Future of Work

Alexa, Tell Us What You Think of Voice-Activated Learning in K-12

By Alyson Klein — June 21, 2019 3 min read
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Alexa, are you a teacher’s dream? Or a privacy advocate’s biggest fear?

That’s not necessarily a question Amazon’s signature “smart speaker"—or its competitors, Google Home and Apple’s Siri, can answer. But it’s one that’s playing out in classrooms across the country.

And it’s likely to get even more exploration at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia June 23-26, where at least a half-dozen session titles mention “Alexa”, the AI-empowered voice assistant behind Amazon’s Echo. That includes a session “Hey Google, Is There a Role for You and Alexa in Classrooms,” which will investigate how the devices are being used in schools.

There are four good reasons why educators should consider using smart speakers in their classrooms, said Maureen Yoder, a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and a former 1st grade and kindergarten teacher.

First off, smart speakers can help field kids’ questions. Teachers will sometimes say that students must ask their questions of two classmates and Alexa before moving onto the teacher. The devices can also be helpful for learning spelling, and even foreign language instruction.

Second, smart speakers can be a great classroom-management tool, reminding students, for instance, that it’s time to clean up their art supplies or line up. The speakers could tell a student that it’s time to head to the nurse’s office for medication. And “sometimes the students will respond more quickly to Alexa” than to the teacher, Yoder said.

Third, smart speakers help teach students about AI, a burgeoning area in education technology. Students can “learn the kinds of things a digital assistant or smart speaker can answer and what they can’t answer,” and how to ask a good question of a digital assistant, Yoder said.

Finally, there’s an opportunity for older students to program applications for smart speakers. For instance, students at the University of Arizona were able to create an app for their smart speakers that told them whether the laundry machines in their dorm were in use.

Privacy Concerns

Smart speakers were already a big topic of conversation at last year’s ISTE, my colleague Ben Herold reported. Some teachers love using the devices, including Erin Ermis, a 5th grade teacher at Spring Road Elementary School in Neenah, Wis., who spoke on a panel at the 2018 conference. She used Alexa to remind kids about things like band practice, and to play 20 questions or practice multiplication tables.

Want to see this in action? Here’s a video on using Alexa in the classroom from educators at Henry E. James Elementary School in Hopewell, Va.

Patrick Hale, an assistant principal in the Brookings school district in South Dakota, asked a handful of teachers at his school to test drive the devices. The most promising use, in his view? High school German class, where Alexa helped students practice speaking and listening to a new language.

But other teachers who work with Hale had more difficulty. Alexa sometimes gave kids long answers, and had trouble understanding students with speech problems.

And then there are the privacy issues. Both Amazon and Google’s business models revolve around taking in customer data and making suggestions. But that data might not be secure. In fact, last year, an Echo secretly recorded a Portland couple’s conversations and sent them to someone in their contacts. (Luckily, they had a pretty dull discussion of hardwood floors.)

And Daniel Kahn Gillmor, the staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told my colleague Ben he worried about the implications of collecting data on students, including those who might be undocumented immigrants, through devices.

Yoder’s take on the privacy issue: It’s something to be aware of, but smart speakers can be engaging for kids and “shouldn’t be outlawed” in classrooms just because of those concerns.

Photo: An Amazon Echo is displayed during a program announcing several new products by the company at a 2017 press event in Seattle.--Elaine Thompson/AP-File

Educators: Do you use smart speakers in your classroom? If so, how? Do you like it or are there big drawbacks? Hit up the comments section, or email me at aklein@epe.org.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.