Students and teachers at Sri Kanchi Sankara Vidyalaya in Thiruvidaimarudur, a village near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, have been learning the basics of spoken English with Tara, an interactive, AI-enabled natural language voice recognition tool. The brainchild of Learning Matters, an award-winning education technology startup headquartered in Bangalore, India, Tara is powered by Amazon Alexa and AWS. This “machine teacher” has provided learners with a novel, engaging, fun, and judgement-free environment. The progress they have made in the acquisition of English vocabulary, comprehension skills, and confidence in speaking English publicly is testament to the fact that when a learner is truly engaged, outcomes will follow naturally.

The gains shown by the students in Sri Kanchi Sankara Vidyalaya have been mirrored in other users of Tara - K-12 schools and NGOs alike - such as the Shifting Orbits Foundation and the Head Held High Foundation. Worldwide, English proficiency is the key to academic and career success. While students in urban India grow up with the ubiquitous presence of English in their lives, this is not so for those in tier-2 and 3 India. Tara’s primary target market is these under-resourced communities.

With the use of text-to-speech and speech-to-text, Tara has been teaching communicative English to students and teachers in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Over 30,000 students in schools with poor teacher-student ratios or lack of qualified teachers now have a “teacher” who can converse, repeat lessons, provide feedback, and correct mistakes repeatedly. Tara has not replaced teachers but rather empowered them with the flexibility to conduct classes with “her” help and to improve learning outcomes. She teaches learners how to communicate through a combination of lessons that include listening, speaking, reading, and writing (LSRW).

A member of the AWS EdStart Accelerator Program, Learning Matters turned to AWS and Amazon Alexa at the very beginning to quickly prototype Tara and go to market. Tara is a skill that is created with Alexa Voice Service and hosted on AWS platform. Tara back-end services, including the logic of all teacher and student interactions, are hosted on AWS Lambda. The team uses AWS documentation to help develop new modules and also uses AWS Cloud’s advances in AI and cloud computing to create professional development programmes for teachers.

Why AWS? AWS helped Learning Matters quickly prototype and test Tara. Moreover, time to market was drastically reduced with AWS. With AWS’s services being mature and elastic, the team is able to quickly configure Tara to required capacity and without encountering serious bug blockers. Moreover, the features provided by AWS come with rich documentation and they enable quick development of modules. Finally, the AWS forums help to have any queries clarified really quickly.

Learning from voice comes naturally for humans. After all, this is how we begin to learn language - by listening to and speaking with those around us. As we grow older, books ensure deeper engagement with language learning by bringing in the reading and writing components. Tara enhances learning not only among students but also amongst teachers. She makes high-quality educational solutions accessible and affordable to semi-urban and rural schools. Most importantly, she is a scalable and sustainable solution. There is no doubt that Tara has the power to create tidal waves of impact in teaching and learning in underserved India.