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What's NECXT: Voice Technology in Higher Education

Ryan Tepperman, Digital Marketing Manager

It’s no secret by now that voice technology is on the rise, and that’s especially true with younger generations. About 70% of students reported that they use it at least once a month for day-to-day activities like asking about the weather or turning on music, according to an internal Emerson College survey. In recent years, voice technology has found its way into university classrooms as well.

Given that humans remember about 20% of what we hear compared to only 10% of what we read, voice technology has some exciting potential for the educational sector.

Simplifying life on campus

University life can often be stressful. On top of exams, projects, and research papers, important information about the university and the campus tend to be spread across multiple sources. But virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri can help students get to know their campus and navigate it with ease during the school year.

Students can use Alexa to find opening hours of different departments, office hours of professors, the nearest open restaurant, or ask for directions to their desired destination on campus. Alexa can also help find and book available meeting rooms for projects and studying.

These might seem like small improvements, but over time, facilitating such searches makes students’ lives easier and less stressful. A real-life example occurred at Saint Louis University in 2017, when the school equipped its newest dorm with 2500 Echo Dots. The program started with around 100 university-related questions, and it has since grown to over 200 thanks to students’ suggestions.

Making education accessible to everyone

Voice technology can also make university life more accessible for students with disabilities because it removes the need to interact with screens and keyboards. Students with dyslexia, for example, can ask for material to be read out loud to them. Voice assistants can also help students with studying by asking questions about small passages in the syllabus. 

Students who struggle with physical disabilities can become more independent with voice technology as it can help with giving directions, identifying wheelchair-accessible entrances, and providing a detailed description of surroundings.

Voice technology has even reinvented note taking. For students who have trouble with writing, special software has been developed that textually stores all verbal communications during lectures.

Classroom support for professors

The note-taking software is not only useful for students. It also helps professors with their day-to-day tasks, as stored lecture transcripts can be used by professors to review student participation, keep up to date with lecture plans, and more.

Also, with Amazon Echos installed in every classroom, professors can streamline the practical parts of teaching a lecture. Alexa can be programmed to turn on equipment, adjust lights and temperature, and start different parts of a lecture, which saves professors valuable time.

Preparing students for the future

Much like Saint Louis University, Arizona State University also chose to provide a portion of their students with an Amazon Echo to enhance their university experience. The university has, however, decided to take it one step further. 

In partnership with Amazon, ASU launched three different courses for undergraduate engineering students, where the focus is on voice-user interface development. In these courses, students are provided with application program interfaces, tools, documentation, and code examples necessary to build Alexa Skills.

The main goal of the courses is to integrate emerging technologies into university syllabi and make students familiar with it, something that will hopefully inspire them to contribute to the existing pool of university-related Skills.

Future application and privacy concerns

Now that Amazon Echos are already in dorms and classrooms, universities are thinking about further applications of voice technology – including the personalization of information that students can access through Amazon Echo.

Ideally, students would be able to access their class schedule, financial aid status, and grades by simply asking Alexa a question. But with multiple students sharing one Echo device, how do you go about making sure the information does not end up in the wrong hands? A best practice is to authorize and then authenticate a particular user. There are many different ways to do this, but universities would have to be intentional about it.

There is also the concern of Alexa storing transcripts and voice memos of everything its users say, where Amazon manually reviews a small part and uses it to improve the voice assistant. In the setting of a home, users can set the recordings to be deleted after a certain amount of time. They can also decide if they want their recordings to be used for future Alexa training. But how does this apply to a university setting? These challenges need to be addressed before voice technology can extend beyond its current practical use.