How Voice-Enabled Technology is Changing the Contours of Higher Education
It’s no secret that voice-enabled technology is taking off in the domestic sphere, but how is this increasingly robust technology impacting education? To find out, we talked to Marissa Mierow, who leads Alexa Education at Amazon, delivering innovative experiences for both students and developers focused on education technology.
Marissa's passion for education came early in her career when she was producing "edutainment" CD-ROM products for The Learning Company. It grew as she moved to Microsoft, working on various products that touched consumers' lives both in and out of the education sector, including MSN, Encarta and Xbox.
Now, in her role at Amazon, Marissa explains here how the Alexa Education team is creating a connection between school and home by giving students, parents, teachers and administrators a convenient way to access school-related information and content through the power of voice.
EdSurge: Why have we seen such rapid growth in the adoption of voice-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo?
Mierow: Every day we hear stories from customers about how much they love the convenience Alexa brings to their lives—it makes music easier, smart home easier, homes safer. It offers companionship for some and greater accessibility for those with disabilities. And as the world gets more connected, we think about how we can add value—how we can continue to make life more convenient, more productive for customers, while reducing friction and complexity.
Have you seen the same kind of adoption in education? If so, what does that look like?
Higher education institutions, edtechs and learning companies are using Alexa to enhance experiences for students and provide access to information and learning resources in a more convenient way. Last year, we introduced the Alexa Education Skill API, which is a set of interfaces that allow edtech developers—such as those building Learning Management Systems, Student Information Systems, Classroom Management providers and massive open online course platforms—to quickly and easily build voice experiences.
Higher education institutions, edtechs and learning companies are using Alexa to enhance experiences for students.
We’ve been really excited about collaborating with edtech developers—we now have skills available to customers from Kickboard, ParentSquare, Coursera, Blackboard and Canvas. Parents and students 13 and older can request information about school work and assignments directly from Alexa, simply by asking, “Alexa, what did Kaylee do in school today?” or “Alexa, what is my homework tonight?”
In addition to the Education Skills Kit, we’ve also been working with universities and edtechs who are interested in building Alexa skills because of the widespread adoption they are seeing with voice. They really see voice as the next great user interface, just like mobile was in the previous decade, and they want to stay ahead of the curve.
Furthermore, they see Alexa as an interesting way to deepen engagement on campus and make it easier for users to access helpful content, information and products. On campuses like Saint Louis University and Arizona State University, Alexa-enabled devices are being used to create smart campus environments in dorm rooms, libraries, common areas, classrooms and conference rooms. So while we are still in early days, we are seeing some really exciting examples of how education is embracing voice.
How do you see voice-enabled technology changing the contours of education?
Voice is the most natural interface; it is our primary mode of communication. It is also fundamental to a multi-sensory means of education, which research consistently shows aids in students’ ability to comprehend, retain and master concepts. In that regard, one’s voice already plays a huge role in education, and I see voice-enabled technology adding more convenience and more scalability to that learning process.
Voice is the most natural interface; it is our primary mode of communication.
What are the key ingredients of a successful voice-enabled app?
Some of the most popular categories of skills include smart home, games and music. However, developers are finding success with a variety of use cases. Categories like Productivity, Education & Reference and Kids saw triple digit growth in 2019. While there are various factors to consider, we’ve found that many of the skills with the highest customer engagement do a few things well: 1) They solve a customer problem or provide unique value to customers; 2) They are engaging and surprise and delight where possible; 3) They are easy to use and prioritize the voice interaction; and 4) They encourage repeatable use by keeping the experience fresh for customers.
If companies are interested in working with voice, where do they start? How long does it take? Any tips for diving into this space?
The Amazon Alexa developer console is a great place to start! There are many tutorials, design guides and webinars you can take to learn how to build experiences for voice. Or check out what other companies and schools have done to get a sense of what’s possible with Alexa. I would also start by thinking about your customer—who are they, what do you know about them, and what do you want them to accomplish? Lastly, there is no formula or specific timespan required. My advice is to build something simple first, test it with a cohort of your target customers and then improve upon it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes the first time—just learn, improve and expand your skill over time.