Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Naturally Speaking

I was at another conference the other day and the presenter rambled on about this and that (don't they always?).

He caught my attention when he spoke about 21st Century Skills: "students won't have to use the keyboards and won't have to learn to type. It's a new form of communication skill - they'll be using Dragon Naturally Speaking instead" and then he spoke of the dramatic improvements to DNS and how it's tuned to the user's voice and that we have to transform our schools and our teaching to take advantage of this different manner of communication.

I nearly snorted in my teacup. I remember when DNS (or it's corporate predecessor) was relatively new - 12 years ago - I got it free with Corel Wordperfect. It didn't work very well then and it doesn't work very well now and it has nothing to do with the program and its capabilities.

First, voice control is always touted as a boon for the student who can't learn to type, for SpecEd, for the less-capable student. The problem is that voice control is a lousy interface model and totally inappropriate for those who don't write well to begin with, uh, like, it thinks, no , back up, delete, tries to uh, get rite the students words but it dozen quite do it, uh, like, yeah. .

Additionally, a student is rarely in a room or environment appropriate for voice control. There are other students around who are problems not because their voices add words to what the program hears but because they are a distraction and the DNS user is a distraction right back. How often would he be trying to think of what to say when he overhears the kid next to him saying something that catches his ear? He'd be constantly trying to get back on task -- multi-tasking is not a human feature.

Can you imagine 25 students in a computer lab using DNS simultaneously, trying to format a paper, correct an error, compose a sentence ... out loud?

Now add in the fact that most students who use DNS are special ed, 504, IEP students. The only time or place they should use DNS is in a solo situation with no distraction -- how often is THAT happening in your school? Then go to college - you can't use voice control in the library, in class, in any populated environment and probably not even in your dorm room. Who wants to be "writing a paper, email, letter out loud in the coffee shop? Force the world to listen to your next great idea? Plop on your headphones or earbuds and then speak WAY TOO LOUDLY and everyone has to shush you so they can hear the TV or the music or their conversation? Your roommate will kill you if he has to listen to you try and compose a paper. The click of the keyboard is white, background noise. Speech recognition is unbearably irritating if you're an innocent bystander.

Try to use voice control at work? Not happening and not worth it. The writing that most people do is not long enough or is too complicated (filling in forms, tabbing through text boxes, etc) to find any improvements with DNS.

In a manipulative sense, it is much less accurate and fine-grained than fingers or pointing device. As Jakob Nielson put it, "it's even less suitable for most everyday interactions because it's a less data-rich channel and it's harder to specify something in words than to choose it on a graphical display."

Is it faster? Yes, in limited circumstances. Is it more efficient? Not unless you can write very well, compose on the fly, organize in your head, and speak in complete sentences that follow the rules of proper grammar.

Lastly, my biggest concern is that, for many of the above reasons, keyboarding DOESN'T go away and the student will not have learned the skill. Now what? Where's your 21st Century Communication Skill now?

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