Alexa, where’s my calculus homework?
Students can now turn to Amazon’s voice technology for campus information and more at Arizona State University, the first one in the country to utilize Amazon Echo in residence halls.
“This is new for higher ed,” John Rome, deputy chief information officer of ASU, said in an interview with EdScoop. “Voice is going to be a part, more and more, of our daily lives.”
ASU students have set up Echo Dots, a hands-free, voice-controlled device the size of a hockey puck, in engineering residence halls.
Students can ask questions about topics ranging from the weather to campus sporting events to library hours to exam schedules.
“We’re continuing to add content as we’re learning what students want to learn about,” Rome said. “So there’s this feedback loop of what students want, and we monitor what questions are being asked.”
To use the Echo Dots, students have to set up Alexa on their phones by creating and logging in to a free Amazon account, which links the Dots to the students. The Dots can connect to ASU’s Wi-Fi network or, in other cases where there is a third-party provider in some residence halls, onto that network. The Dots have to be plugged in if students do not have a separate battery base to carry them around.
Amazon donated about 1,600 Dots to engineering students at ASU, so the technology belongs to the students, not to the school. The students can choose to use them or not, said John German, director for media relations and research communications.
“We have the largest engineering school in the country, and one of the things we’re trying to do is teach students the most advanced technology, the kinds of technology that are going to make them competitive in the job market when they get their degrees,” German said. “And voice technology is a field that’s growing. It’s going to play a role in the future.”
Rome is slated to deliver a presentation called “Alexa Goes to College” on Nov. 3 at EDUCAUSE’s annual conference in Philadelphia.
Some students already are trying to connect Alexa to robots so they can be voice-enabled; other students use Alexa to play music in the shower or their dorm rooms. They can differentiate the Dots in shared spaces by giving them various “wake words,” or commands that trigger Alexa to answer.
German said the college issued a memo that students would still have to abide by common courtesy rules and regulations in the communal spaces if they accepted the Dots.
Right now, the devices are mostly in dorms, but Rome said there are plans to acquire more Dots — ones that would be owned by the university. They would be installed in classrooms, libraries, public spaces and football suites, among other places, Rome said.
When asked whether concerns arose from anyone being able to access ASU or student information through Alexa, officials said they were careful about protecting sensitive information.
“These are all events we’re promoting and things you can find on the website,” German said. “There’s nothing on the output side that’s sensitive. Obviously, we want to be careful with student usage data, so we are very careful with that.”
Rome added that his team is scraping web pages and using programming interfaces to get information to funnel to Alexa.
“There’s no student-identifiable data that’s available on these devices,” he said. “It’s literally asking questions about life around ASU.”
ASU has an existing relationship with Amazon, and uses the company’s computing and cloud services along with the voice technology.
“Voice is becoming the new mobile of 10 years ago,” Rome said. “We’ve decided to be an early adopter of this technology.”
Rome envisions even more capabilities in the near future, noting that Amazon recently unveiled the Echo Spot, a device with a 2.5-inch screen that can function as an alarm clock.
“There’s going to come some day when students can interact [with ASU’s student portal] via webpage or microphone on their mobile phones,” he said. “We think that’s inevitable.”