Just a few years ago, the mere idea of speaking to a computer sounded like science fiction. But now, as voice assistants are becoming an ever more common gadget at our homes, and a standard feature on our smartphones, voice interfaces don’t seem so farfetched anymore. Every day, people are talking to Siri, Google Now, and sometimes even to Cortana and Bixby, to ask them for directions, to set reminders and alarms, to ask them place calls, and to ask all sorts of questions. And the ease at which it is possible to interact with these software tools makes them extremely attractive for education.
Of all the voice user interfaces available in the market none is, perhaps, more suitable for classroom environments than Amazon’s Alexa. Available through the Amazon Echo – a device designed to house this voice assistant –, Alexa interprets natural language and allows its users to perform tasks as varied as to launch applications like Spotify and Readable, to buy goods online at the Amazon store, to manage their agendas and communication apps through voice, and to ask all sorts of questions and get answers. But one of this technology’s most attractive features, is that it allows developers to create “skills”, a sort of applications that can be enabled by the user and which expand Alexa’s functionalities. Companies like Uber and Pizza Hut, for instance, have created skills that let their users order a car, or a pizza, and have it delivered to their homes, without ever touching their phones or their computers. Just speaking to an Echo.
In the field of education Alexa also offers a rich environment, with skills ranging from the widely popular National Geographic Geo Quiz – an interactive quiz game on which users are meant to answer geography related questions –, to Engendex’s Language Tutor, a skill that helps users learn commonly used phrases in languages like Spanish and Italian, and to get basic conversational skills by having them translate word and phrases back to English. And these skills are just the tip of the iceberg. Others like “Critical Thinking”, developed by The Pitt Community College English and Humanities Department, teaches its users a fallacy a day, and provides them with other tools to develop this important soft skill.
Alexa in The Classroom
It is thanks to the natural interactions that it enables, and to its ever-increasing library of skills, that some teachers have begun to adopt Alexa in the classroom. With just the help of an Echo Dot (which can be purchased for as little as $30) and requires only a WiFi connection to work, some schools are experimenting with this voice assistant to enhance their classes.
For instance, teachers have been experimenting with Alexa for things like:
Engaging Students into Learning through Games
Using skills like the aforementioned Geo Quiz, and other quizzes and voice-powered trivias, some teachers have started to organize games where kids compete with themselves and with one another answering random questions about different topics. This not only works as a stimulus for students to keep up with the lessons, but also works as a way to spark their curiosity and to bring new topics to the classroom.
A Source for Answers
Some teachers are also experimenting by allowing students to turn to Alexa to get answers to some simple questions, thus teaching children how to research topics on their own, and to rely less on their guidance. While a voice assistant will certainly not be able to replace the role of a teacher – not at their current state of development anyway – they can provide answers to basic questions like the location of cities in a Geography classroom, how to resolve simple mathematical exercises in math, or what is the equivalence between different measurement units in a science class.
A Source for Inspiration
Other teachers are using Fact-of-the-day skills as a way to bring in new topics to the classroom in an engaging manner which can be used either as the starting point to approach some specific point in the curriculum, or to get students to conduct a research project.
This can also be done with other voice interfaces other than Alexa, as they do not require any special add-ons or work by the schools. And while they are innovative approaches to increase engagement in the classroom, they are most certainly not transformative. But some institutions are aiming for more.
The Arizona State University, for example, has distributed 1,600 Echo Dots among its engineering students, and have developed special tailor-made skills which relate to the campus experience. This way, students can ask Alexa about campus activities, about the date of their exams, to find out what meals are being served at different cafeterias, among other things.
This, which may sound mundane, is actually helpful to organize social life in campus, but also has further educational objectives. By encouraging students to use the voice assistants, the University has managed to get students engaged into developing new skills themselves, and over 30 of them have already done so, proposing and developing new applications for the devices themselves. This, in itself, is a valuable learning experience. It is also allowing the institution to gather data on human-computer interactions for different experiments being run at the department; as well as to integrate these interfaces into robotics and software development classrooms.
Voice interfaces are new and different, and while there are some concerns to be had in terms of privacy – they are listening to their users all day long, after all – they harbor great potential for education, not just in the classroom, but also at home and in other settings where people can turn to them to ask questions, get information and facts, and participate into training exercises and games in a seamless and engaging way. But this journey is only beginning, and it’s up to researchers, educators, and Ed Tech entrepreneurs to find new ways to utilize this technology, and turn it into a valuable learning tool.
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