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Education and innovation: OISE alum Beverley Biggar brings together elements that enhance learning, the student experience

December 16, 2019

By Perry King

Alum Beverley Biggar (left) and Associate Dean Michele Peterson-Badali explore Biggar's innovative Speax app that uses artificial intelligence to help users immerse in and learn a new language. 

Imagine you’re learning to speak French. You’ve taken a trip to Paris, and you’re learning to speak the language with local francophones. But, imagine doing all of this from the comfort of your home, on a digital device of your choosing.

With Speax, you can. With a beta version released in 2019, the app immerses a user in a playful but practical environment where you can learn the basics of communication. Meant for adult learners, Speax’s ultimate goal is for users to achieve spontaneous conversation.

On November 26, Beverley Biggar, Speax’s founder, presented her app at OISE’s latest research café – a regular series of networking events that bring the community together. The OISE alum, who has 30 years of educational publishing experience, says the Speax app represents the next step in the evolution of online educational resources. She saw a need to fulfill in the digital space.

“Developing textbooks and recall assessments is easy, while development of wholistic active learning experiences is a completely different beast,” she said. 

She worked with globally recognized Canadian language researchers at OISE and blended it with advancements from several disciplines – including voice recognition specialists, mobile product developers and immersive storytellers, among others.

Learn more about Speax

OISE was deeply involved in Speax’s development. The concept was inspired by Biggar’s thesis supervisor, Professor Normand Labrie. Enrica Piccardo, a professor of foreign language learning, and Garfield Gini Newman, an associate professor, teaching stream, reviewed all early versions of the script and continued to review the various iterations of Speax right up to its trial product release in 2019. OISE also supplied, through Elisabeth Rees-Johnstone, Executive Director of OISE Continuing and Professional Learning, broad access to student audiences who provided critical feedback. That, to Biggar, was a critical step.

“As a result of the ongoing testing, particularly the highly impactful access to the OISE database this year, we have information to guide us in finalizing our beginner course,” said Biggar. “Most importantly we have positive validation of our product, and we have input on key features, such as real-time corrective feedback.

“It is clear that the Speax product can benefit teacher training by serving as a vehicle of exploration through which educators can lead in the definition of their future role in learning,” she added.

In bringing Speax and other projects into the same room, research café organizer Michele Peterson-Badali, OISE’s Associate Dean, Research, International and Innovation, wanted visitors to explore the varying ways education innovation is taking place within OISE – projects that demonstrate innovation in student learning and programming, research as innovation, and applying innovation to specific projects.

At OISE's research cafe, Professor Kang Lee (right) presents his smartphone app Anura that measures several physiological indices of stress, including blood pressure, using a quick, selfie video.


“Our guest speakers illustrated the diversity in and the connections between innovations in how we produce and share research knowledge, design teaching practices and programs, and partner for impact,” said Peterson-Badali. “This multifaceted and interconnected approach to innovation is a strength of our students, faculty and alumni, so it comes as no surprise that OISE’s impact on education is both broad and deep.”

“OISE has a long history of leading in advancements of foreign language learning, and education as a whole,” added Biggar. “I was delighted to learn that this vibrant community continues to grow and thrive in their exploration of new paths in teacher training and education as a whole.”

In celebration of the research café, we asked the other guest speakers one overarching question: How are you using innovation to enhance the classroom learning experience?

This is what they told us:

Kathleen Gallagher
Distinguished Professor, Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning
Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies

My work is situated at the intersection of social science and humanities ways of learning, knowing and being in the world. So, when I teach a research methodology class, for instance, I engage students in an analysis of the ways in which research methods can be understood performatively and how such performative methods further open social science ideas about “truth-seeking” and “evidence” and “data.”

I also share my research results with students in my classes, and in those secondary classrooms where I carry out research, through multiple forms of media. For instance, I have co-created a documentary about my research findings and the process of a play being built from my research to engage students with forms of storytelling that are very important to the broad communication of research to diverse publics and that also open up questions about the notion of “impact” that may be novel to new researchers.

Learn more about Kathleen Gallagher

Hilary Inwood
Lead, Environmental and Sustainability Education
Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning

Perhaps one way to enhance students’ learning experiences might be to get them out of classrooms altogether. One of the many innovations being developed at OISE in relation to classroom learning experiences is focused on broadening and deepening the role of education to address the climate crisis.

A multi-year collaboration between OISE and the Toronto District School Board brings practicing teachers and OISE graduate students together for professional learning in Environmental & Sustainability Education. This provides year-round opportunities for experienced and novice teachers to discuss and experience the potential of inquiry-based learning, outdoor and experiential education, and real-world projects that affect local communities, all focused on climate change.

This impacts learning for K-12 students by getting them into their communities to take action on projects such as habitat restoration, watershed management, and waste minimization.  A three-year research study at OISE explores the impacts of this innovative collaboration between OISE students and TDSB teachers, aiming to maximize the benefits of collaborative professional learning to enhance classroom learning experiences and amplify the cultural shifts towards environmental sustainability.

Learn more about Hilary Inwood

Kang Lee
Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development

Within the classroom, students may experience stress in trying to understand and interact with the course material. While some stress is normal and needed to help learning and performance, intense stress can hinder the learning process, and if such stress persists, it can lead to cognitive dysfunctions, psychological disorders, and cardiovascular diseases. To help students recognize their stress, I have developed a smartphone app called Anura, which measures several physiological indices of stress (e.g., heart rate, heart rate variability, breathing, blood pressure). Anura does this within 30 seconds, capturing the student’s face with the smartphone camera and using advanced signal processing and machine learning to provide health results. Of course, recognition of stress is only the first step.

To help students reduce stress, I developed a computer software called DFX Live that provides continuous measures of physiological activities. DFX Live allows students to see changes in their heart rate, breathing, and stress index such that when they conduct mindfulness practices, they can be informed of the effectiveness of the practice and if needed, adjust their practices.


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