Helping Students Transcend Typing

How speech-to-text AI can enable and enhance student writing.

[image created with Midjourney]

Welcome to AutomatED: the newsletter on how to teach better with tech.

Each week, I share what I have learned — and am learning — about AI and tech in the university classroom. What works, what doesn't, and why.

Let’s take a look at some reasons for encouraging our students to use speech-to-text AI tools, as well as some of the tools themselves.

AI-generated art, video, and text is making waves.

How these tools should be integrated into the classroom is a complicated topic that we and others have written on. But integrations with lessons and assignments are not the only ways AI tools can make a difference in teaching.

While Graham covered how AI-enhanced speech-to-text tools can be used in student-teacher meetings, I believe that we should also take note of the power of dictation tools which leverage similar technology. Recently, these dictation tools have improved significantly.

My impression is that there is ample room to suggest, if not promote, the use of some of these dictation tools for student writing. Why? AI-enhanced dictation tools improve accessibility and, potentially, strengthen writing.

💬 🚀 Augmenting Accessibility

Many students do not find typing accessible. Using their voice with their peers or their professors comes more natural to them. In turn, speech recognition software is easier for them to use and express themselves than word processing software.

This is not an anomaly or a new phenomenon. Historically, dictating works is not that rare. John Milton, having lost his vision, dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters. 

Of course, most students do not have children or secretaries to dictate to — this might be for the best — but AI tools give students access to similar functionality without the costs. AI is summoning a similar world into existence.

The author and professor, Luke Burgis, recently shared his experiments with Vienna Scribe. In my view, this app is a step above native apps available on iPhone and Google phones. Their testing suggests serious accuracy improvements.

Vienna Scribe in action.

It is simple to use. All one needs to do is open the app, record speech, and then have it transcribed. The audio and text can be easily exported or shared outside the app.

Another program, Audiopen, takes another route. Instead of transcribing speech verbatim, it provides a structured summary of what you dictate. This is especially helpful for those who tend to ramble or mix up their words:

Audiopen in action.

🖋️ 🗨️ Enhancing Writing

Because speech recognition tools can clean up and polish text, dictation can improve writing in addition to enabling it.

Theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong argued that the shift from orality to written work has changed how and what we think. Whether or not their grander claims are correct, many report thinking differently, in some sense, in writing than in speech.

Indeed, there is a more fundamental reason that speech may refine writing. For some, ideas come more naturally through speech than text, and the different modality leads to an improved product. Plato’s dialogues are famously just that — recorded conversations. Even if we are not on Plato’s level, it is a common view amongst academics that successful papers are ironed out through speech and lectures, not merely typing.

Limited empirical evidence supports this view. A brief review of dictation technology in K12 to higher education found that:

Speech Recognition can effectively improve writing fluency and quality for students. Students improved in lower level writing skills such as grammar, spelling and text production (Mader, 2007; K. Roberts & Stodden, 2005; R. Roberts, 1999; Wetzel, 1996) as well as higher level writing skills such as generating and organizing ideas, forming fluid sentences, and considering word choice.

Jon Pennington, Min Wook Ok, Kavita Rao, Beyond the Keyboard

What all this suggests is that a simple prompt from a teacher that moving from speech to writing is permissible may be all it takes to help someone improve their writing.

Alex Coppock, political science at Yale, considers this his number one piece of writing advice: talk to yourself.

🗣️💻 Transcending Typing?

Voice-to-text tools have been available for some time, but the degree to which they are used suggests they may be underappreciated. Moreover, recent improvements indicate that a wider range of students will find them useful for enabling and improving writing.

Professors and peers can play a nontrivial role in normalizing the use of AI-enhanced dictation tools. I am not arguing for a large intervention here – merely making the possibility more salient. This can be done verbally, during class, or with simple reminders in assignments.

And if there are students who would prefer to not use dictation tools, then that is fine. Professors can simply provide information about this option — including suggestions about the best tools — for those of their students who might benefit from it.

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