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How Voice Tech Could Enhance the Classroom, and Problems to Avoid

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Voice-activated devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have arrived in classrooms, and they're beginning to shape schools' approaches to preparing students for the future of work, as outlined in "The New World of Work," an Education Week special report published this month.

Julie Daniel Davis, director of instructional technology and innovation at Chattanooga Christian School in Tennessee, has in the last few years developed a reputation in her community and beyond for her passionate advocacy for using voice devices like the Amazon Echo as classroom tools. Rebecca Dwenger is an instructional technology consultant for schools in Hamilton County, Ohio; she too has urged teachers and schools in her area to embrace the possibilities of voice technology.

Education Week chatted with Davis and Dwenger to learn how they came to appreciate voice tech as classroom tools, as well as how they navigate privacy concerns and other criticisms. Interviews, conducted separately last fall, have been edited for clarity and length.

How did you become interested in voice tech?

Dwenger: I've had the Alexa device for the full five years she's been around, for normal home stuff. I have a young son with some language disabilities. One day, I came home and I said, 'hey, let's work on your homework' and he goes, 'I already did it.' I was like, 'how did you do that by yourself?' He told me that when he had a problem and he didn't know what he was trying to do, he just asked Alexa. My lightbulb kind of went off, this has got to have so many awesome uses.

Davis: I started by placing one device in the classroom four years ago for about 15 minutes. At that point, I didn't feel it offered enough intentional integration to add value. As with any emerging tech, things are constantly changing with new options and opportunities to consider, discerning what the strengths are for a product helps to be intentional in its use. For me, the efficiencies it brings through routines, reminders, linking with calendars is beneficial to the teacher. The value of using blueprints to support the actual learning in the classroom is another big strength. The price point to have a device that connects to more information and its availability to everyone in the class is a strength. Lastly, the community aspect of its connectivity is important to me. One can ask it a question for clarity without looking down from the conversation at hand.

[Being an early adopter has] given me a voice into that community that I don't think I otherwise would have had as an educator. A lot of people who created voice skills ask me to pilot them or try them or give them feedback.

What about voice tech appeals to you?

Dwenger: "Really cheap teaching assistant" is the way that I sell teachers on it. After that, they start to see the benefits for the students.

Amazon Alexa Blueprints, Voicelets, Amazon Alexa Routines, and the Ask My Class platform allow for personalization, differentiation, and even student creation opportunities in and outside of the classroom. They allow for educators to easily personalize their Amazon Echo device to meet the needs of their students and parents at home and school. Many of these teacher-created skills provide a simple, engaging way for students to practice skills in order to retain acquired knowledge. Voicelets take it one step further and give the teacher quick feedback that can be used to know if their students have mastered content.

What I like even more about Amazon Alexa Blueprints and other voice skill creation tools like Voiceflow is that they open the possibility of student-created voice skills. Student creation is known in education to show the highest level of academic achievement, especially when solving real world problems. Utilizing a design process, students can identify a problem that can be solved by voice, and design a solution using these tools.

What are the biggest challenges to broader implementation of voice tech?

Davis: The biggest challenge nationwide is the scare about student privacy. Lots of districts refuse to let their teachers use it because they're not convinced that these devices are compliant. For me, we only use the kids' edition Echo Dot because it has come out and said they're COPPA compliant. I created this checklist for teachers to consider and these settings on the device itself are expected for classroom integration. I also share infographics with teachers who want to use the device in their classrooms.

The biggest issue at the school itself is that we started so early in the process of using it that it was truly cutting-edge. Most of what we do is bleeding-edge, somebody's worked out the kinks. Teachers don't have a lot of time. When something doesn't go right, it's really hard to get them to use it. That's been the hardest part for me, convincing them, "I do see that that's a problem, here's a workaround."

How plentiful are resources for teachers who want to start using voice tech?

Davis: There's not a lot out there. I've created a weekly Alexa flash briefing that's also available on Anchor. I've also created some resources on my website, JulieDavisedu.com.

When the iPad first came out, apps first came out, educators had no voice in what was happening. We've got to start helping these skill developers figure out what's best practice.

How do you think about privacy concerns that have been raised by critics of these devices?

Davis: I would love for students to create their own skills and learn how that practice works. I'm not convinced at this point that if I allow them to do it I'm following student privacy guidelines. There are some educators out there that do that, using third-party sites to create those skills.

There is going to be an opportunity for students everywhere to learn how to create these skills for their future. It's more than just learning how to code. It's truly, how do I create a voice skill that can make a difference in the world? If you look at the immersion of voice in the world right now, I think we have to start looking at it in terms of, how do we prepare our students for the world of voice?

I believe that all educators looking at any emerging tech need to do so through a critical lens. There are many attributes of voice assistants that I feel would benefit education but we have chosen not to implement them to keep student privacy concerns in the forefront of implantation. For instance, I would love for the devices to recognize the voices of students that struggle with speech issues but at this point, I choose not to turn that option on...yet. There is a goal of these voice enterprise companies to have these devices store personal information locally. Until that happens, or there is a device specific for educational purposes, educators need to work with what they have been given in a way that makes IT directors and administrators feel comfortable. I believe controlling settings, as well as setting usage expectations for teachers and students creates the opportunity for educators to integrate these devices in a positive way. We are years into these devices being mainstreamed into society and with every update privacy issues are intentionally being addressed. I would urge the naysayers to stay openminded and continually do a risk/benefit analysis on a regular basis. Voice isn't going to just be about assistants but it is soon going to enhance the apps and platforms educators are currently using in a more multi-model approach. I strongly believe educational leaders will need to stay aware of this growing paradigm to make wise decisions forward. 

How quickly is the voice tech market evolving?

Dwenger: When I first started speaking on this three years ago, there were 10,000 skills. Now there are over 100,000. You're hearing it more mainstream. Both Google and Amazon came out with wearables that allow you to connect to that outside of the home. Now I have Echo Auto, Echo glasses, Echo ring. It's happening so quickly.

In my area, it's not being utilized in a way that's for preparing students for the future of work. But that is definitely the ultimate goal when we talk to districts and schools. 


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