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Text to Speech (TTS) and Retaining Students

July 11, 2022 by Amy Foxwell

Educators often struggle to control student retention rates, which describe the percentage of students who return to the same school from one semester to the next. In 2020, U.S. retention rates in higher education dropped a record 0.7%, reaching just 66.2% overall. That means slightly more than a third of college, trade-school, and university students left their institutions. Some abandoned their education entirely.

The challenge of retaining students isn’t limited to higher education. While high school dropout rates in the U.S. have been on a steady decline for decades, they rose by over 1% between 2019 and 2020, reaching a rate of 5.3%. These numbers may sound small, but in 2019, the dropout percentage represented around 2 million students leaving school at a vulnerable age.

The good news is that educators are adopting powerful strategies to improve student retention across grade levels. Text to speech (TTS)—a technology that turns digital text into audible language—supports these efforts.

TTS is part of a broad approach to making education more inclusive, flexible, and responsive to unique student needs. Here’s how.

TTS and Retaining Students: Universal Design for Learning and Online Education

Every student has a singular mix of learning styles, needs, and preferences. When you don’t address these particularities, students get discouraged. They’re more likely to leave your institution for a competitor or quit school altogether.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an education strategy that accounts for the differences between individual students. This approach can improve student retention rates—and UDL benefits considerably from the use of TTS. Text to speech also addresses major factors of student disengagement with online learning, both within and outside a UDL framework. We’ll explore each of these TTS applications below.

TTS, Universal Design for Learning, and Student Retention

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a science-based framework for personalized education. The core of the approach is to provide multiple ways for learners to engage with course content, so everything’s optimized for a wide diversity of learning styles and needs. Some students learn best by reading a textbook, while others have to hear the language—or, better yet, read and listen at the same time. With UDL, teachers meet all those needs at once.

Text to speech allows students to read, listen, or both—a UDL-friendly approach education specialists call bimodal content presentation. And TTS tools from ReadSpeaker go beyond synthetic speech, with literacy tools like simultaneous speech and text highlighting, text enlargement, page masks, and more. These are tremendous accessibility tools, but they’re also key technologies for implementing a UDL strategy—and UDL can improve student retention.

“Adopting UDL as a framework for online courses helps greatly to retain students…,” writes Thomas J. Tobin, coordinator of learning technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, in the Quarterly Review of Distance Education. “By expanding access to learning materials, interactions, and engagement, UDL-designed courses make it more likely that any students who might otherwise encounter challenges—not just those with disabilities—will be successful and persist in our online courses.”

In short, TTS contributes to the success of UDL, which can lead to better student retention rates.

Retaining Students with the Help of TTS: Addressing the Factors of Persistence in Online Learning

In a 2012 literature review that remains authoritative today, Carolyn Hart of Southwest Baptist University identified key factors that lead students to complete online courses—and the discouraging conditions that led them to drop out.

Among the barriers to student persistence shown in a vast body of research, Hart included the following:

  • “Difficulty in accessing resources”
  • “Lack of computer accessibility”
  • “Auditory learning style”

Text to speech is the perfect tool for addressing each of these challenges, especially the third. To quote from Hart:

“As preference for an auditory learning style increases, so too does withdrawal from an online course. This is believed to be a consequence of the inherently written format of online learning.”

When you add TTS capabilities to your online courses, auditory learners can listen as much as they’d like, removing a key barrier to student persistence. Text to speech also helps you comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), making it easier for all users to access resources and course content. Altogether, TTS is a key solution for solving many of the challenges Hart identified.

TTS and Student Retention for All Learners: Two Sample Populations

While TTS is a powerful accessibility tool, it’s not just for students with disabilities. Here are two examples of learner populations that also benefit from this technology—and are more likely to persist at your facility when TTS is available.

TTS Supporting the Bilingual Reader

Those who grow up in bilingual families can often speak multiple languages with ease. That doesn’t always mean they can easily read and write in both languages. When words are viewed, the brain remembers, or memorizes, that word and the sound associated with it. But reading is not just about hearing the words; many bilingual readers like to see text at the same time.

Content that is presented online with TTS allows users with a variety of learning needs to better understand the written content. Simple solutions with high quality voices provide the best conditions conducive to literacy. Students who don’t have to go and look for a way to make the confusing text into an audio version are more successful, because they are provided with multiple ways of engaging online content.

Additional support when composing messages is available in the TextAid LTI for the LMS. Students can write paragraphs and then listen to them for errors, even from their mobile phones. That brings us to our next point.

TTS and Mobile Users in Education

Today’s students stay connected with school and their classmates through mobile devices. For some families, the data plan is their only internet connection away from work or school. The tools these students use need to be mobile friendly and very easy to use.

With high quality TTS voices and simple user interface, along with a mobile-friendly product, students can get the most out of the content posted in your learning management system (LMS) by using the text-to-speech button on their tablet or smartphone.

Many teachers say they want to have mobile phones out of the classroom. However, if considered an ally to learning—both inside and outside the classroom—mobile devices can help improve reading comprehension.

Do you have a list of vocabulary that students could listen to in order to better understand your material? Simply upload a Word document to the LMS and have students listen to it, or they can download it as an MP3 file and listen on-the-go. All you have to do to improve your course outcomes with TTS is upload content to the LMS for students to use and then remind them the material is there, along with an explanation of your TTS tool.

Also, sometimes students need to have someone tell them why and how to use the technology, just like you did when you first heard about text-to-speech technology. Many learners expect the technology to be difficult to use. With ReadSpeaker, listening is easy!

Have a student or two struggling in class? Suggest they use text to speech and listen to assignments posted in the LMS. Click for more information on the Universal Design for Learning concepts.

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