The Virtual High School logoAll this theory about text to speech is sound and practical, but how does this work with students? Storie Walsh, the director of instructional technology at the Virtual High School (VHS), is happy to explain. VHS offers schools and students online classes that started from a Federal Department of Education grant in 1996. Now a nonprofit, the school has grown to encompass 10,000 students in 32 states covering 700 member schools. Courses are capped at 25 students per class. Schools that become a member of VHS and provide a teacher to lead an online class get a discounted rate on 25 student seats per semester. Students take the online classes for a variety of reasons, including if the course isn’t offered at their school, to resolve scheduling conflicts or in the case of those who are being home schooled or enrolled in VHS courses full-time. Even though VHS was one of the initial online schools, Walsh admits the school’s model hasn’t changed drastically. “All courses are instructor-led. There is lots of student-to-student interaction and teacher-to-student interaction. Teachers say they know their online students better than their face-to-face students because they have so much interaction.” At VHS, participation doesn’t mean attendance, it means being active in discussion groups, as well as completing assignments. With some questioning the effectiveness of online classes and MOOCs, Walsh proudly points out that more than 80 percent of students successfully complete their VHS courses. In 2011, the school decided to pilot adding text-to-speech technology to six of its courses, ranging from biotechnology to environmental science to philosophy. The change was made for two reasons: the classes were text-heavy and some had a number of students with IEPs. “The addition was an immediate hit,” she says. While some students didn’t use the service, those who used it really came to rely on it. “Ensuring that our courses are both multimedia-rich and suitable for all learners is something that is central to our mission,” Walsh says. “ReadSpeaker was a natural fit because it gives all of our students an audio option.”

Increasing Usage

During the summer of 2013, VHS decided to enable text to speech in the vast majority of its classes, about 200 of those offered out of 220 courses. “Due to improvements in the technology, it was easy to add the service to each class, taking just 15 seconds,” Walsh says. Any changes happen at the server level, meaning the school always has the most up-to-date version. “The only courses VHS does not offer the service in right now,” she adds, “is its language courses.” She hopes to add these classes in the future. “Actually, foreign language courses are some of ReadSpeaker’s most popular choices,” says Lovelace. “ReadSpeaker is offered in 40 different languages, but that’s not all. The company frequently offers different accents within a specific language.“ For instance, within its English offerings, ReadSpeaker has a male and female version of a British accent, an Australian accent, and a North American accent. The company also offers seven different types of Spanish. Unlike during the pilot, VHS didn’t provide any training or even make an announcement based on the new service. Students and teachers noticed it on their own, and after one semester’s use, many are now using it regularly. After the courses got underway, Walsh sent out a notice in October alerting students and staff about the text-to-speech option. At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, she expects to ask about TTS in the school’s annual survey.

The Benefits of Bimodal Learning

What surprised Walsh was exactly which students were using the service and how they were using it. Because students are able to download the audio in MP3 files and listen to them even if offline, she expects that a number of them do so when walking around or traveling in a car or bus. But for reading in general, she found the service “an awesome opportunity to leverage existing assets in new ways. I found a benefit to the wider audience from the beginning.” The top 10 courses where TTS was used include criminology, meteorology, mythology, AP Computer Science, and AP Psychology. Several students mentioned to her that having the dual modality of reading the text while listening to it allowed them to better remember the material. During the pilot, Walsh says teachers appreciated the service for students who had trouble reading English, ranging from a student from China to other students who have trouble reading English. This backs up several studies that have looked at bimodal learning, where students read a text while hearing it read out loud. Research shows that students who listen and read at the same time have improved word recognition skills and vocabulary, improved comprehension, fluency and accuracy, and better recall of the material. Other benefits included increased motivation among learners and enhanced confidence reading. A 2002 study showed that while learning in a bimodal format, reading fatigue was reduced, allowing students to increase their reading endurance. Two studies also showed that bimodal presentations help poor and struggling readers more than it did for average to skilled readers. [enhancing_learning]