Most of you will already be familiar with Voxy, indeed it’s not the first time that they’ve been mentioned here on ELTjam. But as we have developed a new system for reviewing EdTech products, we thought it would be nice to run their language learning tool through and see what came out.
Voxy launched in 2010 and since then has done enough to get 3 million people to sign up to use the product, and has attracted investors such as Pearson and ReThink Education. The offering is a complete language learning solution for English for web and mobile, using ‘cutting-edge technology’, ‘real world content’ and a ‘personalised curriculum’. The landing page claims that it is ‘easy to learn’ and, oddly, that the product is ‘built by learners’. The product seems to be aimed at a broad range of people, including those who want to improve their English for business, travel and exam preparation.
New arrivals to the site are asked to state their proficiency level, the goals they want to achieve with English and the things that they are interested in. The system then creates a personalised course and asks the user to sign up to access it. Once in, users get ‘custom, digital lessons’, ‘Private tutoring’, and ‘group classes’ and are able to see their progress as they move towards their goals.
The main positive of Voxy is the high quantity of real-world, authentic content available and the wide range of features on the site. In some ways this vast array of functionality and material could also be seen as a weakness, but there definitely isn’t a shortage of material, even for a dedicated independent learner.
The fact that learners have some real opportunities to communicate with trainers and other learners is also a real plus. I sat in on a lesson with a teacher called Dustin (sorry about that Dustin), who did a great job of engaging the students, talking to them about their lives and promoting conversation. However, one of the restrictions of Google hangouts for this type of thing is that only one person can be speaking at a time, so everything has to go to and from the teacher, rather than a more organic conversation where people could split into groups. But the fact that there is an opportunity for genuine communication is a strong feature of the site.
The Voxy platform is also strong in that it aims to help learners achieve some sort of competency in areas that are of interest to them and relevant to real life. For example, the practice section contains lessons on topics such as ‘Espresso Drink Options’ and ‘Using Coupons at the Grocery Store’, while the group lessons are on a wide range of topics, from the general (such as ‘past events and past time’), to the specific (‘favourite childhood games’). This is a great way to keep user motivation up and help them to feel an alignment between the product and what they personally want to get out of the course.
The fact that Voxy personalises each learner’s course is also a strength, both in terms of motivating learners, and in terms of making learning more efficient. Voxy claim to personalise based on learners’ level, their goals and their preferences. To me this seems pretty robust: if you know where someone is, where they want to go and the kind of things that would make their journey more enjoyable, you’re well placed to help them get there. It’s hard to tell exactly how unique each course is though, and it doesn’t seem like the actual language learning is adapted that much, but more on that later.
Voxy has also put a lot of effort into the technology itself. The product is available on web, tablet and mobile, across various operating systems, making it accessible to a wide range of the (Western) public. Unfortunately the apps need connectivity, limiting the number of situations (and countries) in which they can be used effectively. However, considering the cost of the product, Voxy probably rightly assumed that most of their users will generally have connectivity. The user experience is also well thought through on Voxy, and I often log in to find additional features or new layouts and functionality being tested. Rather than this being flailing around hoping to increase retention or activation, it seems to me that they are successfully iterating towards a product which a higher percentage of their user base want to come back to and are willing to pay for. The extent to which this correlates with maximising learning is another matter, but a great product with no users isn’t exactly successful EdTech either, so it’s right to focus on a clean and engaging UX.
For me, the main weakness is that the product seems generally to lack an understanding of how best to approach language learning. There are so many features (some of them excellent, other quite confusing) that it feels like something of a scattergun approach in terms of methodology; if you throw enough stuff at users, in enough different ways, something will stick. (It could be stated that in this respect it feels like many ELT classrooms around the world adopting the communicative approach!). Voxy appears to know that the methodology is key and have some really excellent ideas and features, but not be quite sure what their methodology is or how best to implement it. This is apparent in their choice of the three (now four) white papers on the landing page. The first paper, on a study into the effect of language learning software in the workplace, states in the abstract:
The most striking finding was severe participant attrition, which was likely due to a variety of technological problems as well as the lack of sufficient support for autonomous learning in the workplace. This lack of compliance with self-study suggests that despite the logistical ease of providing language learning software, more resource-intensive types of language training are more likely to be effective.
Maybe this is in order to justify the inclusion of teacher-led sessions, but it seems like an odd choice of paper for a online language learning company to put on their site. The second paper, on the theoretical framework and practical implications of effective online language courses, states four guiding principles:
1) follow principles of SLA
2) establish a sense of community
3) choose relevant and appropriate technology and content; and
4) provide students and instructors with adequate training.
It’s interesting to see these up there and reflect on the extent to which Voxy, or any online language course provider, is adhering to these guiding principles. Looking at the Team page on the Voxy site, there is no mention of any SLA, teaching or education qualifications that I could see, possibly with the exception of the bio of the ‘Chief Education Officer’, who describes herself as an applied linguist. Whether this allows Voxy to effectively follow the principles of SLA and provide students and teachers with adequate training is a matter of opinion. In terms of establishing a community, there are very few community elements in the Voxy methodology and I wasn’t encouraged to get to know or meet any other learners on the site. The other white papers appear to have been written in house (or with significant help from Voxy) and read more like adverts for the product, one ‘study’ drawing ‘conclusions’ that wouldn’t likely find their way into recognised academic journals.
Another weaknesses of Voxy is the lack of opportunity for personalisation and creativity. While these things are possible in the private and group lessons, I couldn’t find any writing tasks that users can do on the platform, and none of the exercises allowed for any meaningful user input. The exercise types were very repetitive, and as Philip Kerr pointed out in his post, they seem to lack an obvious progression through vocabulary and language items. This means that despite the volume of material, the lessons often feel boring as you are asked to repeat the same interactions over and over again.
There also seemed to be an issue with the Voxy Proficiency Assessment (VPA), which I had the option of taking if I wasn’t sure of my own level when signing up. Having systematically chosen answer ‘A’ for all questions (the whole test was multiple choice), without being given an option of stating that I didn’t know or wanted to skip, I was congratulated on various levels on attainment in different subject areas. This then supposedly informed my course level and the content I was given. To base my whole course around a test that lacks both validity and reliability seems poor.
In terms of instructional design, some of the features are positive (good management of learner control, effective use of multimedia etc.), but one weakness is the level of challenge for low level learners. The texts are often at a native speaker level and were being displayed to me despite my test results showing me to be a beginner. The cognitive load associated with content that is inherently this challenging for learners will unlikely result in long-term retention or high levels of motivation.