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UI mobile app used around the world for speech learning

Posted April 17, 2019

In 2001, University of Iowa Professor Jerald Moon wanted to show students in his phonetics class how the sounds of different languages are produced.

Moon knew his students could one day work with people who have speech disorders, so a deep understanding of how the tongue, lips, voice box, and other organs work together to make sounds was important.

Sounds of Speech provides users audio and visual demonstrations of how to make certain sounds in the English language. Shown here, users see how sounds are produced both from inside and out. Image credit: the UI Office of Strategic Communication.

A collaboration with Information Technology Services (ITS) led to the creation of a website called Sounds of Speech, which demonstrated through video, animation, and audio the proper placement of sound-producing organs when pronouncing English and Spanish sounds. The website unexpectedly became popular with English language learners around the world.

“I was getting emails from users on pretty much every continent,” says Moon, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, which is nationally recognized for its top-ranked speech-language pathology and audiology graduate programs. “Sounds of Speech started as a computer-based learning tool that I had intended just to use for the students who were in my phonetics class. We didn’t advertise it, and it wasn’t promoted in any way. It just found its way to being a really popular tool for English language learners. For a long time, if you googled phonetics, the Sounds of Speech would be the first thing that came up, and it was widely cited.”

Shortly after launching, the website was receiving millions of hits a day. Now a mobile app as well as a website, Sounds of Speech remains popular among English language learners and speech pathologists.

“Anyone who teaches phonetics knows about Sounds of Speech, and if they don’t, they should,” says Dana Collins, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Collins received a PhD in communication sciences from the UI in 2003.

“I have used it in the classroom as a supplement to my teaching and in our clinic with clients. It has been especially helpful for individuals for whom English is not their first language. I’ve also routinely recommended it to my colleagues here in our clinic for some of the children they are working with to treat articulation disorders,” Collins says.

To create the original website, Moon and Carlos-Eduardo Piñeros, from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, received a $5,000 Instructional Improvement Award from the UI to partner with ITS.

Then in 2013, Moon received a $6,450 Innovations in Teaching with Technology Award, which is designed to raise the level of teaching at the UI by supporting innovative instructional technology projects. ITTA has awarded about $100,000 every year for nearly 20 years. This year’s winners were announced in February.

Moon again partnered with ITS, this time to create the Sounds of Speech mobile app for English speech sound production. Moon and ITS approached the UI Research Foundation(UIRF), which copyrighted the app and began selling it for Android and Apple smart phones. It has since totaled about 37,500 downloads, has generated about $131,000 in sales, and has been imitated by numerous other language app developers. The Sounds of Speech website, which is still free to the public, has about 7,000 users each month.

Moon says the decision to develop a Sounds of Speech app was based primarily on the desire to ensure that Sounds of Speech continued to be widely accessible to students both on campus and around the world. Charging for the app allowed for funding to support updating the original website and to support any necessary ongoing tech-related maintenance and enhancements.

“We came to realize that even if there were individuals who did not have access to computers in some parts of the world, it seemed like everyone had a smartphone,” says Moon. “As a longtime faculty member, you are always sensitive to how your students choose to learn, and the way that students learn now is different than 20 years ago.”

Moon and Collins attribute the success of Sounds of Speech to the combined audio and visual methods used to clearly demonstrate pronunciation. Steve Tomblin agrees. Tomblin is the senior application developer for ITS who maintains the Sounds of Speech app and website, and is a consultant for the selection committee for the ITTA. He says he often is asked to consider how technology and education can work together.

“The success of the Sounds of Speech project was not the application of new technology,” says Tomblin. “The technology is just a delivery tool. It was the application of technology in concert with quality educational content that made Sounds of Speech successful. The phrase ‘content is king’ still applies.”

Both Moon and Tomblin say that Sounds of Speech would not have been possible without award funds from the UI to pay for the technology on which it is built.

“By design, the awards provide an opportunity to create and experiment—to take a promising idea and run with it,” Tomblin says. “We are giving people freedom and support to innovate.”

All new ideas are welcome in ITTA proposals, says Tomblin, but the focus must be on student learning. Projects that can be replicated across the UI if successful are given priority, and interdisciplinary projects are encouraged. Instructors who have ideas for a proposal can arrange a consultation with Tomblin to get started.

Source: University of Iowa

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