In George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the hero Winston Smith suffered untold misery at the hands of Big Brother's omnipresent regime. But one soul-destroying task he was not called on to do was to write lengthy end-of-year school reports by hand.
No, sir. The creamy paper of his forbidden notebook and the olde-worlde feel of his ink-pen were nostalgic pleasures he reserved strictly for his secret diaries. When it came to bureaucracy and getting the job done, he reached for his "speakwrite" - a machine he could simply talk into and which would perform the mechanical act of writing on his behalf.
Since then, Orwell's imaginary speech-to-writing technology has been steadily insinuating itself into the realities of late 20th-century technology. But now for the first time, electronic speech-to-text transcription has become available to the world of education and has just been trialled by Putney High, an independent school for girls in south London, producing its first batch of teachers' reports on students' progress.
The new service, known as CyberTranscriber, was developed by Midlands-based company Speech Machines, and could revolutionise the laborious process of producing hand-written school reports. The countless hours spent filling in those thick wads of proformas or carbonised report sheets have been potentially liberated by technology that allows teachers to pick up a telephone, "speak" their reports and have the written version emailed back to them within hours.
En route, the spoken words will be transcribed by automatic speech recognition (ASR) processors and checked for accuracy by human proof-readers, leaving the finished document requiring only cosmetic tweaking when it arrives in the school's in-box.
Ray Chandler, IT manager at the school, is the first teacher in the UK to order this technology for use in an educational setting and is now sharing the success of the trials with other schools in the Girls' Day School Trust (GDST), an affiliation of 20 independent girls' schools in the UK.
"With this new service, all you need is an ordinary push-button phone. We've organised a freephone account so staff don't get charged themselves and teachers can now produce their reports whenever and wherever they want," he said. "And being phone-based, we're able to use a piece of equipment that everyone's familiar with, so there's no special training required."
He explains that Putney High has a tradition - shared by many schools - of not allowing corrections on the final draft of progress reports: "This means whenever you make a mistake, you have to bin your reports and start again, which is a terrible waste of staff time. It's not really fair, either." He adds, "Not everybody here can type and not everyone has a PC at home. Of course, we provide some PCs for staff but then we get long periods when nobody uses them - and when it's time to write reports, lots of teachers want to use them at the same time."
Eileen Merchant, headteacher at Putney High, agrees that word processing is not the answer. "Having word-processed a whole year group's worth of reports last year, I'm well aware that this is an extremely time-consuming business," she says. "What's worse is that most of this work does not require any professional judgment at all. Yes, teachers have to decide what the words are - but spending all that time sitting at the computer typing them out just isn't on."
"In my latest reporting session, I managed to do 22 reports in 33 minutes," says Chandler. "There's just no way I could type or handwrite that many reports in such a short time and I expect I'll get even faster the more I use the new system."
For spee and accuracy, the new phone service appears to beat both word processing and hand-written methods by some distance and it has the added bonus of allowing reports to be stored on a database or cut to a CD-Rom for value-added or comparative analysis.
Anne Noble, a classics teacher at the school, is also enthusiastic about the new service. "I feel I've missed out on the computer revolution," she said. "For me, the prospect of doing my reports on a computer was totally ghastly. Now, instead of writing it all out by hand, and often making mistakes and having to start all over again, I can just talk into a telephone and cancel and edit any mistakes by pressing a few keys."
Shirley Townsend, customer services manager at Speech Machines, founded in 1996, says the company first drew on technology developed by the Government's Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) and adapted it to the needs of more civilian professionals. Since 1997, CyberTranscriber has been in widespread use among New York City's 2,500 community nurses, who had previously relied on copy typists at the other end of a telephone line to log their medical reports.
"Putney High has been the first school to approach us and we feel the project is proving very successful," Townsend says. "While we've had little time to build up speech recognition because these people are new users, the clarity of their dictation means it won't take long to build up their voice profiles."
She explains that the speech-to-text processor used by CyberTranscriber will gradually familiarise itself with individuals' speech patterns the more it is used and will "get to know you" over time. To achieve the highest possible levels of accuracy, the computer would need a back catalogue of around 5,000 spoken words from any given person. But even among the new users at the school, teachers are reporting accuracy percentages in the high 90s.
Attractive as it must seem to overworked teachers, whether CyberTranscriber will prove to be economically viable for less well-off schools remains to be seen. It is too early to assess the overall cost for Putney High, but the school estimates that a typical student report, comprising separate sections from 14 different teachers, has been transcribed, collated and electronically posted back to the school for around pound;1.75. Added to this, though, there are also initial set-up charges per student and a school registration fee. The school is also awaiting its first telephone bill for the freephone account on which the service relies so heavily.
And there are other possible hitches. Caroline Mayr-Harting, a teacher at Oxford High School for Girls (also affiliated to the Girls' Day School Trust) points out that her school, like many others, tends to incorporate students' own comments and reflections on their progress. In this case, students would need to do some of the phone dictation themselves - either that, or teachers would have to transcribe students' comments and then read them back over the phone. "Apart from that, I think I'd find it difficult to speak the reports straight off the top of my head," she said. "I just know I'd have to write them down before I could speak them over the phone." She also suspects that many parents would prefer the more personal touch of hand-written reports.
But Chandler believes these problems are relatively minor considerations which are far outweighed by the many advantages of the new technology. "The most important thing is that teachers' time is being saved and their key reporting skills are being separated from the purely administrative parts of the process, which can now and should now be left to administrators," he says.