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Alexa goes to uni: how smart speakers found their place in HE

Higher education (HE) institutions are always looking to adapt to change. In fact, the most successful of them show the ability to prepare students for the uncertain future. In the age of artificial intelligence, HE needs to demonstrate now more than ever that it can create valuable learning experiences for students. At the same time, HE also faces unique challenges such as making life easier for a large number of students, campus organization, and better communication between departments.

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HE organizations are also trying to attract more students. In turn, class sizes are expanding and so are the costs associated with offering high quality programs. Some organizations have already started testing different solutions. Among them, are voice assistants that can be used during lectures or that function as personal assistants for students.

How smart speakers found their place in HE

In fact, schools are starting to explore the possibilities of using smart speakers in the classroom and HE institutions are taking it a bit further by installing them in common areas or dorm rooms.

For example,

  • Northeastern University uses Amazon Echo devices to deliver information such as FAQs, academic advising, housing, the university library and admissions. They also plan to offer even more personalized information this upcoming semester.
  • Saint Louis University has taken it even further by installing 2,300 devices.
  • Arizona State has also seen an opportunity to offer a voice technology engineering program, in which undergraduate students can take voice development lessons based on the university’s partnership with Amazon. ASU representatives believe that students should have the skills needed for jobs that involve using AI in one way or another.

Higher education needs to rise to the challenge to prepare students for the AI revolution and equip students with the necessary skill sets to compete in the AI age. (source)

4 Great benefits of using smart speakers in HE

The use of smart speakers in university campuses is meant to support both staff and students as they deal with many challenges: organization, scheduling conflicts, long queues at the registrar’s office, and so on. Here is what virtual assistants in the form of smart speakers can do to ease the sometimes stressful HE experience:

  1. Increase student productivity

    HE institutions believe that decreasing cognitive load will allow students to focus on more important things. For example, instead of searching online for information about a campus event, they can get the answer quickly by asking the assistant. They can make more of their time by working on an assignment or a more creative task.

    Students can use the assistant for setting timers when studying, adding reminders, playing music, and more. They also have easier access to practical information such as the opening hours of various campus locations.

    Voice-enabled technology also helps students with disabilities as they can use the assistant for information and generally be more connected to campus life.

    Read more: How AI is changing special education

  2. Organize campus life

    With thousands of enrollments per year, managing a HE institution is no easy task. In fact, one of the biggest challenges that IT and administration departments face is the lack of communication between multiple information systems.

    A virtual assistant benefits both students and faculty as they work less on providing information and answering the same questions from students. For example, a student might want to take an elective class. The assistant can provide them with a list of classes to choose from. Even more, AI can help universities with all processes, including student admissions.

    Voice assisted technology is also meant to make it easier for students to find their way through campus, decide which courses to enroll in, which clubs to join, receive information about available medical services, or choose events to attend. In turn, they will be more engaged from the beginning.

  3. Prepare students for the AI revolution

    John Rome, deputy CIO at Arizona State University, has stated that offering the opportunity for students to learn more about AI means preparing them for the future. Engineering students have already started building skills for Alexa, which basically means that universities can input their own content. It also means that the AI learns more and more information and will become better at helping students in the process.

    Universities are looking for ways to stay relevant and prepare for the upcoming AI revolution. As some jobs will become obsolete, we might see a change in how universities approach the learning process, including making more use of AI to personalize learning.

  4. Personalize the HE experience

    Universities also see an opportunity to offer personalized information for each student with the help of Alexa and other voice assistants. This would mean that students can inquire about the status of their tuition fee payments, student loans, grades, class schedule, and more. The device might also be able act as a professor's assistant and answer questions about particular classes.

    Read more: 4 Ways AI will be a great teaching assistant

    However, personalization means making more use of student data, which raises privacy concerns. HE organizations need to implement multi-step authentication methods to protect student data, especially as it can be misused by third parties and/or other unauthorised persons.


Is this just the beginning? The answer might be yes or no, depending on who you are asking. There is a lot of potential for virtual assistants helping students and staff solve major challenges in their HE journeys. Assistants will also learn and become more useful as a result, but it remains to be seen if smart speakers will be a staple or just one of the many ways in which HE organizations will use AI to drive change and innovation.