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8 reasons to use a digital assistant in your classroom

By Maureen Yoder 3/21/2018 Tools

Artificial intelligence has gone mainstream. It’s already integrated into our everyday lives, with realistic voices responding to questions and requests. For a while now, we have been able to get reminders for appointments, encouragement for fitness routines, and remote control over household lights and appliances.

But can these devices be useful in schools? In addition to being sources of factual information, can they enhance thought-provoking activities? Besides generating reminders, can they foster organization in other ways?

Apple introduced Siri in 2011, providing iPhone and iPad users with a voice-activated personal assistant. For the purposes of this blog, I will include two devices that took the Siri concept further. Google Home Mini (“Hey, Google!”) and Amazon’s Echo Dot (“Alexa”) are smaller versions of their larger, more expensive counterparts, but perform all of the basic functions. Both have microphones that can service an average-size classroom, allowing students from across the room to direct questions and commands. Both are the size of a bagel and cost less than $50.

Smart speakers, or voice-controlled digital assistants, are excellent at responding to questions about facts, either directly or from referenced sources. They sound friendly and polite and have everlasting patience. But should you get one for your classroom?

Here are eight observations and examples, based on my own experience with both devices, as well as feedback from other educators, and anecdotal comments from enthralled youngsters.

1. You can set it up in minutes. 

Basically, you plug in the device, get the app on your mobile device, access your Wi-Fi, link the two and you are ready to go. Many powerful functions are available immediately and teachers are using the built-in capabilities in creative ways.

Dozens of websites and YouTube videos have lists of suggestions for what to ask and how to use a digital assistant. There are additional products, including smart plugs, that enable Google Home or Alexa to control anything that can be plugged in.

 2. You can actually get assistance from your digital assistant.

One of the challenges every teacher faces is how to meet the needs of all students. When a teacher is working with a small group, a smart speaker can be used with the other students.

It can set reminders, read an audio book or play tranquil music. You can ask for a random number in a range of numbers, or a roll of the dice. You can request information about a famous person, a historical event and any topic in Wikipedia. “Alexa, Wikipedia Albert Einstein” will give you Wikipedia’s description of the famous physicist.

Students can ask about weather anywhere in the world and for words to be spelled or translated from other languages. Smart devices can play bingo, Simon Says and Jeopardy. If you have a child in your class named Alexa, or if you have multiple Echo devices within range, you can change the wake word to “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer.”

3. Students will learn about artificial intelligence.

One of the important realizations is learning about what AI can’t do. Young students will naturally ask a variety of questions. They will quickly figure out that certain questions will prompt accurate answers, while others will stump the smart speaker or illicit an incorrect response. Children usually “test” the device, making silly requests and observing the limitations. They will gain a better understanding of the differences between fact and opinion, what a knowledge base is, and how the smart devices are dependent on the people who write the code that develops their skills.

 4. You can add “skills.”

The Amazon Alexa platform supports over 25,000 third-party “skills.” Think of these as apps for the Echo. There are games, trivia contests and quizzes. A variety of skills have specific functions that you can use as they are designed and others that can be adapted for classroom activities. Most are free. Google Home has similar add-ons, such as Animal Trivia, National Geographic Bee and Math Showdown.

5. Kids will learn about different types of questions.

For the purposes of this article, I conducted a nonscientific study of kindergartners interacting with an Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini for the first time. I observed them spending hours being entertained by the responses. When not prompted, their questions fell into three categories:  

One, they asked questions about their world “Hey, Google, how tall am I?” Answer: “You are about this tall. I am indicating the space right next to the top of your head.”

Two, they asked for songs and jokes, again and again. Question: “Alexa, tell me a joke.” Most jokes would appeal to a second grader. They are often the knock, knock variety and you need not worry about any inappropriate jokes.

Three, they asked factual questions: “Hey, Google, how cold is it outside?”

6. Students will become adept at asking questions.

One lesson that both adults and children learn quickly is how to ask good questions. Often, if Google or Alexa do not understand your question, you can reword it for a better response. You can use Google to help you construct questions. Say, for example, “Hey Google, tell me a good question to ask” and you will hear questions on a variety of topics that are well formulated examples, along with the correct answers. Alexa can also be used to ask questions as well as answer them. There is a skill titled “Good Questions” that can be used for conversation starters or creative writing assignments. You can say “Alexa, open Good Questions” and you might hear “Here’s your question: If you could have any super power, what would it be?" 

7. You can create constructivist lessons that go beyond fact gathering.

Some teachers use the factual information access not to help students do their homework, but to check work that has been completed. Also, with a constructivist approach, students could use the answers from the digital assistant but be required to create something original, such as a dialog between historical figures or a public service announcement. If you think of a smart assistant as a powerful search engine, then any activity you use in your classroom that requires research can be energized by a voice-activated device.

8. You can train your digital assistant.

One of the most powerful uses of a digital assistant is to customize it, or “train” it. Young students can be creative with their requests and invent their own personalized activity using the Alexa Python Tutorial.

Digital assistants are powerful resources that can be incorporated into any grade level or subject area. For our young students who have grown up with technology, they are a natural extension to their world of information. For all of us, they offer practical uses for artificial intelligence and a window into the future.

Maureen Brown Yoder, Ed.D., is a professor of educational technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A former classroom teacher, she currently works with inservice educators and teaches an online course on emerging technologies. She coined the term "electronic constructivism" and has written extensively on how to thoughtfully and creatively integrate emerging technologies into existing curricula.

(Photo by MegeByte.com)

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