech (TTS).

The correlation between online learning and demand for TTS—technology that turns written language into spoken words—shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many learners need to hear learning content. Text to speech is an essential accessibility tool for them. Some students are auditory learners, who retain information better when it’s spoken. Still more learn best through written and spoken language at once, a practice known as bimodal learning. Text to speech supports all these student populations, which helps educators achieve the equity goals associated with Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Here’s something that is surprising: The combined trend of online learning and TTS use continues, long after K-12 schools in the U.S. started to welcome students back into classrooms. The reopening process began in August 2020. By September 2022, 99.7% of the nation’s school districts had returned fully to in-person learning. But the use of edtech tools—including those associated with online learning—has actually risen during those two years.

According to education research organization LearnPlatform, edtech usage has been on an upward trajectory since 2019, and that trend shows no signs of reversing:

  • In the 2019-2020 school year, prior to the pandemic’s explosion in March, each U.S. school district accessed an average of 952 edtech tools per month.
  • After the pandemic arrived, districts used 1,327 edtech tools per month.
  • By the end of 2021, with most schools reopened, districts were using 1,403 edtech tools per month.

That growth lines up with ReadSpeaker’s own unprecedented increase in traffic usage: Use of ReadSpeaker TTS grew by 65% following pandemic school closures. All of this points to a potential challenge for educators who rely on TTS: Will more usage mean more costs?

The answer depends entirely on how you pay for TTS. Here’s what to look for when you need sustainable TTS pricing, regardless of shifting usage patterns.

Text to Speech Pricing Models for Controlling Technology Costs

Adoption of TTS will continue to grow, as the education landscape shifts to more online and blended learning. That’s a positive thing for the edtech industry and students alike. However, some edtech pricing structures can make this growth unsustainable.

In the TTS industry, you’ll encounter three common pricing models:

  • Volume-based pricing. This model applies primarily to production tools—TTS engines that allow you to create and download static audio files of speech based on your written text. You may pay by word count or by time length, i.e., a set fee for a certain number of minutes of speech.
  • Usage-based pricing. This is the risky one for school districts that offer online TTS tools. You pay based on usage—not just traffic to your TTS tool, but also the length of each session. You may also find support and maintenance costs tacked onto this model.
  • License-based pricing. Here’s the solution for educators looking to control costs. You pay for a time-based license (say, yearly), and get unlimited usage of the TTS service. Typically, pricing is set into tiers based on the number of full-time enrolled (FTE) students you serve.

Many TTS providers only offer volume- or usage-based pricing. When usage goes up, so does traffic. That leads to higher costs when pricing is tied to these metrics. If TTS usage continues to grow—or encounters an unexpected spike—you’ll pay more, sometimes leading to serious sticker shock.

The solution is to choose a TTS provider that offers licensed pricing, which controls for unexpected usage changes. But that model may only apply to TTS tools you embed in a learning management system (LMS) or online platform. If you also plan to produce speech files for digital learning materials, you may benefit more from volume-based pricing.

Many educators use TTS in multiple contexts. That makes it crucial to choose a TTS partner with pricing models that are:

  • Flexible
  • Modular
  • Customed
  • Scalable

At ReadSpeaker, we build and control all our own TTS technology. That gives us the freedom to work with customers to determine the pricing model that best supports their use cases. If you want to produce a few speech files, you can pay based on volume. You can even create those files through ReadSpeaker’s online TTS production solution: No software downloads required.

If you’re adding TTS to an LMS for your entire student population, you can purchase a license based on full-time student enrollment. We offer varying pricing models based on everything from usage to total activations to enrollment numbers—and we even offer individual licenses for as low as $4 per month.

Looking for funding to bring the benefits of TTS to your students? Explore edtech grants and assistance programs here.

What About Free TTS Services?

Any discussion of TTS pricing eventually leads to the obvious question: Why pay for TTS when there are plenty of free options available? Some operating systems offer TTS. Websites do, too. But free services can’t compete with the experts in TTS, who must charge to keep reinvesting in voice technology.

Free TTS voices may sound grating and robotic—and they don’t offer the key to success for educational TTS: Native integration with all the content on your LMS. They also typically lack customer support and customization options. That means you’re on your own if pronunciation is off or you run into technical problems.

Before relying on any free TTS service alone, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the TTS really free? Many “free” TTS production tools limit access by character count, word count, or file size. Go past the limit and you have to start paying.
  2. What do the voices sound like? Students won’t listen for long if TTS voices sound unnatural. Paid TTS services offer more natural, lifelike voices, which improve learning experiences.
  3. Does the TTS offer all the languages, dialects, and identity representations your students expect? If you serve a diverse student population, free TTS services might not offer the languages you need—and it’s unlikely to include the dialects, accents, and speaking styles that represent your students.
  4. What does the user have to do to access the TTS? Free TTS tools require users to open a new app or browser window. That’s a barrier, and many students can’t or won’t take the step. To be truly useful, TTS must be natively available in your LMS or digital ecosystem—and that only comes with a service like ReadSpeaker.
  5. How does the TTS service protect student data? Is data being properly secured and held locally? With a free TTS service, it’s often hard to tell.

Also consider the importance of pronunciation in educational content. Free TTS voices may mispronounce words, which can negatively affect learning. ReadSpeaker offers custom pronunciation dictionaries, so you can ensure every word, technical term, acronym, and proper noun comes out perfect every time.

Fixed Text to Speech Pricing Models from ReadSpeaker

At first glance, Big Tech TTS (think Amazon or Google) seems to offer low prices for their services—but looks can be deceiving. The Big Tech providers tend to stick with usage-based pricing. As we’ve mentioned, that becomes extremely expensive as students become regular users and usage spikes. The more successful your TTS becomes, the more you’ll pay for it. That’s a self-defeating proposition.

Even worse, Big Tech TTS tends to lack support and customization. Tech giants don’t have the staff to help you integrate the technology or remove technical barriers. They typically don’t offer custom pronunciation dictionaries, increasing the likelihood of mispronunciation, which can negatively affect learning outcomes.

Instead, look for a TTS partner that offers a sustainable business model, including yearly licenses. Fixed annual pricing allows for in-year cost control and proper budgeting. For example, ReadSpeaker’s simple TTS SaaS pricing for education customers is based on activations over a 12 month period. Compared to use-based pricing, that’s like an insurance policy that protects you from usage spikes.

Online learning is here to stay. According to the trends, so is TTS. As more students begin to expect this service, be sure to deliver it with a pricing model that controls costs during sustained and growing use.

Reach out to our team to learn more.

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