Digital Audio Assistants in Teaching & Learning



This is a guest post by Dr. Szymon Machajewski, Blackboard MVP, Learning Specialist at University of Illinois at Chicago and faculty at Grand Valley State University.

Digital audio assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, allow us to issue commands via voice, and in doing so we benefit in many ways. As we speak words we can remember them better. Spoken words sometimes become a part of our inner voice. The labels we use about ourselves or others tend to stick in our mind. Just as Twitter made us more concise writers and editors, digital assistants will require improvements in our speech. Can we take advantage of speaking to digital devices in teaching and learning?

I think so. To prove it, I built an Amazon Alexa skill called Introduction to Computing Flashcards. In using the skill, or Amazon Alexa app, students are able to listen to Alexa and then answer questions. Alexa helps students prepare for an exam by speaking definitions and then waiting for their identification. In addition to quizzing the student, Alexa is also keeping track of the correct answers. If a student answers five questions correctly, Alexa shares a game code, which is worth class experience points in the course gamification My Game app.

Applications of Amazon Alexa Skills in Education

Certainly, exam preparation apps are one way to use digital assistants in education. As development and publishing of Amazon Alexa skills becomes easier, faculty will be able to produce such skills just as easily as they now create PowerPoints. Given the basic code available through Amazon tutorials, it takes 20 minutes to create a new exam preparation app. Basic voice experience Amazon Alexa skills can take as much as five minutes to complete.

Universities can publish their campus news through the Alexa Flash Briefing. This type of a skill can publish news, success stories, and other events associated with the campus. An example of such a skill is News for University of Illinois at Chicago. The Flash Briefing facility in Alexa can stack additional feeds from Reuters or NPR to provide a complete briefing.

Alexa can be further used in education as a way to disseminate and review specific content. In the example of the skill “Teaching Craft: Tips for Inclusive Learning,” faculty and students can ask for tips on accessible web development, inclusive classroom discussions, and inclusive teaching strategies. Listening to new ideas helps us to consider them in new environments such as the car, the bathroom, or anywhere else Alexa has the edge on hands-free interfacing.

Yet another way to use Alexa in teaching and learning is by using the service as a digital guide. At Grand Valley State University, in the Technology Showcase, a number of emerging technologies and devices are displayed for students to experiment with. You can say: “Alexa, ask Technology Showcase about exhibit five.” You will hear details of what you are looking at and how it works.

Amazon supports Alexa skill developers by providing detailed tutorials. One of such tutorials is a decision tree template. This allows developers to create a voice game that tells a story and empowers the user to make choices. The use of stories in teaching helps students remember facts and increases engagement. An example of decision tree skill is “Mind Sherpa: Exploration through Design Thinking”.

In addition to the above examples of Alexa use in education, students can now check their grades in Blackboard Learn. When school administrators configure the integration, students can enable My Blackboard in Alexa (see link here to for more information on requirements and configuration). This allows them to check grades and get learning tips. Since Alexa is being integrated in cars, is available in an economy Echo Dot model ($39), and on the iPhone in the free Amazon Shopping app, students can check grades in many ways. Recent research from Blackboard shows that students are more successful academically when they check grades often.

The Alexa My Blackboard skill allows for parents or grandparents to check grades, too. Since students in Blackboard Learn decide who can access their grade through Alexa, they can authorize the account of a family member. A parent can listen to one or more grade reports from many students. This can be useful for the many people who lose dexterity or motor skills and turn to digital voice assistants for help.

Getting Started With Alexa Skill Development

If you are a faculty member, how can you develop your first Amazon Alexa skill? You can use any of the tutorials already available. You can also participate in an Amazon Alexa classroom training provided by Alexa Dev Days. It is possible that schools or maker spaces near you offer in-person developer sessions. You can use to track these opportunities.

A unique opportunity is available to attendees of BbWorld 2017 and the MoodleMoot 2017 conferences. An Amazon Alexa session will be featured as part of the Innovation Center at the conferences. Faculty and administrators will create their own course game as a voice experience. The starter code will be shared at the session. The only content that will need to be added are questions and answers in the specific subject matter.

What can Alexa teach us?

A change in the use of input devices and their interfaces affects how we think. An example can be provided in the work of Frederik Nietzsche. When he switched from handwritten manuscripts to a typing ball (a prototype of a keyboard), he reported that he was thinking differently. Researchers studying his writings confirmed that his phrasing and writing style changed, as well. So, input devices we use affect the way we think.

Consider another example: when students write down notes by hand, they tend to remember them better. When they type them on a laptop, they use a different part of the brain and cannot recall them as easily. So, learning can be affected by the input devices, too.

What happens when we speak as an input method and receive output via voice? Positive or negative self-talk has been recognized as a tool to adjust motivation and to keep us thinking about an outcome. Reading aloud also has its benefits over reading silently. So, speaking with Alexa will likely affect learning and memorization.

To play Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach on most devices, you simply press play. With Alexa, you have to pronounce the name of the piece. Would this help you to remember the title? Would this help those around you to remember the title? We know that broadening vocabulary can have a real effect on enjoyment of life. The need to vocalize our commands to Alexa likely will cause important changes in the way we learn and live.


About the author

Dr. Szymon Machajewski is an academic technology Jedi and a teacher focused on student engagement. With his research on peer-instruction and gamification he promotes the adoption of technology in teaching and learning. He is a recipient of many awards in pedagogy including Blackboard’s Most Inclusive Classroom of 2016, Catalyst Awards in Exemplary Course Design (2014, 2017) and Innovative Development (2011). He was selected as a Blackboard MVP for his work at University of Illinois at Chicago and authored such open source tools as BbStats, LoginAs, and Gamification Course Tools.