Gale (www.gale.com), a part of Cengage Learning (www.cengage.com), is in the business of providing authoritative reference content to educational institutions. As such, Gale devotes considerable time to obtaining feedback from students, teachers, and researchers on how to make its offerings more accessible. One bit of feedback that Gale heard clearly was that its users wanted to be able to listen. Later this month, when Gale incorporates ReadSpeaker (www.readspeaker.com), the speech-enabled web service from VoiceCorp (www.voice-corp.com), to provide text-to-speech capabilities in its online databases, Gale users will be able to have content read aloud to them in addition to being able to read it.
Tim Lovelace, project manager at Gale, emphasizes that accessibility is far and away the primary driver behind the implementation of this new technological capability. "One of the biggest things we heard from our customers was that we needed to better meet the needs of those students for whom reading text on a screen was a challenge: those at lower reading levels, those with learning disabilities, English as a second language students, and students who are visually impaired. From that feedback, we felt that making our content available with text-to-speech was the natural solution," he says.
When ReadSpeaker is fully implemented in Gale’s online databases, users will see a link to the ReadSpeaker player at the top of every article. They need only to click Play to hear the full text of the article read aloud. Alternatively, users can select specific portions of the text to be read in isolation, or they can download an MP3 audio file of the article that they can listen to at any time. All of the text-to-speech audio is generated mechanically by the ReadSpeaker product—not prerecorded—and is read back to the user by an automated electronic voice.
After shopping around for a text-to-speech solution, Gale settled on VoiceCorp’s ReadSpeaker for a litany of reasons. Lovelace says the ease of implementation on Gale’s side and the ease of use on the customer’s side were both major factors in the selection. The fact that the ReadSpeaker player didn’t require the download of an additional plug-in for users and the fluency and clarity of the automated audio playback were also major selling points.
A number of Gale customers have already had the chance to demo the ReadSpeaker implementation, and Lovelace says the response has been wholly positive and somewhat surprising as well in terms of what kind of user has found value in the service. "The function has had a wide appeal even to AP students and advanced learners," Lovelace says. "Students can download an article and listen to it on the way to a basketball or football game. The technology fits right into the multi-tasking culture that Generation Y is so accustomed to."
Talk of ReadSpeaker’s wide appeal and flexibility of use is music to VoiceCorp founder and director Niclas Bergstrom’s ears. "ReadSpeaker products are more and more often being used by people outside the original target group. The main reason for that is thanks to the quality of today’s text-to-speech technology that is almost as good as human speech, compared with the earlier techniques that sounded more robotic," Bergstrom says. "This has had the effect that more and more people are beginning to listen to text instead of reading it."
The list of media companies that have implemented ReadSpeaker—including The International Herald Tribune, Dow Jones, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and the New Statesman—suggests that text-to-speech technology is making inroads across a wide swath of the information landscape, and that it is appealing to readers of all stripes.
Lovelace says that ReadSpeaker will be fully implemented into Gale databases by the end of April. These databases include Student Resource Centers, Discover, Junior Reference Collection, Kids Infobits, Opposing Viewpoints Reference Center, and Science Resource Center. Once the implementation is complete, Gale hopes that it will be serving the broadest possible audience, and that students and researchers who face a wide range of challenges—from tight schedules to visual impairments—will be able to put its educational content to good use.
"We are committed to helping schools and libraries provide information to their readers, and with ReadSpeaker and the addition of this audio component to our databases, we are able to deliver our content to users with different learning styles," Lovelace says.