Saturday, January 19, 2019

Voice is here - online learning has been traditionally 'nil by mouth' but not now....

Curious conundrum - nil by mouth
Online learning needs to be unmuted. Almost all online learning involves just clicking. Not even typing stuff in, just clicking. We click to navigate, click on menus, click (absurdly) on people to get fictional speech bubbles, click on multiple-choice options. Yet most other online activity involves messaging, typing what you think on social media and being far more active. Also, in real life, we don’t click, we speak and listen. Most actual teaching and training uses voice.
Voice is our first and most natural form of communication. We’ve evolved to speak and listen, grammatical geniuses aged three and are not in any formal sense, ‘taught’ to talk and hear. Whereas it takes many years to learn how to read and write and many struggle, some never achieving mastery in a lifetime. Is 'voice' a solution?
Rise of voice
Strangely enough we may be going back to the pre-literate age with technology, back to this almost frictionless form of interface. It started with services such as Siri and Cortana on our phones. As the AI technology behind these services improved, it was not Apple or Microsoft that took it to consumers, but Amazon and Google, with Alexa and Google Home. I have an Alexa which switches my lights on and off, activates my robot vacuum cleaner, plays all of my music and smart TV. I use it to set timers for calls and Skype meetings. We even use it to voice message across the three floors of our house and my son who lives elsewhere. I use it for weather, news, sports results. In Berlin recently, with my son, who has Bluetooth headphones linked to Google Assistant, he wanted a coffee and simply asked where the nearest coffee shop was and it spoke back, giving voiced directions as we walked. Voice is also in our cars, as we can speak commands or get spoken to from Google Maps. Voice is c creeping in everywhere.
This month we’ve also seen tools emerge that analyse your voice in terms of mood and tone, and also evidence that you can diagnose Dementia, Parkinson’s and other illnesses from frequency level analysis. As Mary Meeker’s analysis shows, voice is here to stay and has become the way we interact with the internet of things (IoT).
Voice for learning
1. Voice as a skill
Text-based learning has squeezed out the skills of oration, yet speaking fluently, explaining, presenting, giving feedback, interviewing, managing, critical thinking, problem solving, team working and much of what is called 21stC skills, are actually skills we used to teach more widely through voice. They are skills that are fundamentally expressed as speech, that most fundamental of media. People have to learn to both speak up and when they speak, speak wisely and to good effect. It is also important, of course, to listen. For these reasons, the return of voice to learning is a good thing. Speaking to a computer, I suspect, also results in more transfer, especially if, in the real world, you are expected to articulate things in meetings or in the workplace to your colleagues, face to face.
2. Podcasts
Another sign that voice is an important medium in itself are podcasts, which have surprised people with their popularity. This is an excellent post on that subject by Steve Rayson. The book  “Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media’ by Llinares, Fox and Berry (2018) is an in-depth look at the strengths of voice-only media; the ability to listen when you want (timeshift), use when walking, running, exercising and driving, long pieces having more depth often with multiple participants. In addition, they make you feel as though you are there in the conversation with a sense of intimacy, as this is ‘listening’ not just ‘hearing’, especially when wearing headphones. Podcasts should be used more in learning. 
3. Podcasts and online learning
We’ve been using podcasts in WildFire. One real example is a Senior Clinician, who ran and authored a globally significant medical trial in Asthma. We allow the learner to listen intently to the podcast (an interview) then grab the transcript (automatically translated into text) to produce a more active and effortful learning experience, with free text input. You get the best of both worlds, an intimate and reflective experience with the expert, as if you were there with him, then you reflect, retrieve, retain and can recall what you need to learn. Note that the ‘need to know’ stuff is not every single word, but the useful points about the scale of the trial, it’s objectives and findings.
4. Text to speech
We’ve also used AI, text to speech, to create introductions to online courses, making them more accessible and human. The basic text file can be edited at any time, with ease, if it needs to be changed. These audio introductions have been used in Train the trainer course and a course fo a major Hotel Chain, where learners may need something more than pure text and images.
5. Voice input
We’ve also developed voice-input online learning, where you don’t type in answers but ‘voice’ them in. This is a very different cognitive and learning experience from just clicking on multiple-choice options. Our memories recall what you think you know in your phonological loop, a sort of inner ear where sounds are recalled and rehearsed before being either spoken or written. This is the precursor to expression. Voicing your input jut seems more like real and not artificial dialogue. The entire learning experience is voiced, navigation and retrieval with open input. This, we believe ,will be useful for certain types of learning, especially with audiences that have problems with typing, literacy or dyslexia. Voice is starting to creep into online learning. It will grow further.
6. VR
One of the problems in VR is the inability to type and click on anything. Put on a headset, and typing when possible is far too slow and clumsy. It is much more convenient, and natural, to speak within that immersive world. This opens up the possibility of more flexible learning within VR. Many knowledge components, decisions or communications within the simulation can be voiced as they would be in the real world. Voice will therefore enable more simulation training.
7. Feedback
Voiced feedback is used by some, obviously in coaching and mentoring, but also in feedback to students about assignments. The ease of recording, along with the higher impact on the learner in terms of perceived interest by the teacher, makes this a powerful feedback method.
8. Assessment
So much learning is text based when so much of the real world is voice based. Spoken assessment is, of course, normal in language training but shouldn’t we be expected to voice our opinions, even voice critical pieces for assessment. It is relatively rare to have oral examinations but this may be desirable if newer softer skills are in demand.
9. Chatbots
Voice interfaces with chatbots have been launched on home devices such as Alexa but we will see domain-specific chat emerge. Google Duplex was the first real showcasing of a conversations sensitive product that can actually make voice calls to a restaurant or hairdresser to make appointments. This is not easy and on limited release. But it is a sign of things to come - more prolonged dialogue by voice.
10. Voice agents
Learning techniques such as mentoring, coaching and counselling will, in time, benefit from this voiced approach. Trials with CBT counselling bots have shown promising results in clinical trials and the anonymity, even the fact that it is NOT human, has proven to be rather counterintuitive advantage.
Conclusion
Online learning needs to pay attention to AI-driven voice. It is an underlying consumer technology, now ubiquitous on phones and increasingly in our homes. It is natural, convenient, intimate and human. It has, when used wisely, the ability to lift online learning out of the text and click model in all sorts of imaginative ways.

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