“Siri… open my emails.“
“OK... opening Angry Birds“
“No Siri… open my emails“
“OK... searching for male eels“
Virtual Assistants have been with us for a while and many of us have had experiences similar to the dialogue above. However, they are getting better and becoming more of an assistant than a hindrance. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon all have voice activated assistance. I’ve used them all at different times for my personal use, especially Google Now, but Amazon’s Alexa assistant is the only one I’ve used in the classroom via an Amazon echo. Many of the following ideas can be done on any of the above assistants, but I will focus on Amazon’s Alexa.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 Edition of UKEdMagazine
Amazon echo comes it two sizes: the full sized version and the dot. The dot, currently priced at around £50, is tiny and the perfect size to sit on a pupil’s desk, providing there is a power supply. Even if there isn’t, you can use a USB battery pack to power the unit. The Dot version also has a earphone jack (or Bluetooth if you prefer), allowing for quiet personal use by a single pupil if necessary.
I’ve been deploying Alexa in a similar (if basic role) of a teaching assistant to support pupils who need a little extra help, always with the safely net of seeking an adult’s help if needed.
I began by using it as a glorified spell-checker when spelling is not the key focus of the activity and the flow of writing is more important. My class are proficient dictionary users, but this interruption can break a pupil’s chain of thought. With Alexa you can ask, “Alexa, how do you spell _____?” Alexa will then repeat the word, so the pupil knows that it is the right word, and then spell it. Because the Echo uses voice to response, it is ideal for using with pupils with reading or dexterity issues in many situations.
You can also ask it to do simple maths and calculations. Naturally, you will want your pupils to complete their own maths during maths lessons, but it can be useful for checking answers, asking for metric and imperial unit conversions and asking for ‘crow flies’ distances between locations.
If your Echo is set up with Amazon Music you have a huge variety of music and songs to use in class. However, I have found the best feature is that you are able to upload a sizeable number of audio tracks to Amazon music which I’ve recorded and used in MFL lessons to improve pronunciation practice, and made audio instructions for a differentiated group. I’ve had the pupils interviewing Isambard Kingdom Brunel using prepared audio answers triggered on my phone and dodgy acting skills, and I’ve even recorded myself reading a chapter or two of the class story to be used when I was away from school on a course. Naturally, you can upload any audio you like and you can control it using voice or via the Alexa app.
Alexa can read from a Wikipedia page, giving pupils immediate information when they need it. There is also the added advantage that the pupils must listen, interpret and then phrase in their own words, meaning that the temptation to submit barely edited ‘copy and paste’ wikipedia pages as research is negated.
Your Echo can connect to a Google Calendar so you can add items such as homework to the calendar simply using your voice. You can ask Alexa to read out calendar items too. You and your pupils can also add to a to-do list (and a shopping list… er no… you can’t have a X-Box!) to help them stay organised. Currently, this is only added to one profile on the Alexa app so it would be shared with all users. However, you can integrate with other To Do apps, such as AnyDo, where you can make as many lists as you like.
In a similar way that you download apps on Android or iOS devices, the Echo has Skills which bring additional functionality with more coming online all the time. Advanced users can even build their own skills via developer.amazon.com/alexa-skills-kit.
To begin with the pupils will think the Echo is novel and I’m sure they will ask “Alexa, say [insert naughty word here]” as everyone always does! However, for my class it took them only a few hours for the novelty to wear off and for them to start using it to augment their work.
In conclusion, is Alexa via an Echo revolutionising my classroom practice? No, but it is providing marginal gains to the individuals who desperately need it most. It is another useful tool in the armoury to improve the way things are done. But digital assistants are improving all the time and using voice to interact with the digital devices we use in the classroom with only become more and more common.