Alexa, how many whiskers does a cat have? Alexa, call me “cheeseburger with fries.” Alexa, do my parents still love me?
Devices fueled by artificial intelligence—including smart speakers—have been making inroads into classrooms for several years now. But how do students actually perceive these machines? As a really intelligent person? As a friend? A counselor? And how are they using them in response to that perception?
Those are the questions that Laura Butler, a former elementary school teacher is exploring as she pursues her Ph.D. at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. When Butler was working in the classroom in that country, she brought in an extra Amazon smart speaker to use with her kindergarten-age students, and got an intriguing, firsthand look at how they interacted with the mysterious new robot.
Now she has been studying conversations between elementary school students and smart speaker assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, in their classrooms and interviewing students and teachers, with the goal of helping educators better understand how kids think about the devices. She presented her findings at the International Society for Technology in Education this summer, and later, spoke with Education Week about her work.
Here’s what she thinks educators need to know about how young kids interact with AI at school:
They love asking what Butler calls “curiosities”
Any parent or educator knows kids come up with out-of-the-blue questions: Where do bears live? Can the people on the TV see us? Do cars have feelings?
Classroom smart speakers are a great outlet for those types of queries, Butler said. That can be a big help for busy educators. “If you’ve got one teacher in a classroom of 30 kids, you’re not always available, obviously, to answer all the little questions,” she said.
When a smart speaker first comes into a classroom, most kids will see it as a novelty and give it a try. But it’s often a handful of these extra-curious students who continue to bring their queries to the robot even after many of their classmates don’t use it as much anymore, Butler said.
“It does tend to be the students who have a lot of those burning questions that they just want to ask,” who interact with the smart speaker most, Butler said. The device is, “patient. It will never really say to you, ‘I’m not gonna answer that question or that’s a silly question.’ They don’t have the same judgment that humans do. Students seem quite drawn to them.”
Students will take their cues on how to use the robot from each other
Butler has noticed that the speakers in the classrooms she’s studying will often field the same queries from the same group of kids. When she asked the teacher about it, she’s been told that one kid will come up with a question—say “What’s the fastest car in the world?” —and then tell other kids something like, ‘“Alexa knows what the fastest car in the world is!” Their classmates will want to see for themselves.
“The research tells us that to be best utilized in the classroom, the devices have to have a lot of modeling from the teacher, which is very true,” Butler said. “But I think also there’s a peer influence element, where they’ll also use it in the ways that they’ve seen other students use it.”
If you ask a question that you know someone else has asked before, you “know you’re going to get the answer There’s a bit of safety there,” Butler said. And there could be another reason, explored below.
Students may ask questions they know the answer to test or feel out the device
Students do ask smart speakers questions they know their classmates have already answered, but they also might ask a question—say, “what’s 1 + 1?” and then ask it again themselves, a few minutes later, to see if the machine will answer it again, in the same way.
“I think a lot of the students are kind of almost testing it, seeing what its limits are, seeing what it knows, what it doesn’t know. They try to outsmart it sometimes,” Butler said. She sees this as “kind of this familiarization process,” to get a sense of how best to use the machine.
AI brings up big questions for curricula
Unsurprisingly, students these days often use smart speakers the way their parents and teachers used reference books. One of the most popular uses in the elementary school classrooms Butler studied: Using the devices to check the spelling of a word, even though there’s a dictionary in the classroom. Students also like to use it to check their work on a math problem.
The upshot: Even kids too young to know how to type realize that smart speakers can give them answers to their classwork. “I had a couple of students say to me something along the lines of, ‘oh, it’s smarter than me or it’s smarter than my teacher,’” Butler said.
Teachers, on the other hand are wondering, “well, what’s the point of teaching spelling, if a robot could literally just tell them the answer?”
That’s part of a much broader debate in K-12 schools around the world: What should kids be learning now that there’s so much easy access to information? For now, it’s not a question that educators—much less, smart speakers—have a quick answer for.
There may be some social and emotional implications
Younger children want more than answers to math problems from smart speakers. In some cases, they’re seeking emotional reassurance.
Case-in-point: One of Butler’s students had an argument with a friend on the playground. When she got back to class, she turned to the smart speaker and asked, “Alexa, am I a good friend?” The machine delivered a reassuring message. But Butler was taken aback. She was the girl’s teacher, after all, and was right in the room. She still doesn’t quite comprehend why her student didn’t turn to her—a trusted adult—instead of a robot.
Later, when Butler was reading transcriptions of conversations between students and smart speakers she came across an exchange where another girl asked the AI if her parents still loved her. After chatting with the teacher, Butler found out the girls’ parents were in the process of separating.
This is an area ripe for exploration, Butler said.
“There’s that darker side that we need to understand more,” Butler said. “Do students actually conceptualize these as machines or do they actually think this is kind of a voice [of a real entity]? [It’s] a bit of a Wizard of Oz situation,” where kids may put their faith in the man behind the curtain, only to realize it’s an illusion.
Kids aren’t always going to take robots seriously
One familiar sight in the classrooms that used AI: a bunch of kids standing around the device, asking what sound a cow makes and laughing as it moos back. Or a bunch of children asking the device to, “call me cheeseburger!” and giggling at its response of, “OK, cheeseburger!”
These may seem like childish games, but kids may also be testing the device in a different way, seeing “how creative they could be until the device cut them off,” Butler said. If a kid asked an adult to call them a “’pineapple double cheeseburger,’ the adult would be like, ‘I’m not gonna play this game with you.’”