Voxy – ‘the future of language learning’?

Posted: April 10, 2014 in platforms
Tags: , , , ,

Voxy is another language learning platform that likes to tout itself as ‘the future of language learning’. It has over 2.5 million users and claims to be the No. 1 education iTunes app in 23 countries. Pearson is a major investor and has a seat on the Voxy board. Unsurprisingly, it boasts ‘a new sophisticated and patented adaptive learning technology, […] a dynamic feedback loop which results in lessons and courses that calibrate to the learner. These improvements are fundamental to what makes Voxy unique as lessons become even more personalized.’

Voxy

Voxy uses an integrated web / mobile / SMS platform to deliver its learning programme, which is based around authentic, up-to-date texts. I spent a morning as an advanced learner of English exploring what it had to offer. In what I did, everything was in English, but I imagine this is not the case for lower-level learners. Voxy was originally launched for speakers of Spanish and Portuguese.

As far as I could tell, there is very little that is (what I would call) adaptive. There is, no doubt, adaptive software at work in the vocabulary revision exercises, but it’s hard to see this operating. Before starting, users are asked about their level and what they want to ‘accomplish with English’. The six possible answers are ‘advance my career’, ‘enjoy English media’, ‘pass my English tests’, ‘travel abroad’. ‘day-to-day tasks’ and ‘social and lifestyle’. I was next asked about my interests, and the possible answers here were sports, celebrities and entertainment, business, technology, health and politics. Having answered these questions, my personalized course was ready.

I was offered a deal of $20 a month, with a free trial. This gave me access to the main course, a faily rudimentary grammar guide, a list of words I had ‘studied’, a proficiency test (reading, listening and TOEFL-style M/C grammar) and 13 hours with a ‘live’ tutor.

I decided that I couldn’t pretend to be a real learner and hook up with a tutor. Users can choose a tutor from a menu where the tutors are photographed (obligatory smile). They are young graduates and some, but not all, are described as having ‘Certification: Teaching English’, whatever this means. There are also tutor statements, one of which reads ‘I love that both teaching and studying foreign languages are abound with opportunities to experience international differences and similarities on a personal level’ (sic).

I concentrated on the main course which offered 18 lessons related to each of my declared interests. These were based on authentic texts from sources like Financial Times and New York Daily News. These were generally interesting and up-to-date. In some cases, the article was only 24 hours old.

The usual procedure was to (1) read the text, (2) tap on highlighted words, which would bring up dictionary definitions and a recording of the word, (3) listen to a recording of the text (read very slowly – far too slowly for anyone with an advanced level), (4) answer 2 -4 multiple choice questions, (5) be shown short gapped extracts from the text alongside 4 or 5 boxes, which, when you click on them gave a recording of different words, one of which was the correct answer to the highlighted gap in the text, and (6) do a word – definition matching task (the words from stage 5).

According to Wikipedia, Voxy is based on the principles of task-based language teaching. Jane Willis might beg to differ. What I saw was closer to those pre-1970s textbooks where texts were followed by glossaries. Voxy is technologically advanced, but methodologically, it is positively antediluvian.

A further problem concerns task design. Perhaps because the tasks that accompany the texts have to be produced very quickly (if the texts are really to be hot off the press), there were errors that no experienced materials writer would make, and no experienced ELT editor would fail to spot. The sorts of problems that I identifed included the following:

  • No clear rationale in the selection of vocabulary items; no apparent awareness of word difficulty or frequency.
  • No clear rationale in the selection of multiple choice items.
  • Many M/C vocabulary questions can be answered without understanding the word (simply by using the memory).
  • Vocabulary definition matching tasks often contain language in the definitions which is more complex than the target item.
  • The vocabulary definition matching tasks can mostly be done simply by eliminating the distractors (which have been plucked out of thin air, and have not previously appeared).
  • The definitions in these matching tasks often do not use the same grammar as the target item (e.g. an infinitive in the definition has to be matched to a participle target word).
  • Errors (e.g. ‘The brain reacts more strongly to rejection in real life that online rejection’ (sic) in one M/C item).

I could go on. The material has clearly not been written by experienced writers, it has not been properly edited or trialled. The texts may be interesting, but that’s the only positive that I can offer for the main part of the course that I looked at.

My greatest disappointment concerns the poor use that the technology has been put to. Contrary to Voxy’s claims, this is not a new way to learn a language, it’s not particularly fun and it’s hard to believe that it could be effective. Perhaps my, admittedly limited, experience with Voxy’s product was unrepresentative. Using authentic materials is a good idea, but this needs to be combined with decent social networking possibilities, a much more sophisticated use of adaptive technology, proper investment in item-writers and editors, and more. The future of language learning? Probably not.

voxy_2

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Comments
  1. Thanks, Philip, for test-driving Voxy.

    When will all this stop? I mean, these breathless claims and these hyperinflated user figures? It seems that anyone with a little bit of start-up capital can put together a seductively wrapped package of fairly traditional activities, make a swift killing (especially by getting Pearson’s imprimatur), and (when the product is overtaken by a newer kid on the block) move on. Since the students pay so relatively little, and probably don’t stay the course, no one really loses. Except traditional models of content design and delivery, i.e. books. I guess I shouldn’t grieve, but (as someone once facetiously predicted) in the face of the alternatives, even I will come to miss the old-fashioned coursebook.

  2. Or perhaps eltjam are taking the right approach? Engage with these companies and help them produce better courses. Really I don’t mind who I write for if the objective is quality learning materials and I am given some say in what that means.

  3. Then again, I may be naïve in thinking they’re interested in quality content. More likely that isn’t a part of the business model, which seeks to make money fast through forceful marketing and rapid uptake, and shift to new products as soon as adoption and use wanes.
    Oh god…

  4. blogefl says:

    Great review, Philip. Scott, I don’t think the ‘breathless claims and hyperinflated user figures’ will stop. In a way, isn’t this just the new ‘magic’ English method? I mean, the latest boast to ‘learn English effortlessly’ or ‘become fluent in 24 hours’? I’m thinking about the immediate precursor to this – the dreadful multimedia schools (Opening, Brighton, etc) that persuaded so many people to part with their money. This has always been around and always will – what these platforms show is that there’s money to be made and plenty of gullible people who will happily throw their money at a shiny new way of learning a language.

  5. Are course book publishers any less guilty of making exaggerated claims about the quality of the material? Promising to take students all the way to heaven, or at least B1, anyway.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Richard, I think that coursebook publishers make all sorts of claims, but not quite of the same order as Voxy. They know that the material is mediated by teachers and the institutions in which the material is used, so they talk about ‘intrinsic interest’, ‘motivation; and so on, but I’ve never come across a coursebook that guarantees progress.

      • True enough. I was thinking more of the marketing claims of ‘striking design’, ‘innovative approach’ etc, when it’s usually more of the same; selling it to teachers rather than students though, but usually suggesting more than reality. Mind you, as I work for a publisher, perhaps I should be quiet!

  6. philipjkerr says:

    .. ground-breaking, integrated, flexible, award-winning, setting new standards, comprehensive, meeting diverse needs, multi-strand, real world, downloadable, engaging, the 21st century learner, structured, supportive, achievable goals, confidence, complete, new features … the back covers of coursebooks are a fascinating genre. I’ll be looking at the marketing of adaptive learning in my next post.

    • I was going to write a similar comment to Richard’s. While publishers clearly put a lot of effort into the planning of course books, how many have I seen that claim to be based on a “communicative approach” that have more in common with a behaviorist approach, for example. I detect very little difference in the underlying approach in text books now than when I started in the business over 17 years ago. Only the claims have changed.

  7. Brendan Wightman says:

    Phillip, sorry for pitching a question so late in the day, but I am curious as to the duration of lessons in voxy. Are they a full hour, or half an hour? Maybe less? Having reviewed their pricing model, where their most intensive offer is 104 1-2-1 lessons over a year for about £600, plus unlimited ‘group’ lessons, I don’t see how they could possibly afford to match the UK minimum wage for their teaching staff. I’m aware that, depending on where the teacher is based, £5 an hour may be an acceptable remuneration, but I’m keen to know if it would be more financially rewarding for a teacher from a ‘richer’ or ‘developed’ nation to do a shift in Costa than to don their headset and kick off a voxy lesson. My concern arises from a genuine fear that companies like voxy are about to lead us all into a destructive race to the bottom for both teaching and content quality.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Brendan, My free trial came to an end so I can’t check out the answer your question. My recollection is that the1-on-1 sessions were short – maybe 20 minutes, but I’m not sure. Their teachers appear to be US-based. I don’t suppose they’re massively remunerated. But, then, that has always been the way with private teaching.

  8. Brendan Wightman says:

    Thanks, Phillip. It’s much appreciated.

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