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?’

 

23 Comments

  1. “Numbers: they can say a lot.”

    How about that: I get 10 million dollars from investors and I buy 10 million beers. I open a bar and give the beer for free… I attract millions of people! “Wow, look dear investors, my bar is popular!”

    Numbers says a lot when the company is profitable.

  2. Hi everyone – we’ve made a few edits to this post to make sure we’re clearer on the difference between what Voxy claim and what we can actually vouch for ourselves. We also added references and a link to Philip Kerr’s recent Voxy review, and a link to the whitepapers referred to in the post – hope you find those useful/interesting. We’re also hoping to do a review of Voxy soon ourselves.

  3. ‘This is precisely the approach that will give EdTech companies an edge over the ELT publisher, as we described in our IATEFL presentation.’

    I had a good look at Voxy’s website, and I have to say that they look very well-organised, and stand a chance of becoming real players. The thing is, though, the more I looked, the more it struck me that Voxy aren’t competing with publishers, they’re actually competing with language schools. They are , in fact, a big, online language school.

    To this point, I’d like to suggest a couple of reasons why I don’t see them dominating the world just yet. Firstly, they are targeting (and can possibly only target) one part of the ELT market – adult learners, and adult learners who are not studying English as a formal subject (because Voxy has no mechanism for accreditation). This means that not only are they out of the Primary and Secondary markets (huge growth areas, by the way), but they’re also cut out of the University market, too.

    Secondly, they aren’t cheap. At ÂŁ300 a year for a private lesson every two weeks, ÂŁ463 for a lesson a week, and ÂŁ612 for two lessons a week, they will struggle to compete with teaching centres in countries where living costs and wages are low. They’ll also have to go up against the cheaper Busuu and Duolingo, as well as countless free services in a commercial area that will soon become very crowded.

    I wouldn’t get too excited by white papers, either. It’s one thing to produce a document collating some of the theories on online learning, but it’s another thing to put it into practice. Phillip Kerr’s review of Voxy suggests they have a long way to go still.

    Finally, although I think turning songs into gap fill exercises is a nice touch, as is the on-demand electronic phrasebook. Both should be easily replicated.

    1. Regarding the ‘on-demand electronic phrasebook’ with GPS functionality – the idea has been around for a while – in fact, I even thought of it myself! – and blogged about it here: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/m-is-for-mobility/

      It’s worth reading the comment (the penultimate one) from the designer of ‘Locabulary’ :

      “One of the features that we experimented with was detecting the presence (non-fixed location) of another locabulary user, say a friend, which would bring up a bank of phrases that you use with that friend but I believe we nixed the idea because of privacy concerns… of course lots of “find a friend” apps became popular…”

      The Locabulary people and the Voxy people should talk to each other, perhaps. Or, should’ve.

      1. Actually, the Voxy GPS+phrasebook concept dates back to end 2010 /2011 and the phrases came, in part (I imagine they have since developed since those early days) from the team of teachers dotted around the world who went to specific places any traveller/ESL learner might need to go to in an L2 and we tried to figure out what language we’d need in each place…
        Then we inputted what we’d come up with into spreadsheets, then we had numerous late night transatlantic skype calls back and forth debating on the merits of each single word/phrase, and then all of that was turned into databases before the GPS overlay…

        Tim/Laurie, love the post – the only thing missing in all the !wow! is an acknowledgement of the sheer amount of work that has gone into the system to date and in the development of the company to date – it continues on today, and yes, as has been frequently brought up, it still might not be perfect…

        as yet,

        but blue pill… or red pill…
        wanna find out how far down the rabbit hole goes?

        1. Hi Karenne,

          The thing that stood out when I reviewed the website was, in fact, the incredible amount of industry and thought that had gone into the concept and service. I’m a cynical old dog in many ways, but credit where it’s due: this is not a fly-by-night operation, and its aspirations are much higher than busuu or Duolingo. It is the first serious online language school that I have seen recently, and it is built on a ‘full package’ offering of both instruction and self-study.

          As Laurie suggested, it will be very interesting to see how Voxy competes with physical institutions in the PLS sector. Iexpect a lot more hard work lies ahead.

    2. I agree that the e-phrase book making use of GPS technology to suggest location-relevant phrases would be an excellent feature. Scott Thornbury actually envisaged something very similar last year on his blog, see http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/m-is-for-mobility/

      But I would be interested to know where Voxy would get these phrases from. Would they be just a content-writer’s best guess of what might be needed or is Voxy planning on derriving them from some sort of corpus?

      1. Thanks, Thomas, for the mention: our comments coincided. And good question about the source of the phrases: if they are simply brainstormed by a committee, then we are in ‘my postillion has been struck by lightning’ territory. On the other hand, if there were a means of capturing – and then filtering – the residue of everything that has recently been said in a place: that would be powerful! The means, of course, exist – ask Edward Snowden: it’s now really a question of ethics.

        1. Yes, an open-access, massive, dynamic corpus that is location-specific would be really exciting. If there’s an ethical boundary to cross, though, my money would be on Google to get there first.

          But here’s the thing: if it’s Google (who will do it because owning your data is what they’re all about), then this feature is no longer a USP of any EdTech company. It’ll be a free add-on that could support the instructional strategies of any school or learner anywhere. Which means that online schools will have to fall back on the key asset of any school – the quality of their teaching.

    3. I think you’re probably right that they are essentially competing with language schools (so only indirectly with publishers). They can add accreditation at some point (as Busuu recently did), and I reckon they’ll change their pricing if they have to. It will be interesting to see how much of a dent they can make in the language school market, won’t it? Definitely a very interesting company, and with some unusual features such as the automated content processing and the focus on only using authentic content.

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