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Voice Assistants in the Classroom: Life with Miss A

Alexa Show in the Classroom

Voice Assistants are internet-connected devices that respond to verbal queries or voice commands. Removing the need for a computer interface has opened up their potential for use in classrooms with young students. Since the devices are in an always on state and ready to respond to questions or perform a limited variety of tasks, teachers have started experimenting with their use in the classroom.

These tools vary by manufacturer and have made their way into classrooms as Amazon Echo and Google Home. These devices are reasonably priced at between $50 (Echo Dot) and $100 (Echo or Home) so many K‐12 teachers could consider them a reasonable addition to their classrooms.

In Pleasant Ridge Elementary School, two teachers received a grant from their district’s foundation (Foundation for Saline Area Schools) to each purchase the Amazon Show for use with their third graders and resource room students. The Show works just like the Echo but includes a video screen that will display images and text in a variety of languages.

Anxious to evaluate this emerging technology, I visited Ms. Bell’s classroom one February with video camera in hand. During my February visit, the tool was still a bit of a novelty. The students and their teacher had developed rules for using it that included not yelling and speaking one at a time.

Some rules arose out of direct experience with Alexa, the Echo’s persona. Students noticed that casual references to Alexa when they were standing nearby woke it up ready to answer their questions. They decided that they should refer to “her” as “Miss A.”

The simple act of learning how to negotiate rules regarding the use of a new tool was an example of digital citizenship. Students were also learning about the limitations of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Their discovery is that AI is sometimes not too smart.

Questions such as, “Alexa, tell me a poem,” might result in a definition of poetry. It might take a few runs at the question to get Miss A. to favor you with a limerick. The simple limitation of AI and Alexa (or any of the voice assistants) is a reminder that this technology can be powerful and educative.

In one of ISTE’s Professional Learning Networks, an administrator raised a vaguely accusatory question about the actual learning was taking place with the devices. That was a fair question. I revisited Ms. Bell’s classroom to see what life with Miss A. and if the novelty had worn off.

 

The students were using the device as just another tool or reference book in the classroom. They might check a spelling word or an answer to an arithmetic question and they would ask more complicated questions based on teacher-led discussions. The questions students asked on their own suggested that some very powerful incidental learning was taking place.

As an example, with a word processor you might be gently reminded that a word was misspelled or a sentence was confusing but in one-to-one conversations such guidance is not only important but is also rare. For an English Language Learner who can practice asking a question of Miss A. or for a student with limited language deficiencies, a response without judgement, prejudice, or bias is an asset to any classroom. Prompting students to rephrase a question to improve clarity perhaps by using a more precise word is a task at which these devices excel. Students do not often blush with embarrassment when trying to speak with clarity to a machine.

The potential for voice assistants is growing. As students get older and teachers get more savvy, they can begin enable more skills and even create their own with the Alexa Skills Kit. Students and teachers can develop these skills for use in the classroom or to share with a larger community of users.

The last thing Ms. Bell said to me as I was leaving her class was that she really hoped every teacher would get one for their classes someday. I think the novelty phase has transformed into the usefulness phase.

Author

Michael McVey is a professor in the Teacher Education Department at Eastern Michigan University and shares coordination of the online Master’s program in Learning Design and Technology (LTEC). He is also a trustee for Saline Area Schools and an ISTE board member. He can be reached at .

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