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Teacher Tips: How to Incorporate the Alexa Voice Assistant in Your Classroom

Thursday, October 5, 2017 -- Scott Sterling

One of the fastest-growing areas of technology is in voice control, specifically in “virtual assistants” like Amazon Alexa. While we aren’t quite yet at the Star Trek level—where people hardly have to do or touch anything to perform tasks—these friendly voices are capable of a surprising number of tasks, including some that can make your classroom more efficient and more fun!

For now, at least, Alexa has the lead over Apple Siri in terms of functionality because not only does it handle common tasks like setting a timer or giving the weather outside, but it also has thousands of “skills” available through its companion app. Think of these as additional software features that can be used to provide more functions. Ready to embrace the age of artificial intelligence? Here are four ways to make the Alexa voice service a meaningful part of your classroom:

As a reference assistant

Do you find yourself looking up things on the Internet during a lesson based on a question you or a student have about the topic? If the answer is fairly straightforward—like a date, the name of a person or place, or another hard fact—Alexa can handle it. For example, maybe you’re talking about Shakespeare but forgot how many sonnets he wrote. Ask the assistant, and you will get the answer (154, if you’re curious). Alexa even has more than one skill to read the sonnets to you. And, if you’re a STEM teacher, have no fear—Alexa has brushed up on science facts and mastered basic arithmetic.

As a reading assistant

Returning to the topic of reading, Alexa’s capabilities go beyond sonnets. Amazon owns Audible, the leading audiobook subscription service. If you or your school has a subscription, Alexa can be used to play audiobooks through the speaker of the device. The technology can “read” other texts as well, including e-books for Kindle readers in your account, but the voice may not sound as smooth or natural as a voice actor.

As a randomization assistant

Teachers often suggest randomizing the pattern in which you call on students to answer questions; otherwise it’s easy to fall into the habit of calling on the same students. Alexa can help with that. Not only does Alexa play rock-paper-scissors and flip a coin, but Alexa can also call out random numbers between a range. Just assign each student a number and Alexa can make the selection for you; I can almost guarantee that your students will find that process more exciting than pulling Popsicle sticks or other traditional randomization methods.

As a bell-ringer assistant

Alexa has two interesting commands (and many more skills) that can be leveraged as the basis for regular warm-up activities: random fact and tell me a story. Ask Alexa for a random fact, and have your students write about it. Alexa can also tell your class a short story, like a folktale or fairy tale. Ask students to interpret the story with a drawing or short reaction or response essay.

Voice-service technology offers exciting possibilities, and new skills are being developed for Alexa all of the time by engineers (or even teachers) who see a need for more functionality. Keep checking the service for updates, and decide when the time is right for you to add Alexa (or another virtual assistant) to your class roster. In the meantime, make your classroom even more tech savvy with these 21 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Educators!