In Amazon’s latest push into education, the tech giant is encouraging colleges to experiment with its Echo smart speakers and add the devices to their curricula.
The company is working with Arizona State University, for instance, where it gave 1,600 Echo Dots to engineering students living in a new dorm called Tooker House.
“ASU’s main motivation was to develop an opportunity for its engineering students to gain skills in voice technology, an emerging field,” says John German, an ASU spokesperson. The engineering school at ASU has added “a little bit” of voice technology to the curriculum of three existing courses this semester, German said. However, the students who received the Echo Dots will “not at all” be required to take these courses. The dots are “literally a gift,” German says.
The Amazon Alexa team “met frequently” with the university, and “offered advice,” says John Rome, ASU’s deputy chief information officer.
The company also recently set up the Amazon Alexa Fund Fellowship, which so far includes four colleges—Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Waterloo, the University of Southern California, and Johns Hopkins University. The year-long program will give selected students “funding, access to Alexa devices, and mentoring from an Alexa Science team member to develop an undergraduate or graduate curriculum around one or more of these disciplines,” according to a company blog post.
And the company is also running a research competition for universities called the Alexa Prize, in which it will dole out $2.5-million in prizes to teams developing new ideas in conversational artificial intelligence.
Amazon officials imagine a world where their devices are woven into student life, used for things like “ordering transportation and setting homework reminders,” says an Amazon spokesperson, who asked not to be named.
The company has been encouraging developers of edtech software to add support for their smart speakers as well. The company brought a giant inflatable Echo to the annual conference of Instructure, which makes the learning-management system Canvas.
Phil Hill, an edtech consultant and blogger for eLiterate, says he believes Amazon is “playing the long game” with its Echo strategy, just as many big tech companies do in education.
Photo Credit: Phil Hill
“Amazon’s strategy is much more about establishing Alexa and the mechanisms and the way that people interact with the virtual world, almost becoming the front end of the next generation of internet access,” Hill says. “They’re looking to say, people won’t be doing this much on the browsers anymore, they’re going to be interacting with natural language and voice, and we want that to go through us.”
Hill says Amazon wants to beat its competitors in the smart-speaker space, Google and Apple, “to the punch” and become the default way people use this type of technology.
Some colleges are experimenting with Echo technology even without direct encouragement or investment from Amazon. At Utah State University, for instance, officials installed an Echo Dot in one classroom that is used by a visually impaired instructor, according to Kevin Reeve, the university’s director of teaching and learning technologies. The devices will connect to hardware in the classroom so instructors can do things like turn on projectors on and lower screens at the front of the room using voice commands.
“So we decided about a year ago that we wanted to see if we could write our own Alexa Skill to control the classroom technology,” Reeve says, referring to the ability to add features to the Echo devices. “We had no idea who to contact at Amazon.”
But Rice University’s Dan Wallach, a professor of computer science, says he does not see “anything really substantial” when it comes to using smart speakers to do things that can easily be done manually, like dimming the lights and lowering the audio. “I mostly see these things as gimmicks,” Wallach says.
Wallach says he can talk to his phone and wristwatch already, and does that “very infrequently.” He adds that he thinks these types of devices will have the most impact in the car, where drivers need to focus on driving as they interact with technology.
He says that he doesn’t see the devices adding “very much to anything” in his classroom unless there’s an engineering project doing design for cars.
Szymon Machajewski, who teaches at Grand Valley State University’s School of Computing and Information Systems, feels differently.
He says he wrote a skill for the classroom that focuses on computer flashcards. It has students speaking with Alexa, and quizzing themselves based on the definitions Alexa provides. Students have to say the words that are part of the course’s glossary, Machajewski says.
Machajewski even thinks this type of technology can influence human speech and expand vocabulary.
Hill says when he first heard Amazon was going to be doing demos at conferences with Alexa, he “personally thought it was going to be a gimmick.” But he says once he saw the demos, he started thinking about how the technology could help faculty and students manage “their academic lives much easier.” Getting targeted information without having to sit down in front of a computer is where Hill sees the initial efforts. He says if managing daily life becomes easier for people, they will “start to get hooked on Alexa.”
Devices like the Echo Dot have gotten criticism when it comes to privacy concerns, since the devices are constantly listening in when they are activated.
“It raises the question, ok, you have to say, ‘Alexa, tell me this,’” says Hill, the edtech consultant. “That doesn’t mean the device is not listening at all times. It just means it uses the Alexa keyword to trigger a command. Where does that information go? Does Amazon store it? Does it get thrown away?”
Hill says then it raises the question: “What if a faculty member has one in their office they end up using, and a student comes in to talk to them, but the student doesn’t know that there’s an Alexa device listening?”
German, of ASU, says in the discussions the university has had with students so far, the university is “more concerned than the students are.” He says students are used to mobile technology, and voice devices are not really different from, say, Siri.
German says ASU did give students some advice when it comes to using an Echo Dot in a residence-hall environment. For instance, telling them that using purchasing apps without a pin number is “probably not a good idea,” and telling them how to set their Wake Word so they aren’t interfering with a roommate’s Echo Dot.
Reeve, of USU, says he thinks where the biggest privacy concern could come in is if there’s an educational app built that can reveal students’ information that’s protected under FERPA, without them okaying it.
German says when ASU students received their Echo Dots, they signed an acknowledgment that like with other digital devices, they need to adhere to the student code of conduct and ASU’s acceptable use policies for campus technology.
But Wallach, who also manages Rice’s computer-security lab, says companies like Amazon “desperately” try to avoid the problem of their devices “recording something that you didn’t mean.” He adds that Amazon’s devices are supposed to only pay attention when prompted.
“The listening is supposed to happen locally, nothing over the internet, until you say ‘hey Alexa,’” Wallach says.
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