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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 14.28.49
The Voxy dashboard

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.

Pros

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.

Cons

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.

VPA - results
Results of the Voxy Proficiency Assessment

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.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Jo,

    Thanks for this and your previous review of Soylent Green.

    I have a couple of questions to ask regarding these reviews and one request for the future (if you take requests, that is):

    we have developed a new system for reviewing EdTech products

    Is there anywhere published on the site what this new system is and how you came up with it?

    By which I mean although I can see there are four key categories (Pedagogy and methodology, Instructional Design, User Experience and Cost and access), it’s possibly less clear what you mean by these and the descriptors you are applying.

    For example, won’t Cost and access be highly variable depending on the country and/or the segment within the country that the product is aimed at? What may seem a low cost offering in France or Kuwait may seem to be a significant outlay in other parts of the world.

    Regarding Pedagogy and methodology, I notice you made this comment on Olive Green:

    The words introduced at the different levels don’t seem to be informed by frequency (i.e. ‘She’s broke and in prison’ at A1)

    And this Voxy:

    For me, the main weakness is that the product seems generally to lack an understanding of how best to approach language learning […] Whether this allows Voxy to effectively follow the principles of SLA … is a matter of opinion.

    Frequency is a relevant consideration but it is not (or not necessarily) the overriding one, and teaching a more or less fixed expression such as ‘She’s broke’ isn’t necessarily an issue (even if it is colloquial).

    Similarly, I think you rightly take Voxy to task over it’s very vague references to following “principles of SLA” (which as it could mean anything basically means nothing), but then if you see the approach to language learning as being weak here, what approach do you think they should be taking?

    So as I say it would be handy as a reader to see a brief description of the criteria you are applying in these reviews.

    Lastly, a quick request for a future review – I would be interested to see how you rate Writing for a Purpose which is a joint effort between the British Council and Coventry University which you can find on the Learn English website.

    Best,

    N

    1. Hi Nik

      Thanks for your comment. We’re working on descriptors for the four sections of the review system. Hopefully this will make it a bit clearer what falls into each category and how we look at the products. We came up with the idea because we felt it was important for us to try and judge different products against the same key areas. By setting out a rubric, we hoped to provide more objective and more in-depth reviews.

      Regarding your point about frequency, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with teaching ‘she’s broke’ at A1, and indeed there could be very good reason to, depending on the learner, situation, need etc. I used that as an example of a system which didn’t seem to prioritise higher frequency words and phrases in general. There are definitely more considerations than frequency but in the case of Olive Green I felt that the learners’ time and effort were not being used efficiently given the lexis introduced at that level.

      There will always be subjective calls made in these reviews but we hope to at least make sure that we look at and think about the same key areas for each review. However, it isn’t our intention to define what the ‘perfect’ EdTech product looks like and rate all offerings against that, and in fact, clearly, such a system wouldn’t be possible. There are many things that make a product great and many that can make it poor and an infinite number of possibilities in between. The aim is to celebrate the things which we feel are done well and draw attention to areas that we feel could do with some work. Of course others may disagree with certain aspects of the review, and it’s great when people offer up different opinions in comments and on other blogs.

      We also wouldn’t want to publicly specify exactly how we think other companies should change their products, or to try to dictate to them how they should apply methodology to their product.

      Hopefully, as an industry, or group of people involved in ELT, we can get better at rating how effective different products are and in doing so raise the standard of EdTech in ELT.

      And we’d be happy to get product review suggestions. I’ll add Writing for a Purpose to the list.

      Thanks,
      Jo

      1. Hi Jo,

        Thanks for the reply.

        The intention behind more structured reviews is clear and very useful; it was just that (as I was saying) as a reader it would be handy to have at least an outline of what kind of considerations you have in mind as you’re assessing various digital offerings – but I see that you’re working on those descriptors already, so it will be interesting to see those.

        And yes, I can see that there are many reasons not to be prescriptive and that, as far as possible, you will want to judge a digital product by the claims and standards it sets for itself more than a more rigid set of pass/fail set of criteria. Having said that, any review presumably throws up implications for what an improved and/or an ideal version of a digital learning tool should look like.

        Anyway, I look forward to seeing the descriptors soon.

        Best,

        N

  2. I think you might want to consider a section on “customer help” in your evaluation. I called Voxy’s phone number that was listed on their site to ask questions (for a Chinese student). All I got in response was at least 4 different (I called many times) Spanish speaking customer service representatives who ABSOLUTELY refused to answer any question I had in English. Such as, “do you have a telephone I can call for English?” Over the last year I have never been treated so poorly on the phone and this is from a company that aims to teach English. So, a section on customer service might be appropriate in your evaluation as well.

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