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Alexa comes to campus

Voice technology is enabling a new generation of campus personalization

“Hey, Alexa!” The now-common phrase has made its way from homes into dorm rooms at some U.S. colleges and universities, all with the intention of personalizing students’ social and academic experiences on campus.

As technology offers more ways to stay connected and access information, forward-thinking higher-ed leaders are leveraging voice technology such as Amazon’s Alexa to help students acclimate to campus life and feel like they’re at home.

In a wide-reaching move, Saint Louis University (SLU) has deployed Alexa-enabled devices in every student room on campus.

Earlier this year, campus leaders started looking at voice technology as a way to help improve the student experience and personalize social and academic activities down the road.

A spring pilot with 20 Amazon Echo devices and 20 competitor devices yielded a firmer idea of how voice technology can help students become more productive, gain more access to information, and remain more engaged on campus, says David Hakanson, SLU’s CIO.

After the pilot, campus leaders reviewed student feedback and realized the Echo devices could improve productivity. Through the university’s program, which is supported by Amazon Web Services, they built a university-specific skill to connect students with important campus information. For instance, instead of students having to pull up a browser on a mobile device to check campus library hours, they could simply ask Alexa and get an immediate answer in a seamless and uninterrupted manner. The seconds or minutes saved may not seem like much, but using voice technology for these purposes also caters to students’ desire for instant gratification while multi-tasking.

Students can ask Alexa about campus events and schedules, which goes a long way toward engagement, Hakanson adds. Resources like this are particularly useful, because studies show that strong campus engagement leads to better grades and improved retention.

When new skills become available, the university emails students to let them know and to solicit feedback on the new and existing skills.

The Echo devices, which are managed centrally, also are used in classes, and Hakanson says faculty could deploy department- or major-specific skills to specific groups of students in the future.

“We may find that there’s a skill specific to engineering students, so we could take that learning community and deploy the skill just to them; there’s a huge value proposition for being able to do more,” he says.

Each year, SLU sends a team to the Consumer Electronics Show to look at new and emerging technologies.

“As a university, we know a lot of these technologies are going to find their way on campus,” Hakanson adds. “Students have certain devices at home, they love using them, so how do we give them the same comfort of home at a university?”

This presents an opportunity for SLU to engage students with devices and technologies that will only keep growing in popularity and usefulness.

“How do we engage our students with this technology? They’re becoming much more accustomed to consuming information and performing tasks based off of voice commands. When we talk about productivity, we think that’s really why students want to use voice technology.”

Voice technology also has potential for faculty, he says.

“We see these devices used for faculty and staff experiences in the future, too–how do you get more immediate access to the data you’re looking for? Voice technology enables that, and for us, the Amazon platform allows us to start providing those functions.” For instance, faculty may one day avoid wading through a report in search of data, and may instead ask Alexa and receive an immediate response.

“We think the voice technology is going to expand well past the student experience, and will help overall productivity for different user groups at the university,” Hakanson says. “That’s our true purpose as a university–to help students with their success.”

SLU isn’t the only institution to place its faith in the future of voice technology.

“I’ve seen the technology disruptors, and when voice [technology] came out, I knew it was really one of the next disruptors,” says John Rome, Arizona State University’s (ASU) deputy CIO. “It was inevitable.”

ASU’s first foray into using Alexa’s voice technology for student services was in the form of 1,500 students in an engineering residence hall. The university built an official Alexa skill with information to answer roughly 500 ASU-specific questions.

Many students used Alexa for basic functions such as playing music, setting timers, looking up local information, and contacting family. But ASU also offered a program to help students learn how to build Alexa skills, and some engineering faculty members spent class time focusing on skill building for the devices.

Aside from coming in handy for university-specific questions, Rome says the knowledge students build when they work with Alexa will follow them on their career paths.

“How do we train this next generation of students? They aren’t going to be only web developers or project managers–now there will be voice developers. It’s interesting to see and we’ve placed ourselves in a position to [help train them],” Rome says.

The need for expertise in voice technology crosses multiple industries, he added, including the automobile industry, healthcare, and marketing fields, all of which are beginning to use voice to improve functionality and better meet consumers’ needs.

“We’re saying, ‘We want to be part of this new ecosystem and this new potential job market–how do we help prepare our students for it?'” Rome says.

And once voice technology isn’t simply something cool to use, the focus will turn to practical applications.

“I think we’re seeing the novelty of voice wearing off; how do we start taking advantage of voice?” Rome asks. “This is part of the experience at ASU–exposing students to this technology.”

Privacy and security in a personalized age

Both universities hope to one day use Alexa to further personalize educational experiences for students. For instance, students might ask Alexa about the status of financial aid packages, grades, or course schedules.

But with more presonalization comes a concern about keeping sensitive student data and information private.

“We do see personalization in the future, and we want to make sure everything is in place from a security and privacy standpoint,” says Hakanson.

“We’re very cognizant of the privacy and security issues–that’s why we’re being thoughtful as we start doing more around Alexa personalization,” Rome says.

In the future, students could access sensitive information about classes or financial aid, but the challenge lies in multi-step user authentication.

“What is the best way to first authorize, then continue to authenticate, that particular student? Do we do it through voice, do we send something to a mobile device for verification? We’re being more intentional,” Rome says.

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Laura Ascione

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