As evidence continues to indicate that learning loss has disproportionately affected students of color, the pandemic only heightens the need to tackle the persistent, devastating reading achievement gaps that hold back underserved student populations in literacy. 

Students and teachers cannot afford to continue operating within a framework that only enables learning for some — they need tools that allow them personalize at scale, address a wide range of unique needs, and ultimately empower every child to learn to read.

For Sean Ryan, McGraw Hill School Group president, voice technology can help make personalized instruction not only more scalable, but also more equitable. That’s why McGraw Hill is partnering with SoapBox Labs, a voice artificial intelligence company whose proprietary speech engine has been recognized by customers as incredibly accurate for young students’ voices. The SoapBox Labs voice engine caters to the complexities of children’s speech, which is often happening in noisy environments. It also accommodates the wide diversity in children’s accents and dialects, and respects the privacy expectations of teachers and parents.

Both Ryan and Martyn Farrows, the CEO of SoapBox Labs, share a vision of voice-enabled experiences as a new learning superpower for kids at home and in the classroom. In the Q&A below, Ryan and Farrows share the objectives of their partnership, their approach to leveraging voice technology for equitable instruction, and their vision for the future of teaching and learning.

What about SoapBox Lab’s approach to voice technology aligns to McGraw Hill’s vision for the future of teaching and learning?

Ryan: The modern classroom presents obstacles that even the most skilled educator cannot be expected to overcome — the tools and frameworks that may have worked before no longer meet the needs of students or provide teachers with adequate support. We need to center our solutions around the understanding that every child, every educator, and every school are unique, and so are their teaching and learning needs. It’s all about guiding teachers and students on their unique paths, but with an awareness of the ever-changing environmental and contextual factors that shape those paths. 

SoapBox Labs’ voice technology was created with both individual needs and learning context in mind. The technology is of course designed to address the needs of each individual student as they read, speak, and receive feedback. But what’s most compelling to me is the company’s approach to understanding children as inherently independent from adults in the way they interact with voice technology, their voices and speech patterns, and even the noisy, busy environments in which they use voice technology. SoapBox addresses students’ unique needs in real-world environments.

What sets the technology at SoapBox Labs apart from other voice technology?

Farrows: SoapBox’s speech recognition technology leads the market for a number of reasons. It’s proprietary and built to cater exclusively to 2–12-year-old kids’ voices. Most other speech systems are built primarily on adult voice data. Adult voice tech does not work well for kids because it’s not designed to accommodate the complexities of children’s speech and behaviors, their diverse accents and dialects, their noisy environments, and their privacy needs. 

The accuracy of our voice engine also sets us apart by understanding kids’ speech down to the phoneme level. This is a game-changer for education companies, particularly for early literacy and reading fluency use cases, where identifying subtleties in a child’s pronunciation (if they substituted “color” for “other”, for example) can have a big impact on their literacy progress. The unique and granular data points generated by SoapBox’s voice engine — including words correct per minute, insertions, deletions, substitutions, and more — populate teacher dashboards in near real time giving them immediate and longitudinal perspectives on a student’s progress and pinpointing areas where more specific instruction or intervention may be needed.

Prioritizing equity in literacy instruction is critical for K–12 schools. Can you explain how SoapBox Lab’s voice technology is designed to empower all students and drive equitable outcomes in literacy?

Farrows: “Accurate, high performance voice technology is a key driver of equity in literacy instruction in the classroom and the home. These tools need to understand all kids equally and deliver feedback to students and their teachers that is as accurate as a human assessor. 

Here’s why this is so important: If a voice system generates a false negative — by telling a child they read something wrong when, in fact, they read it correctly — it will damage that child’s confidence. While a voice-powered tool that generates a false positive — telling a child they’re right when they are wrong — denies that child a valuable learning opportunity.  

Now let’s imagine that we have a voice system for remote or classroom learning that responds accurately to half of the students in a class but misunderstands the accents and dialects of the other half of the students. An experience like this has huge negative implications for individual kids and deepens issues of equity and bias in the classroom and far beyond.

We’ve worked hard to ensure that our speech tech treats all kids’ voices equally, regardless of age, race, accent, or dialect. Our technology is built on thousands of hours of kids’ speech data from 192 countries and is highly accurate, returning pronunciation scores down to the level of individual phonemes. 

In fact, our technology has been independently validated to show no bias across the wide ranges of race, accent, and socio-economic backgrounds you’d find for example in an urban classroom. That kind of validation is the result of 8-plus years of commitment by our speech tech and engineering teams, and we’re exceptionally proud of it.

It might seem counterintuitive to look to technology as a solution to such a uniquely human problem as educational inequity, with all of its very human nuances and complexities. How do you view the intersection of tech and equity in that context?

Ryan: Technology is created by humans with all of their inherent biases. Fortunately, we also have the ability to recognize and correct our biases, at least with a certain degree of error and subjectivity. (Admittedly this is very challenging work!). When technology is designed by humans who are committed to recognizing and actively correcting biases, it has the potential to create a much more objective environment for learning than most humans can be expected to consistently replicate at scale. That’s what’s important about the work SoapBox Labs is doing: They designed technology with a deep awareness of bias and work to negate those biases with their incredible commitment to accuracy. It’s a very active, very reflective, and truly human approach to software development. In the hands of thoughtful educators and in the context of a culturally responsive curriculum, it will be a powerful tool.

Education is a uniquely human endeavor, in a complex context with interacting variables. But this very human approach to creating technology that recognizes and mitigates our biases is created with the complexities of a classroom environment in mind. It is my hope that technology will move us toward a place where students are guaranteed the instructional support and attention they deserve, regardless of their background, experience, or identity.

What’s on the horizon for voice technology in the classroom that you believe will have the most meaningful impact on students and teachers?

Farrows: I see interactive learning experiences powered by voice technology becoming more expected, trusted, and accepted by educators in the classroom, by the education community more broadly, and by parents. Additionally, teachers and school districts will derive increasingly greater value from the data generated by voice-powered tools and will leverage the data that populates teacher dashboards, to support new intervention and instruction tools and processes. 

Ryan: I’m most excited by the prospect of putting thoughtful technologies in the hands of compassionate educators who recognize that it’s not simply about more, faster, cheaper. It’s also about a deeper and more complete understanding of each student over time. With a variety of pedagogical approaches that deploy a near-limitless variety of learning resources, we can move beyond linear content progressions. We can also include the student engagement factor, which is naturally influenced by student background, experience, and belief systems. I expect that existing practices will give way where we prove superior results. This will take time, but far less time than it’s ever taken in the history of our industry. Thoughtful technology-enabled personalized assessment and instruction is, by its very definition, a more equitable approach to education.

Dr. Martyn Farrows joined SoapBox Labs in 2017 as chief operations officer to lead operations, business development, and strategic partnerships. He was appointed to the role of CEO in May 2021. 

Farrows’ professional experience has been focused on learning technologies and artificial intelligence for children. He is an experienced public speaker on data privacy and children, and has been a member of the Irish Government’s Data Forum since its inception in June 2015. He was previously director of the Learnovate Centre, a strategic investment by the Irish government to establish Ireland as a global centre of excellence in learning innovation.

Farrows holds a Ph.D in European politics and in the early part of his career worked for the European Commission and European Parliament. 

Sean Ryan is president of McGraw Hill’s School group, which is responsible for providing PreK–12 educators and learners with programs, tools, and services supported by differentiated pedagogical instruction and purposeful technology. He was named to his position in April 2020 after serving as CEO of Wall Family Enterprise and before that as senior vice president and general manager of Fuel Education, where he was responsible for strategy, marketing, sales, implementation, support. and product development for the business.

Prior to these roles, Ryan was senior vice president of Sales, Service & Platform at McGraw Hill, leading the school group’s sales, implementation, and training organization. His long career in education includes high-profile roles at Campus Management, Scantron Corporation, and The Princeton Review of Japan. Ryan is also a former military intelligence officer, having served in a variety of capacities in the United States and abroad and rising to the rank of captain.

Ryan graduated with a master’s of science degree in management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a master’s of arts in international relations from the University of Arizona, and a bachelor’s degree in Soviet studies from the United States Air Force Academy.

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