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Tapping into the potential of AI smart speakers to boost parental engagement

A version of this post was originally published in Teach Secondary Magazine, July 2019.

Whether you love it or hate it, technology is here to stay — and continuously change our lives. Smartphones are sometimes smarter than their owners and the idea of people going to Mars moved away from sci-fi novels and into the realm of things that might happen in the not so distant future. Technological advancements made possible things people from just a few generations ago wouldn't even consider dreaming about.

The internet connected not just every computer in the world; it connected people as well. We have stepped seamlessly into a world called the Internet of Things — a world of interconnected software and human interaction. More and more people now use virtual assistants in the form of smart speakers and their AI-powered software in an increasing number of aspects of their daily lives. Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana or Facebook's M are just a few of the most notable such technologies.

These virtual assistants can provide instant answers to questions as simple as “How's the weather?” to others that are far more complex — all without any effort from the part of people: no typing, no clicking, no tapping; just speaking. Besides acting as an audio search engine, such tech can be used to order pizza, dim the lights around the house, playing music, and so on. At home, at work, and even at school, people rely on Alexa, Siri and the like to make their lives easier.

Smart speakers in education

Even though not yet mainstream, artificially intelligent smart speakers have found a place in the classroom. Higher Education got a head start, as HE students are more self-directed and more likely to understand the underlying impact that such technology can have on the learning experience. A collaboration between Arizona State University and Amazon Alexa made headlines less than two years ago, as they implemented a first-of-its-kind immersive voice technology program on a university campus. Soon after more such initiatives followed through.

Teachers of smaller grades are catching up with using voice technology in the classroom, proposing new and creative ways to put it to good use. There's a general enthusiasm among teachers who adopt digital voice assistants and smart speakers in their classroom activities:

I absolutely loved using it! She was like another person in our class.

said Erin Ermis, a fifth grade teacher at an elementary school in Wisconsin, regarding her experiences with Alexa-powered devices in her classroom, at ISTE just last year.

What's more, educators can break down classroom and time barriers by using such technology to reach out to parents, nurture better relationships with them, and keep them more involved in their children's school performance.

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

Using smart speakers to boost parental engagement

We're all very much aware of how busy the average day of a teacher is. That of a headteacher may be even more so. But parents are ultimately the ones to win the “Always Busy” trophy, as parenting is in itself a job that never ends and must be performed at all times regardless of the demands from the official jobs parents may hold. Artificially intelligent smart speakers have the potential of making everyone a little less busy.

According to The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research from 2018, more than two in 10 American consumers own an Amazon Echo. Google Home devices also have their share of the market.

One of the reasons that makes people invest in such devices is the ability to keep their children entertained at home. Kids can play songs, win or lose arguments, inevitably learn new things — all while practicing their pronunciation and enunciation skills.

Parents can actually extend the utility of a smart speaker at home to include more aspects of their children's school activities:

  • They can listen to daily or weekly updates from school created by each teacher for each student (in case there are more children in the household). The teacher records the update, while parents listen to it — at a time most convenient for both parties.
  • Parents could also access the school calendar through their smart speaker at home and check or get reminders of any upcoming events their kids will be involved in. This will dramatically reduce the number of missed games or forgotten costumes for plays.
  • Another thing they would be able to do is to monitor their child's homework either through connecting the smart speaker to their LMS parent account or accessing directly the audio comments from the teacher.
  • Lastly, smart speakers make it easier for parents to be more in the know regarding various aspects of their children's school activities and use the face-to-face time during PTA meetings to discuss more in-depth issues with teachers.

Smart speakers and digital voice assistants can be a great way to better connect parents with what happens at school as long as both the teachers and the parents do their part.

Is this too good to be true?

You know Murphy's Law: if something is too good to be true, it probably is. The biggest problem with this technology is that it is not yet mainstream. Not everyone has a smart speaker at home and not every classroom has one either. The trend is toward falling prices and increased adoption, but we're still years away from smart speakers being everywhere.

Another issue with this technology is of course related to privacy. We just can't put our trust in a device that records everything people around it say, not least when it comes to personal information about our children. Amazon has taken a step towards addressing these concerns by launching the Echo Dot Kids Edition, which includes features like parental control, deciphering kids speak and more — all with younger years in mind.

Considering how far we've come and how fast we advance in using technology in every aspect of our daily lives, who knows what role smart speakers will play in just a few years time? In case of their wide adoption in education, I hope you will find useful the ideas presented above about how to use them in the classroom, as well as to boost parental engagement.