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Smart speakers are invading Higher Education internationally

A version of this post was originally published on October 23, 2019 in Education Technology.

We live in a smart world. Our cars are smart, our watches are smart, our phones are smart, and even our fridges are the same. Smart technology is constantly evolving and it truly was a matter of time until voice was added to the mix. Smart speakers are slowly conquering the world.

Americans have been the first to adopt smart speakers, with players like Amazon Echo Dot, Google Home or Apple HomePod — and their respective voices, Alexa, Cortana and Siri — sharing the market. Europe, Asia, and even Australia also show interest.

But even though smart speakers are bought mainly to make people’s lives easier when they’re at home, dubbing as the virtual personal assistant every busy person wants, the most interesting thing about them is that they started to penetrate another aspect of our lives: education. From kindergarten to college, smart speakers are finding their place in educational institutions.

Read more: Exploring the most popular smart speakers for the classroom

Privacy concerns aside, voice-activated technology does have the potential to change many things for the better across classrooms, for students of all ages. If the K-12 sector is understandably more reluctant (although there’s no lack of promoters there as well), higher education seems more willing to give it a try, on a higher level.

Smart speakers are invading Higher Ed internationally

American universities lead the way, unsurprisingly. There's a growing number of examples that introduce hundreds or even thousands of smart speakers across campuses, with interesting results.

Saint Louis University was the first to introduce Alexa-enabled devices into their students’ residence halls and apartments on campus — more than 2300 Echo Dots, for each of their students.The smart devices can answer more than 200 different questions students may have about events happening on campus, organizations they could join, buildings they need to find homework details, and many other aspects of student life.

Arizona State University is another early adopter of smart speakers on campus, with more than 1600 devices. Their students can Ask ASU about university events, the academic calendar and other things. Students from Northeastern University have their Husky Helper to help them tackle campus specific challenges, while those from Oklahoma University turn to their OU Directory and OU Facts.

It was only a matter of time until the enthusiasm about smart speakers in higher ed campuses materialized in other parts of the world. The Lancaster University is leading the way in the UK, with their Ask L.U. chatbot; they call it a “digital friend and companion for university students, with its own unique personality”, hoping it will become a valuable and integral part of student life.

More universities follow through

Generally, the student response to the idea of having a voice-activated personal assistant to help them with the administrative intricacies of campus life has been positive. By using these smart devices on a daily basis they do develop some skills (or at least familiarity with this type of technology) that might be very useful in their later adult life.

But when students are actually involved in the development of the apps and Alexa skills their universities are using, there are multi-fold benefits:

  • Students are enabled to make an impact in the rather new field of conversational AI;
  • Universities deliver work-ready graduates in that field;
  • Companies that activate in speech recognition and conversational AI get a significant pool of qualified candidates for their job openings.

And that is what the Amazon Alexa Fellowship is all about.

If in 2017 the Fellowship included only four universities, the number has gone up to 18 now. The majority of them are American, but the program is not limited to the US. It includes the University of Sheffield and the University of Cambridge in the UK, the University of Waterloo in Canada and the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India.

Even though not all students from these universities will get a smart speaker, the program makes clear steps towards making such devices more common in higher education internationally.

What next?

The future is, of course, unpredictable. The use of smart speakers in universities across the world might become as ubiquitous as the use of smartphones is right now. Considering that China is another significant player in terms of creating and owning such devices, or that Australia also shows increased interest in them, perhaps universities there might join this current as well. Time will tell.

Until then, one thing is sure: voice-activated technology will continue to develop.