Let’s get some of the numbers out of the way first, as they are pretty impressive.
Since launching its application at DisruptSF back in 2010 to an audience of eagle-eyed investors, Voxy has secured investment in the region of $18.5 million, including $8.5 million of financing from Pearson in 2013 (in collaboration with Rethink Education). Its mobile app enjoyed the #1 position for most of 2011 in thirteen different countries, and it boasts a global usership of nearly 3 millions users at the time of writing (although it will no doubt be considerably more by the time you finish reading this article). Numbers: they can say a lot.
During our talk on EdTech and ELT at the 2014 IATEFL conference we called out Voxy as an example of a leading EdTech player in ELT; they are certainly demonstrating to the eduworld that they are quick, talented and highly investable. Reputation and numbers aside, however, it’s well worth taking a moment or two to consider what the substance is behind the buzz. What exactly is Voxy doing? Do we really need to take notice?
The New York-based startup claims to have created an immersive, supportive learning service that a language learner can access across web and mobile platforms. Rather than leaving the learner entirely to their own devices (yup, pun intended), however, Voxy has added the ability for the learner to interact with a native English-speaking tutor on a one-to-one basis so that they are able to benefit from real-time feedback, error correction and on-going guidance.
The concept that ties the whole proposition together is quite straight-forward: they aim to provide self-study learners with a program based entirely on real-life, daily activities. For starters, Voxy aims to harness the learning opportunities residing in your music library by extracting vocab and grammar lessons from your favourite tunes. Your greatest hits playlist becomes a tracklist of language items rather than a distraction. Why separate the content you engage with for fun from the content that you engage with to learn? There are also plans for Voxy’s mobile application to turn your smartphone into a GPS-tracked learning portal. Voxy will be able to track where you are and send location-specific language and phrases to your device to help you communicate. A learner’s life, routines and interests become learning opportunities. The possibilities are both endless and endlessly compelling, even if they do come across as a little gimmicky at first appearances. We’ll be looking at it in more detail soon to see how it lives up to the promise.
What Voxy say will set them apart (and to dispel any accusations of gimmickry) is that they’ve based their platform on something that so few EdTech developers seem to be paying much attention to: actual pedagogy. Among the slick and of-the-moment pages on their website there are whitepapers on (among other things) the theoretical framework and practical applications of online language courses. We are shown what principles are underpinning their pedagogical approach and why. We are even introduced to their Chief Education Officer who clearly and logically explains the pedagogical principles underpinning their platform.
Wait … an EdTech startup that has actually put language learning pedagogy at the heart of what they do? This is precisely the approach that has the potential to give EdTech companies an edge over the ELT publisher, as we described in our IATEFL presentation. Mind you, there are certainly critics of Voxy’s pedagogical approach – see Philip Kerr’s review for a recent example.
But what are we to understand about why they’re doing it, which ought to be – if you subscribe to Simon Sinek’s point of view – the impetus behind any enterprise, learning or otherwise? To get better acquainted with the people (and principles) behind the buzz, we spoke to Voxy’s VP of People and Operations and co-founder Gregg Carey about where the idea for Voxy came from:
‘We were responding to a prominent issue in the enormous English learning market: abandonment. Ambitious and committed learners throughout the world were dropping their English programs. No time, no results, no budget were common reasons. This exposed a very big flaw in the traditionally-available programming, aka the “one-size-fits-all” model.’
It was the “one-size-fits-all” aspect of traditional content that motivated Gregg and founder & CEO Paul Gollash to build ‘a personalized English platform that improves lives by empowering dream jobs, relationships, and adventures by using authentic content and the best of technology and humans.’
The initial version of Voxy was a simple newsletter that contained the type of personalised content that Gregg and Paul had envisaged, but it has evolved quickly since then:
‘We went on to surround ourselves with smart people that knew more about technology and language acquisition than we did. The mission remained, but the product evolved into something much more impressive by building technology that’s never existed.’
Gregg went on to tell us that they are now able to take any type of content and adapt it into a learning programme for ‘a myriad of learners’ in a matter of minutes. This is achieved through an automated process although, based on Philip Kerr’s review, it still has a way to go.
Finally, Gregg gave us a glimpse of how he sees the future of Voxy:
‘When we look at the industry and the future of our product, the competitive landscape changes. It’s not a tapestry of language learning companies, but rather a peek into the future. Remember when Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter in the Matrix?’