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Closing Digital Divides: ReadSpeaker TTS and the 2024 National Edtech Plan

Learn how ReadSpeaker’s text-to-speech tools can help to bridge digital divides, as described in the latest National Edtech Plan.

June 4, 2024 by Amy Foxwell
Woman using laptop discovering closing digital divides: ReadSpeaker TTS and the 2024 National Edtech Plan

The Francis Howell School District in O’Fallon, Missouri, used to treat text to speech (TTS) strictly as an accommodation. Students could get it, but only if they made an official request through the district.

No longer. Today, every student has access to TTS tools, which they can turn on or off as they see fit.

This change came from the realization that all students may like to use TTS, whether they have a registered disability or not. In other words: “What is necessary for some can benefit all.”

That quote—and this peek into Francis Howell’s edtech policy—come courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, which recently published its 2024 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP).

The plan is titled A Call to Action for Closing the Digital Access, Design, and Use Divides. It’s the first new National Edtech Plan in seven years, created specifically to show “how technologies can raise the bar for all elementary and secondary students.”

The 2024 NETP uses stories like Francis Howell’s to illustrate its recommendations, the actionable core of the document, each of which aims to improve accessibility and reduce inequality involving edtech.

Of course, the NETP is 113 pages long, and it’s bursting with information. It can be overwhelming to tackle all of its recommendations at once.

Luckily, a single edtech tool can help you implement a lot of the Office of Educational Technology’s advice. That tool is text to speech (TTS).

Text-to-speech technology is a valuable part of a wide-ranging approach to closing digital divides, and many of ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools are designed specifically for education. That makes them ideal solutions for conforming with the new NETP.

Here’s how TTS tools from ReadSpeaker can help you follow some key recommendations from the 2024 NETP.

7 Ways You Can Use ReadSpeaker TTS to Follow the 2024 National Edtech Plan

The National Edtech Plan’s recommendations are divided into three categories, each of which seeks to close a particular digital divide:

  1. The Digital Use Divide describes inequalities in how students are asked to use technology—some actively, which is great, and others more passively, which isn’t.
  2. The Digital Design Divide refers to the fact that some teachers have time and resources to learn the latest best practices for course design but many do not. The 2024 NETP takes the position that we need to continually educate the educators to keep them up to date on how best to use new edtech.
  3. The Digital Access Divide is a description of the unequal distribution of technology. Some districts can’t provide wireless connectivity, devices, or assistive technology, for instance. The NETP provides ideas on how to reduce this inequality.

Here are some of the plan’s recommendations from each category, along with an explanation of how ReadSpeaker TTS can help you put these guidelines into action.

You can reduce the Digital Use Divide by using ReadSpeaker TTS to…

7 ways ReadSpeaker text to speech reduces the digital divides

1. Support Active Learning

Design and sustain systems … supporting the development of competencies … through the active use of technology to support learning.

— 2024 NETP, p. 11

The 2024 NETP recommends the active use of technology for all students. It’s not enough to introduce students to passive engagement with tech—like filling out digital worksheets or taking simple online assessments.

Instead, the NETP asks educators to incorporate technology into active learning modalities, such as:

  • Team activities
  • Design projects
  • Coding/software development
  • Conversations with experts
  • Media production
  • And, as education researchers Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent have written, “anything course-related … other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes.”

ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools include media production features that allow students to generate lifelike voiceover files. They also offer content presentation capabilities, from text resizing to highlighting to digital page masks—all in addition to click-and-play TTS with the student’s choice of realistic AI voices.

Unlike many TTS tools, ReadSpeaker’s education solutions accurately read math expressions, making them perfect for STEM, too.

These tools allow students to actively change the way they interact with course material. They offer several more ways for students to use technology actively, limiting the Digital Use Divide along the way.

2. Conform With the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework

…ensure tools are accessible and integrated into the larger educational ecosystem, support Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, and can be customized…

— 2024 NETP, p. 11

The 2024 NETP draws heavily on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a data-backed framework for learning optimization. Essentially, UDL starts from the premise that every student has different needs and preferences—and states that educators should seek to provide for all of those needs and preferences at once.

That boils down to three UDL Principles, which ask educators to provide multiple means of:

  • Representation. Give students choices about how they experience your teaching content. For example, don’t just offer text; offer text, audio, infographics, and video illustrations of the same content.
  • Expression. Allow students to show what they’ve learned using their preferred means of expression. That means accepting a variety of assignments and assessments, from media productions to traditional research papers to podcasts (for example).
  • Engagement. Use technology to give students plenty of ways to engage with course content. That includes multiple media, but extends to different types of collaboration and interaction.

ReadSpeaker’s TTS-enabled reading, writing, and studying tools integrate seamlessly into all major learning management systems (LMS’s), assessment platforms, and other digital learning environments.

That brings variety to digital means of representation, expression, and engagement all at once. Students can choose their favorite lifelike TTS voice, follow along with simultaneous TTS-and-word-highlighting, or adjust on-screen fonts for better focus.

In short, ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools help you uphold the principles of UDL. In fact, the 2024 NETP specifically mentions TTS in its discussion of UDL.

“Accessibility features, such as closed captions, screen readers, text to speech, and adjustable font sizes, also support diverse learners,” the report states, in a section on UDL principles (p. 21).

3. Use AI Safely and Ethically, and Protect User Data

Develop guidelines for emerging technologies which protect student data privacy and ensure alignment with shared educational vision and learning principles.

— 2024 NETP, p. 11

The 2024 NETP arrived as AI was becoming widely available—and driving new ethical concerns. No doubt AI is one of the “emerging technologies” that led to the NETP’s recommendation to protect student privacy.

In fact, there have been ethical concerns tied to AI voices in TTS. Unauthorized voice cloning has been a problem.

At ReadSpeaker, we take a strong stand on AI ethics. We ensure fairness and equity for all TTS stakeholders by generating all of our own training data. We also maintain control over our AI voices, so they’ll never end up used in unauthorized scenarios.

Going beyond AI ethics to data rights more generally, ReadSpeaker products are as close to zero-risk as you can get. Why? Because we don’t collect any identifying user data at all.

That places ReadSpeaker TTS among the safest edtech tools on the market. It also supports compliance with privacy laws in education, such as:

Next, we’ll look at the second set of recommendations from the 2024 NETP, which aim to close the Digital Design Divide.

You can reduce the Digital Design Divide by using ReadSpeaker TTS to…

4. Promote Learning Anywhere, Anytime

Design and sustain systems that support ongoing learning for new and veteran teachers and administrators…

— 2024 NETP, p. 35

The Digital Design Divide is essentially a question of resources. Can districts give teachers time to learn more about digital instructional design? Text to speech can help here, too.

Speech technology gives learners the option to listen to course materials while they commute, exercise, do chores, or anything else. It won’t produce more time in your day, but it does support multi-tasking.

Text to speech makes any written text into an audible podcast-like experience. And ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools allow users to stream TTS or download an mp3 file for offline listening.

Provide TTS tools to teachers, and offer more chances to stay up-to-date on the latest in instructional design—thereby limiting the Digital Design Divide.

5. Build a Case for the Effectiveness of TTS

Develop processes for evaluating the potential effectiveness of digital tools before purchase, including the use of research and evidence.

— 2024 NETP, p. 35

Procurement is a big part of closing the Digital Design Divide. Every dollar lost on a less-than-helpful technology is one less dollar for professional capacity-building.

As we mentioned, the Digital Design Divide is concerned with resources—and the 2024 NETP is unequivocal about the importance of choosing effective edtech to reduce waste.

“With finite time and funding, it is incumbent upon education systems to verify the effectiveness of technological tools before purchase and adoption, and during classroom implementation,” the report says (p. 39).

ReadSpeaker’s edtech solutions are available for demo and pilot programs, and ReadSpeaker products provide detailed usage statistics, so you can build a data-driven case for the technology.

  • See usage statistics per day or per month.
  • Learn which voices users are listening to, and with which content.
  • Get total character counts for all played content.
  • Segment statistics by language or voice.
  • Design custom parameters to match your needs.

This data will help make the case for ReadSpeaker in your LMS or education platform, helping to avoid waste so you have more resources for digital design training.

Finally, we’ll consider some of the NETP’s recommendations for closing the Digital Access Divide.

You can reduce the Digital Access Divide by using ReadSpeaker TTS to…

6. Provide Support in All Learning Environments

…ensure student access to ‘everywhere, all-the-time learning.’

— 2024 NETP, p. 56

ReadSpeaker offers a suite of TTS tools that cover every possible digital learning environment. We offer click-and-play streaming TTS within your LMS, as well as on websites, digital documents, and offline devices. We also provide TTS audio file production and reading tools, including auto-translations and one-click web searches.

By placing all these tools within your learning environment—whatever that learning environment happens to be at the time—you reduce barriers to access for students. They don’t have to open a new tab or app to listen to content, and that makes them much more likely to take advantage of the tool.

The versatility of ReadSpeaker’s edtech solutions brings TTS and related tools to every student, no matter which device, LMS, or platform they use.

7. Bring Accessibility Tools to Every System

Develop processes and structures that ensure the inclusion of accessibility as a component of procurement processes.

—2024 NETP, p. 56

It’s hard to retrofit digital accessibility. Instead, plan for inclusion from the start of any project—including the purchase of new edtech.

The 2024 NETP tells the story of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC) in Indiana, which uses UDL rubrics to decide on edtech purchases.

“The district uses the rubrics to evaluate resources for critical accessibility features such as text to speech, language and translation options, font adjustments, color contrasts, and additional web accessibility standards,” the report says (p. 12).

Say you use a similar rubric. What happens if you find edtech that meets a desperate need among your students, but lacks the accessibility/UDL tools that BCSC always looks for?

That’s where ReadSpeaker can help. ReadSpeaker’s education solutions provide all of the features listed in the previous quote. When you integrate ReadSpeaker TTS tools into your LMS, you’re free to procure edtech that doesn’t have its own built-in TTS service—and your students will enjoy the lifelike AI voices, too.

ReadSpeaker TTS Tools for Accessibility, Inclusion, and UDL

Certainly, ReadSpeaker’s education solutions support accessibility. But as the 2024 NETP says, “many [accessibility] features are helpful for all users, not just those with disabilities.”

The report goes on to cite a 2023 Edutopia article, which is worth quoting at length:

If we view accessibility features through the lens of Universal Design for Learning, then we realize that accessibility features are one way to promote access and minimize barriers for the wide variety of learners in our classrooms.

For example, text-to-speech tools are beneficial not only for students with dyslexia, but also for students who are learning a new language, students who are proofreading their essays and want to catch errors easily, and students with a limited time who want to complete readings while they are in transit. In addition, text-to-speech tools allow for multimodal learning opportunities.

—Noah Tolulope, Edutopia

The 2024 NETP reflects this line of thought. It recommends using edtech to improve accessibility plus inclusion, through the lens of Universal Design for Learning.

But there’s one final benefit of universally available TTS, and it brings us right back to the Francis Howell School District. In telling the district’s story, the NETP cites a 2022 podcast from the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.

In that podcast, the interviewer asks Jason Adams, technology services manager at Francis Howell, about their procurement process. That gets Adams talking about text to speech.

“We don’t want a student to feel singled out or separate from their peers,” Adams says. “So having [TTS] available means that that one student that may not want to identify themselves as having a specific need no longer feels in the spotlight. They’re accessing the same features that their peers and their fellow classmates have.”

That’s an important point, and it supports the goals of the newest National Education Technology Plan, too. To reduce digital divides of all descriptions, the best thing we can do is offer inclusive technology to all students.

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