Privacy & Security

Teacher’s Aide or Surveillance Nightmare? Alexa Hits the Classroom

By Benjamin Herold — June 26, 2018 6 min read
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For better or worse, a new technology is making its way from consumers’ homes into America’s classrooms: voice-controlled “smart speaker” systems from companies such as Amazon and Google.

The internet-enabled devices listen to what users say, send audio recordings to the cloud, translate that information into commands, and respond accordingly—providing users with a personal digital voice assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa, which teachers are now using to help with everything from setting a classroom timer to leading a group of 3rd graders through a spelling test.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are raising alarms about privacy.

“Should students be required to submit themselves to always-on voice-tracking and other third-party surveillance in order to get an education?” asked ACLU staff technologist Daniel Kahn Gillmor in an interview.

Still, the early K-12 adopters of smart speakers and digital voice assistants are generally enthusiastic.

“I absolutely loved using it,” said Erin Ermis, a 5thgrade teacher at Spring Road Elementary in Neenah, Wisc., one of several educators who shared their experiences with Alexa-powered devices at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held in Chicago this week.

“She was like another person in our class,” Ermis said in a pre-conference interview.

‘Can’t Teach a Class or Replace a Person’

More than 1 in 10 American consumers now own an Amazon Echo, and 4 percent own a Google Home, according to a recent report from NPR and Edison Research.

In the case of Amazon’s offerings, making extended use of the devices typically requires using third-party “skills"—essentially apps created by developers to allow the Echo to perform a wide range of functions.

So far, the types of classroom skills educators describe using are mostly rudimentary.

Ermis, for example, said she used her Echo Dot to set classroom reminders, so particular students would know when it was time for them to leave for band practice or take their daily medication.

She also used the device for classroom games, such as 20 Questions, and for whole-class practice with math skills such as multiplication.

Occasionally, Ermis said, she would also enlist Alexa’s help in small-group instruction. One example: performing the same role as parent volunteers who used to come into the class to help with spelling practice and tests.

“She certainly can’t teach a class or a replace a person,” Ermis said of Amazon’s digital voice system. “But it was nice to know that those kids were on task, working on something I wanted them to be working on for those 10 or 15 minutes.”

In his work with the 3,200-student Brookings School District, also presented at ISTE, South Dakota State assistant professor Patrick Hales found similar patterns.

Eight of Hales’ graduate students—all of whom were teachers, in grades ranging from kindergarten to high school—voluntarily tested Amazon Echo devices in their classrooms. They also went through a structured process of documenting and reflecting on the implementation process, including via interviews with their students.

Spelling help, games, and classroom-management activities were the most common uses by the teachers he worked with, Hales said. Some of their students found Alexa fun and engaging, others unhelpful or distracting. Children with speech difficulties were particularly likely to get frustrated with the device, which often had trouble understanding their questions. Noisy classroom environments and long-winded answers from Alexa were common challenges.

Hales said there was little evidence of the type of higher-order teaching-and-learning he had hoped to see, such as helping students to develop, refine, and ask better questions.

One of the most promising uses, he said, was in a high school German class, where the teacher used the device to provide students with a “proxy native speaker” with whom they could practice both speaking and listening to a language they were just learning.

Alexa-enabled devices and other smart speakers are “not necessarily a transformational tool,” Hales said, and some of the third-party skills “are kind of clunky.”

“I don’t know that the Echo will be the end-all-be-all tool, but I do think voice-assistive technology of some kind will eventually be an important part of what some teachers do,” he said.

Privacy Concerns

Not surprisingly, Amazon appears to have a more ambitious vision for its technology.

“Voice-user interfaces such as Alexa can transform education,” the company’s ‘Alexa in Education’ developer page reads. “Whether you are a student, professor, IT administrator, or ed-tech professional, Alexa can help you reimagine your world.”

There are also signs of an education-focused third-party ecosystem starting to develop around the technology. The startup company ClassAlexa, for example, has had an active presence at ISTE this week, running giveaways for Echo devices.

Among the skills for educators that ClassAlexa advertises on its website are:

  • “Brain breaks,” featuring audio of Alexa leading students through a stretching activity
  • Math and English language arts review questions
  • Countdowns and timers
  • “Social-emotional support,” with audio of Alexa saying “if you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or mad, then you are in the red. Let me try and help. Stay in this quiet place with me.”

As such tools and teaching strategies gain visibility, they are likely to come under greater scrutiny.

Education Week, for example, recently took an in-depth look at the use of digital technologies to monitor and mold students’ feelings—an issue of great concern to many parents.

And the ACLU is among the groups concerned about the privacy implications of bringing into the classroom what technologist Gillmor described as “a complex computer, with microphones and potentially other sensors, that is connected to the internet and designed specifically with the goal of sending a lot of information to the device vendor.”

K-12 educators, administrators, and policymakers should be mindful of a wide range of potential harms to students, Gillmor said.

Both Amazon and Google have a basic business model of collecting data on users to build profiles on them and target them with advertisements, he said.

The systems are hackable, he said, and there have been documented malfunctions, including a recent report about an Amazon Echo improperly sending recordings of a Portland, Ore. couple’s conversations to one of their friends.

And then there’s the potential that law-enforcement and other government agencies could access recordings and other information generated by the devices and stored by their parent companies.

Imagine, Gillmor said, an immigrant student whose parents are undocumented and subject to potential deportation. How might that child feel knowing that everything they say in their classroom is being recorded and stored on third-party servers that his school might have little control over?

“When you make decisions about using these tools, you’re making them on behalf everyone in the room,” Gillmor said by way of advice to K-12 leaders.

“Think about your most vulnerable, most marginalized students and the impact these kinds of surveillance technologies can have on them and their families.”

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