Alexa, how can you improve teaching and learning?

Special report:​ Voice command platforms from Amazon, Google and Microsoft are creating new models for learning in K-12 and higher education — and renewed privacy concerns.
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We’ve all seen the commercials: “Alexa, is it going to rain today?” “Hey, Google, turn up the volume.” Consumers across the globe are finding increased utility in voice command technology in their homes. But dimming lights and reciting weather forecasts aren’t the only ways these devices are being put to work.

Educators from higher ed powerhouses like Arizona State University to small charter schools like New Mexico’s Taos Academy are experimenting with Amazon Echo, Google Home or Microsoft Invoke and discovering new ways this technology can create a more efficient and creative learning environment.

The devices are being used to help students with and without disabilities gain a new sense for digital fluency, find library materials more quickly and even promote events on college campuses to foster greater social connection.

Like many technologies, the emerging presence of voice command devices in classrooms and at universities is also raising concerns about student privacy and unnatural dependence on digital tools. Yet, many educators interviewed for this report said the rise of voice command technology in education is inevitable — and welcome.


K-12: Another presence in the room

The opportunities provided by a voice-activated speaker may seem narrow, but in many K-12 classrooms, the ability to access information with near immediacy is revolutionizing how students process and analyze things.

“One of the major strategies teachers will use when students approach them with questions is to respond with, ‘Have you asked three before me?’ What that means is, ‘Have you asked three of your peers? Did you try to solve this problem before you came to me?’ Now, the Amazon Echo — or any other voice assistant — can be one of those three resources,” said Robbie Grimes, an e-learning specialist with the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, which is located in Indianapolis, Indiana.

In an age where people can quickly search for information online and receive answers in seconds, teachers are beginning to see a need to alter their methods for assessing what students know, Grimes explained. Having voice command devices in the classroom isn’t a way for students to take shortcuts or simply memorize answers. With such an easily accessible stream of information, students can ingest data and use their analytical skills to determine what to do with it.

“For those purely factual things, instead of the teacher having to come up with those answers, the teacher can just say, ‘Have you asked Alexa?’ The student can then be self-sufficient and self-reliant by being able to solve that problem without having to go to another person. So, the teacher is really teaching the student to go use a resource that’s available to them,” Grimes told EdScoop.


But, there’s more to self-reliance than simply asking Alexa for a few facts. As schools continue to adopt voice-activated technology, educators are using the devices to promote digital fluency and prepare students for a world where technology is not just abundant, but ubiquitous even.

Collin Miller, a technology administrator at Taos Academy Charter School in Taos, New Mexico, said his institution hasn’t deployed a school-wide initiative for voice command resources, but he understands why edtech advancements like this are crucial as the landscape of learning changes.

“I think it’s important because students need to practice using this technology, and they need to see it being practiced. Just because our students are digital natives doesn’t mean they’re digitally literate,” Miller said in an interview. “We’re preparing kids for the future, and we’re preparing them for their future careers.”

Students at Taos Academy Charter School use Chromebooks, putting it squarely within Google’s world, but the school hasn’t introduced Google Home. But it does use the voice dictation feature offered through Google Docs, offering an essential service to students who struggle with writing, Miller said.

“One example,” he said, “is how voice dictation helped a student with dysgraphia. Putting the pencil and paper in front of him, even typing on a keyboard, created difficulties for him. So, when he’s able to speak to the device and see his words on the screen, the connection becomes that much more real to him.”


The use of voice dictation has also been beneficial for students without disabilities, Miller added. Through voice recognition technology, students at Taos Academy Charter School are able to perceive communication from a completely new medium.

“This is how the communication style between verbal communication and written communication differ,” he said. “With this technology, students can start bridging that gap between the two modalities.”

In addition to the ways voice command technology can assist classrooms, one school found that the Google Home could also improve operations in the library.

In a recent blog post, a librarian at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, detailed how her school is sharing the technology with students between the third and eighth grades. According to the post, students are able to approach the Google Home, which sits on the check-out counter, and ask it a multitude of questions concerning authors, book titles and other library resources.

Applications in higher education


At Arizona State University (ASU) this fall, 1,600 Amazon Echo Dots were distributed among engineering students in the school’s Tooker House — a residence hall on campus.

In contrast with K-12 schools’ use of the technology, students at ASU are primarily using the Echo Dots as a tool for campus connection.

“Alexa, what’s happening on campus this week?” “Alexa, where is the science building?” “Alexa, when is my next Calculus exam?”

According to John Rome, deputy chief information officer at ASU, the students are using their Echo Dots to ask questions like those, but they’re also coming up with creative new applications for the technology.


Through Alexa, new capabilities — referred to as “skills” — can be added to the software to broaden the uses of the technology. Much like apps, skills are tailored to meet specific needs and perform individual tasks. At ASU and other universities with Amazon products, students are exercising their creativity and exploring the possibilities of voice command by developing new skills for Alexa.

“We sent out a survey, and half of the students wanted to learn more about the devices,” said Rome. “I think there were maybe 20 or 30 [students] who had already built skills for Alexa or were in the process of building skills.”

For example, ASU students don’t have any way to go online and find out what types of meals are being served around campus. According to the survey, students want to find a way to change that — and with Alexa’s help. The students at ASU also found a practical application for the devices in the residence halls, proposing a skill for Alexa that could identify how many washing machines are available in the laundry rooms.

Although some of the engineering students have been able to explore Alexa in a classroom setting by using it to voice-enable robots and gain a fuller understanding of Amazon’s cloud, Rome believes that the next big step for ASU is finding a way to more thoroughly integrate Alexa into the school’s curriculum.

“With this rollout, not only are other students [outside of the engineering program] wanting to learn more or find out how they can be a part of this project, we’re also seeing that the other disciplines, like some of the liberal arts colleges, are interested as well,” Rome said. “Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out, with our capacity, what we can do next and then continue for the inevitable — that voice will be the next disrupter. It’s clear that that’s going to happen.”


In addition to ASU’s informal use of the Echo Dots for student involvement and connections, Amazon’s voice-assistant technology is also available as the inspiration for part of a university’s curriculum. Through the Alexa Fund Fellowship, the technology manufacturer is providing financial resources and mentorship opportunities to universities, aiding them in research on voice command technology.

So far, the Alexa Fund Fellowship has been awarded to Carnegie Mellon University, John Hopkins University, the University of Southern California and the University of Waterloo, in Ontario.

Students at USC have two objectives in their research, said Premkumar Natarajan, director of the university’s Information Sciences Institute.

In an interview with EdScoop, Natarajan explained that the first objective is for students to study how humans interact with computers and how to write dialogue applications that humans will find easy to engage with. The second objective is to explore the creation of Amazon skill sets through an undergraduate capstone project.

“I believe all educational institutions and organizations should be at the forefront of exploring technology that holds the potential of improving the learning experience for the broadest number of people possible,” said Natarajan, who anticipates an even larger presence of voice command technology in education in the future.


Questions of student privacy and voice authentication

Given that these devices are essentially always listening, many educators — and consumers, for that matter — have grown concerned about the effects that voice command technology can have on privacy.

Rome, the deputy CIO from ASU, said he understands the hesitation and appreciates the questions around student privacy, but he said Alexa’s presence in students’ dorm rooms isn’t as scary or ominous as people assume.

“Every time I’ve interviewed or given a presentation, that’s the concern,” said Rome, who recently attended a conference hosted by Amazon. “Right now, [the devices] don’t have any skills that will impact privacy. But, clearly, it’s coming, so our eyes are wide open.”

“We will never put the students’ information in jeopardy,” he added, “so we will go as fast or as slow as necessary to keep that secure.”


However, some educators and privacy experts argue that, while teaching students to become digital citizens, they should also learn how to protect their personal information and ensure safe use of their devices.

“[At ASU], we spend a lot of time educating our students about potential security breaches and phishing attacks, and this is just another way that we’ll teach them,” said Rome.

Rome did mention one clear privacy problem the Echo Dots could create — if a student asks Alexa to provide their own personal information, like grades or student records, and other students in the residence hall overhear the exchange.

According to Rome, this is an opportunity to improve voice command technology to better suit students’ needs.

“There may be a time where you can interact with Alexa and say, ‘I want to know what my grade is.’ And, maybe, instead of Alexa speaking the answer, if you’re in a public space, maybe Alexa can deliver that information via text or in another fashion that’s individual to the user,” Rome said.


Miller, the tech administrator at Taos Academy, said the lack of voice authentication in these devices raises some flags as well.

In an interview for this story, Miller laughed about an incident in January, in which a 6-year-old girl was using Alexa as her own personal Santa Claus.

When the girl’s mother received an unexpected and expensive dollhouse along with a tin of sugar cookies from Amazon, she was confused, to say the least. After further investigation, however, she found that her daughter Brooke had been “talking to Alexa about a dollhouse and cookies,” and Alexa granted her wishes.

As a device that exists to receive commands and act on them, voice command technology may give kids the power to ask for more than just information.

“It goes back to voice authentication,” said Miller. “So, as the technology develops, it needs to become smarter and smarter. Maybe it will eventually be able to tell my voice from a student’s voice, and it would know that mine is the authenticating voice. I kind of expect that to be coming down the pipeline.”


Bonding with inhuman objects

Parents and teachers have recently found that it’s easy, innate even, for young children to bond with inhuman objects. Think about that favorite stuffed animal or doll you had when you were a kid. Many children will latch onto a teddy bear or other inanimate object with unrivaled devotion. But what happens when the object talks back? What happens when it’s capable of conversation?

Norton Gusky, co-chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said he sees the potential issues linked with this level of connection and closeness.

“I have some cousins who are 4 and 6 years old,” Gusky told EdScoop. “They have Alexa at home, and the kids automatically think that it’s a person. They don’t think of it as something outside the realm of a human being. It talks to them. It makes jokes. It responds in ways that it almost becomes like a friend.”

According to Gusky, this is an area where educators need to exercise caution.


“Kids should feel comfortable with the technology, but at the same time, they need to know what the difference is between talking to a device and talking to a person,” Gusky said.

Grimes, from the Indiana school district, also sees how bonding with voice-activated devices could become an issue for younger students.

Grimes mentioned the movie “Her,” in which a grown man falls in love with an intelligent operating system with voice-activated features not unlike Siri or Alexa.

“Seeing students bond with technology isn’t outside of the realm of possibility,” said Grimes. “Yes, kids can become addicted to technology, and that can affect them socially. I do see the concern, but I think [the voice assistant] needs to be considered as a tool or resource. It shouldn’t be considered as a co-teacher in the classroom.”

What’s next?


Despite these concerns, voice command technology’s future in education looks open-ended.

“I think it’s inevitable that these devices will augment learning,” said Rome. “They’re not going to replace learning. They’re going to offer another delivery mechanism of information. Right now, we’re in the infancy of true artificial intelligence, and I think you’ll start seeing more and more developments.”

As it becomes a larger presence in homes, students will undoubtedly grow more familiar with voice command technology and find yet-to-be-realized applications for it.

“They’re living in a multi-platform world,” Miller said. “To serve them, we [as educators] need to reflect our schools as multi-platform and operate on touch technology, voice recognition, virtual reality, all of these new and exciting things.”

To Miller, the classroom should reflect the many capabilities that students have at home. It’s not beneficial to students to exclude from the classroom technology that’s prevalent in society, he said.


With voice command technology, edtech researchers like Gusky believe that learning resources need to adapt to provide the quickest and broadest stream of information possible. And, as the technology evolves, students will benefit most when educators are open to new technologies and continue to use them in the classroom.

“What I see with a lot of teachers is that they haven’t changed their mindset and that they don’t see how the whole process of learning is being impacted by this technology right and left,” said Gusky. “The kids are coming to school using devices. If they are already using them at home, why aren’t we using them more in school? … So, for me, devices like an Amazon Echo, I think, offer great opportunities and possibilities, but teachers need to be more trained and accepting of that. And, that’s going to take some time, because the whole pre-service training for teachers has to be dramatically changed.”

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