In times, when everything right from seeking information to receiving answers can be done within seconds, having Amazon Alexa is just the beginning to find out ways in which students could use a different resource.
Just like Twitter made its users witty writers and editors, digital audio assistants like Amazon Alexa will bring clarity and improvement in speech. So can we hope to take advantage of Alexa to reinvent teaching and learning? Let’s look at some of the possibilities.
Experts are trying to explore ways to engage Alexa in classroom settings through voice-enabled robots and gaining a deeper understanding of cloud-based intelligence. With this happening, the next big thing will be how to integrate Alexa into school surroundings.
Role of Alexa in Teaching and Learning
Amazon Echo and the little sibling Echo Dot have been making news for some time. Completely based on voice command technology, the virtual assistant Alexa replies immediately on receiving commands such as “Alexa, how’s the weather today?”
Dimming lights, checking the calendar, or playing music - is not all that this device is capable of doing. Presently, it is being actively used in assisting students (with and without disabilities) to develop digital fluency, to promote events in colleges and schools, and to find library material.
A smart education is a blend of traditional teaching methods and smart devices. Having voice-command assistants nowhere implies meeting shortcuts or just memorizing answers. As far as factual things are concerned, teachers can have Alexa answer all such questions by saying, ‘Did you ask Alexa?’
We can expect students to be self-dependent and self-sufficient by being able to address problems without taking help from another person. Indirectly, teachers are asking students to use another resource at their disposal.
Educators from higher education institutions like Arizona State University (ASU) and schools like New Mexico’s Taos Academy are finding new ways in which Amazon Echo and other voice-controlled digital assistants can be used to create an innovative learning environment.
New Customized Skills in Alexa
Alexa has inbuilt capabilities, also known as Skills, that can be added to its software to broaden its purpose. Like the modern apps, ‘Skills’ are customized to address specific requirements and perform tasks based on an individual request. This is happening at many universities where students are using their expertise to explore possibilities of voice commands by creating new Skills for Amazon Alexa.
For instance, ASU students do not have an online access to find out what meals are being served on the campus. They want to create a way to this and that too with Alexa. They have proposed other Skills to put Alexa to a practical application wherein devices in the residence halls could identify how many washing machines are currently available in the laundry rooms.
Amazon provides detailed tutorials to Alexa Skill developers. One such tutorial is on decision tree template that allows the Skill developers to generate a voice game. This voice game tells stories and allows its user to exercise choices. Remember, story teaching has a direct effect on the student’s learning and engagement in the classroom.
Amazon Alexa in Classrooms
Alexa can be used as a digital guide in teaching and learning processes. There are plenty of possibilities of employing Alexa’s Skills in education.
Voice assistants are capable of providing on-demand information including the timetable, dining hall hours, latest school news, and forthcoming school holidays.
In higher education, universities can publish campus news via Alexa Flash Briefing. This Skill can deliver latest events, success stories, and announcements via pre-recorded audio clips or text-to-speech (TTS) updates. The Flash Briefing feature in Alexa can configure additional news events from other entities to provide an individualized daily briefing.
Alexa can be used in education for instantly disseminating content. With an increased accessibility to information, students will be able to handle data and determine what should be done according to their analytical capabilities.
School administration can connect virtual courses management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas with Amazon Echo. Amazon Echo can then take the data and make it immediately accessible to students. This will enable students to check their grades and pending assignments using Alexa which can also be linked to car systems and iPhones, making the information available even on the go.
The Amazon Alexa Skill called My Blackboard lets multiple students connect their Blackboard accounts to a single Amazon Alexa account, allowing guardians to track progress.
With the help of some basic codes of Amazon tutorials, it takes nearly 20 minutes to come up with a new exam preparation app. Now with Alexa’s Skills, teachers take not more than five minutes to create one with voice command. If developing Skills becomes faster and easier, creating exam preparation apps would be as easy as making Powerpoint presentations.
Alexa Fund Fellowship
The world’s largest e-commerce giant is providing mentorship opportunities and financial resources through Alexa Fund Fellowship, training students in voice technology and empowering them to be innovative.
The aim of the fellowship program is to support academic institutions focused on transformative voice technologies. Till date, Alexa Fund Fellowship has been introduced in the University of Southern California, John Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Waterloo.
How Safe is Alexa?
Privacy has been a big cause of worry for everyone, especially after the massive Cambridge Analytica data breach. With the emergence of voice command technologies in schools and universities, there are initial concerns over unwanted dependence and maintaining the privacy of students. Moreover, the lack of voice authentication features in these devices raises red flags.
Given the fact that the digital audio assistants predominantly hear voices, many consumers are skeptical about using these devices. For instance, if a student asks Alexa to provide personal information such as performance reports or grades and the other students get to hear the exchange, it can lead to an embarrassing situation.
Many privacy experts argue that while teaching students via digital tools, they must also learn how to secure their personal information and ensure limited use. Some feel receiving commands and acting on them is something which can be used recklessly by students.
Considering the limitations of voice command tools at present, Alexa’s presence in academic premises will not be as scary as it seems. Voice command technology will empower students to ask any kind of information.
Developers are trying their level best to improve the voice command technology to meet privacy standards. Again, the voice authentication has to be taken seriously so that digital assistants like Alexa can differentiate voices.
The Future Ahead
Despite several issues, the future of Alexa and others digital audio assistants looks promising. It is a little early to talk about their acceptance across the globe though.
Alexa is a big hit in homes. Academic institutions should embrace them to enrich students’ experience by providing them touch-free access to information and facilities tailored to campus living. Although these devices undoubtedly augment the learning experience, they are not going to replace classroom learning, rather deliver an effective and speedy mechanism for accessing information.
While Amazon Alexa is more about an informal connect and student involvement, the voice assistant is likely to become part of school and universities’ curricula as a creative inspiration.