Speech-to-Text and Student Buy-In: A Common Problem in the School System

Speech-to-Text is a popular assistive technology (AT) tool these days. Gone are the days of expensive Dragon Dictation as the only option. Microsoft and Apple have been building speech-to-text into operating systems; Google has built-in and third party plugins for Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc. Dragon continues to put out good products, along with other companies to make the market much more competitive.

Years ago, speech-to-text software made the user read several phrases in order to learn the speaker and perform the desired task. The software is much simpler now, with users merely needing to activate the software and begin speaking. This learning curve has made it a great option for public schools.

Speech-to-text offers great benefits for students as it helps with spelling and meeting deadlines. Students still have to edit their work for clarity, grammar, and style, since people–especially kids–tend to write the same way that they speak in casual conversation. Speech-to-text also helps when there are significant deficits in short-term memory and fluid reasoning skills. Instead of struggling to come up with ideas for a writing assignment, or remembering the thoughts that came to mind long enough to get everything down on paper, a student can dictate to the computer in real time as those ideas come, often resulting in a more relaxed, efficient, and accurate measure of what the student has learned.

With all the benefits that Speech-to-text offers, why isn’t it used more in school systems for students with disabilities? The main reason: student buy-in.

AT and Consumer Buy-In

Consumer buy-in is a critical component of AT that many non-specialists fail to consider or understand. The device is useless if the consumer does not accept the usefulness of the tool and refuses to use it. This causes many professionals to declare AT as unnecessary because they assume the student will not use it.

Now, it should be noted that AT services are there specifically to help with consumer buy-in. I worked with individuals who put off AT devices because the student’s initial reaction was to reject the device. I would argue, however, that it is the job of the AT specialist to spend time teaching the student how to use the device, dispelling stigmas,  and convincing the student to use it. This can happen with environment or setting changes for the student, some basic interview questions and/or counseling, and/or direct instruction coupled with evidence of success for the student.

Students and Speech-to-Text

Student reaction to speech-to-text software can be mixed. Some may love the initial idea and find it useful, while others like the idea but don’t see it as a helpful tool in the long run. The main causes for lack of student buy-in, however, are the lack of resources and negative stigma surrounding the use of speech-to-text.

When I speak of resources I do not mean computers or software. Most school districts have technology initiatives and grants that put computers in the hands of students. Google supplies built-in speech-to-text tools in Docs, as well as free and paid applications that offer more advanced speech-to-text options. The resources I speak of are location and professionals.

Schools–even newly built ones–do not provide quiet workplaces for students to go and use speech-to-text without the noise and eyes of other students. It can be distracting for a student to use speech-to-text if he/she is surrounded by other students doing the same thing. Many people view this as a minor annoyance versus an actual problem; after all, students take verbal language texts all the time in ELL and language classes. The point that is missed is that these are not average students we are talking about; these are students who have sensory processing issues, or deficits in working memory, auditory processing, fluid reasoning, and/or other cognitive abilities. These deficits create a much different classroom dynamic, which can make speech-to-text difficult if the setting isn’t established to allow for optimal working conditions.

Without ideal working conditions, perceived stigma can run rampant through a student’s mind. Many students don’t want to use speech-to-text because they do not want to admit or show to their peers that they can’t do something the same way as everyone else. They find the use of speech-to-text embarrassing–whether it is in front of other students or pulled to a separate location. AT services are meant to combat this stigma and help students overcome negative feelings of using speech-to-text; however, many schools are unable to provide professionals who can adequately perform this service. Even then, the development of student brains are not always at a point where they can see past certain stigmas and view a complete picture like adults are able to do.

What is the Solution?

Unfortunately, there is not clear cut solution. Funding for AT is not particularly high. Instructional technology has seen a surge in recent years, which takes care of many of the device issues; however, we are still left with insufficient funds for professional services and locations to create adequate student buy-in. My guess is that once more school districts adopt a universal design for learning (UDL) framework we will see more resources open up.

How Does UDL Help with Student Buy-In?

The standard model of public school classrooms is teacher at the front with students in rows or clusters of desks. All eyes are on the teacher as he/she gives a 20-30 minute lesson while encouraging classroom participation. Universal Design for Learning does away with this conventional model, and, instead, presents what is often referred to as “organized chaos.”

In a UDL classroom model, students presented with material and engaged in lessons in many different ways, according to student need and preference. Some students may be engaged in a lesson in front of the teacher, while others may be learning through a self-paced lesson on the computer or going through a work book. Students can have writing prompts and articles that are either directly or closely related to special interest areas. Not all “writing” assignments have to be the same either. Some students may hand write, other may type; some may use speech-to-text, while other put together slide presentations or put notes together for an oral report. All of these things can happen at the same time (as students can work at their own pace within a deadline) and take place at various spots around the room (assuming the teacher’s classroom is large enough to allow students to spread out).

Students do not have to worry so much about what their peers might think in this UDL framework. Everyone is doing their own thing; therefore, if a student needs to use speech-to-text it is no big deal. Spacing allows the student to find a comfortable location to work–including right outside the room.

Conclusion

There is no easy solution to help student buy-in with any AT device. Every student is different. Ideally, every school would have a qualified AT and Instructional Technology Specialist. My hope is that one day more schools will adopt the UDL framework and build new schools to accommodate such a philosophy. Until then, more teachers need to be aware of student buy-in and work to solve the issue the best they can on an individual basis. If your school does not have an AT specialist, then maybe you should become it.

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