Using Amazon Alexa as a Classroom Teaching Assistant

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This is a guest post by Dr. Szymon Machajewski, Blackboard MVP, based on research conducted with the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Classrooms tend to change slowly.  Innovators of learning environments often refer to the Prussian school model, or factory school model of the Industrial Revolution. We don’t quite even agree if the history of the classroom is presented accurately within those terms, or if new promises to revolutionize education with technology should be taken seriously.

How are modern classrooms different from those two hundred years ago?    

In that time, some innovation has taken place and the evidence of benefits is available in peer-reviewed literature.  As educators we investigate collaborative chair and table setups.  Keeping chairs in a circle or in clusters, where students face each other, can promote group work.  We also have a projector or a smart board.  We may use clickers or peer-instruction. Some may dabble in gamification and use a learning management system like Blackboard Learn for both in-person and online activities.  Most of all, in contrast to historical classrooms, the students and the instructors are connected to the Internet, which means that we can invite Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the classroom.

How about adding Alexa in the classroom? 

The Star Trek approach to the imagined new ocean of knowledge was very simple.  Just ask the computer.

Crusher: Computer, what is the nature of the universe?
Computer: The universe is a spheroid region, 705m in diameter.

In classrooms, which are far from Sci-Fi environments, memorization of facts is a common approach.  Looking up facts in an encyclopedia or googling them is still a big part of what we do.  Would there be a benefit in utilizing an Alexia device in the classroom?  Yes!  When we use audio interfaces to ask questions we can remain focused on the reason we asked the question while absorbing the new knowledge.

A few examples of Alexa integrations in the classroom already exist.  These include activating classroom technology with voice at Utah State University, or exam review app at Grand Valley State University.  However, just as private users of Alexa sometimes wonder, “So, I got it, what do I do with it now?”, instructors may be wondering if there is any value in bringing the device into the classroom.

Certainly, any new resources in the classroom have the potential to distract the instructor and disrupt an otherwise reliable classroom process.  Faculty often wonder how they can add new teaching features and activities, if they have hardly the time to cover assigned textbook chapters and content. However, as Norman Eng in The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students maintains, the goal of college instruction is not to cover the material, but to provide some context for students, a reason for students to connect the dots on their own, to awaken an interest in the course material.

Alexa can provide a fresh voice in the classroom by stating facts, telling stories, and presenting a new perspective.  As a teaching assistant, when Alexa speaks, the instructor can pause and regroup his/her thoughts. The device a support a host of other engaging skills.

Amazon recently introduced Skill Blueprints, a feature which allows instructors to create Alexa skills without having to know how to code.  You can create an interactive story that students can use to explore classroom materials.  You can also create a simple question and answer skill that allows you to ask customized questions in class.

Another way is by adopting the Book Reader skill.  The skill allows the instructor to create any text content as a readable page, then ask Alexa to read it at an appropriate time.

This reading can be a section of the syllabus, or another text, that is useful in the classroom.  Sure, calling on a student to read a portion of text has its benefits.  And yet having a third party read specific instructions or the chapter introduction may provide a storytelling moment.

Another Alexa feature useful in the classroom is the Flash Briefing.  By selecting specific news sources, the instructor can utilize radio-like updates on global, local news, or topic feeds.  These are often spoken by the news anchors instead of being read by Alexa.  This creates a classic radio feeling.  The Flash Briefing can be adopted into a custom skill with instructors posting chapter or vocabulary reviews as news items.

Alexa can remind you during class of an event you planned.  Ahead of time, or during class, you would ask Alexa to remind you about the pop quiz you intended to deploy at 3:30pm.  During class, Alexa will politely remind you of that.

If you have a few minutes before class, you can also play welcoming music.  A musical intro could be a great way to set student minds on something positive and start shaping their experience for the upcoming class.  You can play an Amazon Music playlist called Student Favorites, or another playlist that you prefer.  Alexa does very well in providing this breather period before it is time to start.  The music background can also be used during group discussions or other activities, where students are not willing to break the quiet environment and only start collaborating in their usual, lauder manner, if background noise is present.

It doesn’t stop there, Alexa can toss a coin for you to determine if the exam should be on Wednesday or Friday, convert units of measure, provide a timer for group activities. It can provide definitions for facts, it can translate expressions and speak them in a foreign language.  Also, it can play a portion of your Audible book read by a professional lecturer.

Some of the above functions can be accomplished with a traditional instructor computer workstation and a projector.  However, consider turning off the projector, try arranging chairs in a circle, or having students face each other away from the projector screen.  Now the Alexa audio interface truly shines.  The audio assistant does not require everyone looking up and in a specific direction.  Lights can stay on for reading and writing as fact checking and presentation are executed through the audio assistant.

In my opinion, the role of a teacher is to design meaningful experiences that provoke and challenge thinking in order to awaken interest in the course subject matter.  Learning itself is the result of a curious mind that is willing to investigate a matter, follow up through reading, asking questions, and sharing with others.  Certainly, showing students in class how to use an audio assistant creates such new experiences.

If you’ve read this far and possibly subscribe to the idea that audio assistants are an unnecessary extra, consider what was your reaction when cameras were added to cell phones … It is not that we give up on old devices or are able to retire any old technology. We still teach COBOL in school and technologies like the desktop computer are not going away anytime soon.  We continue to adopt new approaches because they support our lives in a more natural way … connected, mobile, matched with our senses. What is more natural than speaking to find things out.

Remember, that you can always change the call word from Alexa to Computer or Echo.  Yes, a student may actually go by … Alexa.