What Google and Amazon Mean for the Future of the Classroom

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The availability of new virtual assistant and smart device technology for homes has exploded recently. When Apple’s Siri first launched over seven years ago in October of 2011 with the iPhone 4s, it was not yet clear whether the concept of a voice-activated virtual assistant would last or if it was fated to become a passing trend. Now, with easy-to-use IoT devices being released in droves, virtual assistants can do more than ever and appear to be here to stay.

Could these devices help teachers in the classroom too?

A professional development session titled “Snap1A: Introducing Alexa Teaching Assistant” was held by two fifth grade teachers at last year’s International Society for Education Technology conference, making it clear that smart assistants can in fact be used in the classroom. The session centered around ways that teachers can use Alexa in small-group and whole-class settings.

Voice-activated smart assistants including Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri can help busy teachers in a number of ways. Teachers have begun to use smart assistants to perform simple tasks, like setting reminders to dismiss certain students from the classroom or take a medication, and have also developed some more creative uses for the technology.

Some have set up smart assistants as a reference resource that students can use to get answers to simple questions or self-check their work without needing to ask the teacher. They can also be used as a proxy native speaking and listening partner for students learning to converse in a foreign language, or even read aloud to students, allowing the teacher to attend to other needs.

One major benefit to using these devices is that they permit hands-free task performance, allowing teachers to do things like start playing a video or set a timer without taking their eyes off students to fumble with a keyboard or touch screen. They are easy to set up and operate, even for teachers who might not consider themselves tech-savvy.

In more advanced applications, they can be used to integrate with technologies that a teacher already uses, like Google Docs, to track data via applets in IFTTT. New applications are always being developed as companies find ways for their existing products to integrate with smart assistants.

Of course, using these tools in the classroom is not without its drawbacks.

As EdWeek points out, Amazon and Google’s basic business model is to collect data on its users to build profiles, potentially violating students’ rights to privacy if they are always turned on in the classroom. Interactions with the assistant are recorded and shared with parent companies through cloud storage, and though they are not constantly recording, their microphones may be “woken up” by mistake during normal conversations. A classroom full of chatter could lead to inappropriate recordings of students’ private information being stored, which may later become accessible to other users of the device, or even to hackers or law enforcement professionals. Teachers should consider informing parents if they plan to use smart assistants in the classroom or putting them away when they are not actively being used for an activity.

According to EdTech Magazine, startup n-Powered sidestepped privacy pitfalls when developing Northeastern university’s pilot smart assistant program Husky Helper, a customized Amazon Echo Dot program, by encrypting all student data and not allowing it to be shared with third parties. Students may choose not to share select information with Husky Helper or to opt out of the program altogether.

With a bit of foresight, teachers can safely use smart assistants to be more effective at what they do every day.

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