Contest Winners Aim to Transform Education Through Voice Technology with Amazon Alexa

May 21, 2020

Recently, we profiled the six finalists competing for the top prize in the Amazon Alexa EdTech Skills Challenge, each hoping to transform education with their new Alexa skill. Now, the votes have been tallied, the judges have made their decisions, and the results are finally in!

For their cutting-edge use of voice technology, SayKid captures the Judge’s Choice award, worth $50,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and VOGO Voice takes home the People’s Choice award, a prize of $25,000 in AWS Promotional Credit. All other finalists receive $10,000 in AWS Promotional Credit.

Voice creates an opportunity for students to engage authentically and to build compelling experiences in line with proven cognitive science research.
- Michael B. Horn

Launched by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and SXSW EDU in July 2019, the Challenge called on developers to create innovative Alexa skills to improve education. Edtech companies across the U.S. answered with exciting ways to leverage voice technology to strengthen student learning, boost accessibility and foster stronger home-school connections.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the big opportunities I saw and the encouraging level of early development that could have a real impact in education,” says Michael B. Horn, a leading education innovator and one of the competition’s judges. “It leaves me optimistic that the educational opportunities are more than I’d expected from this medium.”

Part of a panel of expert judges, Horn brings 15 years of experience guiding and advising edtech startups on principles of instructional design and learning engineering. The judges assessed each finalist’s innovation, paying special attention to whether an idea was likely to stick and, therefore, make a lasting impact in the field.

“The authenticity and deep research base of a few of the skills were notable and can create some really engaging learning experiences that tie neatly into students’ motivations to learn,” he explained. The finalists that ultimately rose to the top successfully integrated research-based best practices and voice technology to improve learning experiences.

“All too often, educational apps overload students' working memory with visual and audio elements at the same time. Voice creates an opportunity for students to engage authentically and to build compelling experiences in line with proven cognitive science research,” Horn adds. “I'm hopeful that this group of skills will inspire more entrepreneurs, educators and researchers to work together to create experiences that engage learners.”

EdSurge spoke with SayKid and VOGO Voice to hear about their Challenge experiences firsthand and to learn what’s next for the big winners.

Judge's Choice Winner: SayKid

“SayKid entered the Challenge to show the world that Alexa has the potential to be a voice for change,” says DeLonn Crosby, co-founder and CEO of SayKid.

“Many people don’t realize this, but the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of early childhood education enrollment in the world. Effectively, we don’t have a practical way to reach kids where they’re at—which is often at home and without a screen,” he says. Through voice-led, screenless, play-based learning, SayKid encourages children to learn in a safe, natural and engaging way.

The Letter Game skill they created supports early childhood literacy through fun conversations. Designed specifically for early learners, the skill combines the strengths of voice technology with research-based best practices on early childhood literacy and tangible play.

Participating in the Challenge allowed them to get feedback that will help further develop their product. “There’s a misconception that speech technology has to be perfect for it to be extremely beneficial. We discovered that kids have very low expectations. If there was ever a misunderstood letter, kids didn’t get frustrated or discouraged,” explains Crosby. “They’re building early literacy skills, but the experience is also about tangible and imaginative play.”

SayKid entered the Challenge to show the world that Alexa has the potential to be a voice for change.
- DeLonn Crosby

“Naturally, understanding children is very different from understanding adults. Moreover, understanding and pronouncing specific parts of words (like letters and phonemes) is a much harder technical challenge than just words and phrases. After developing various approaches to better understand children's vocal tracts and speech patterns, we decided to add letter sounds and blends (combining letters to produce a sound) to support a broader assortment of early literacy skills,” explains Crosby.

Igniting a passion for learning through play is a central value that shapes the development of their product. Another motivating factor for SayKid is to build technology that brings families closer. “We heard feedback of siblings playing together when they’d normally be fighting and even parents playing the Letter Game as they would a board game with their kids. The insight here is that when you force kids to learn, it feels like work, but if we let them play, they want to learn,” Crosby says.

The team at SayKid is honored by the Challenge win and national recognition and humbled by the overwhelming support they’ve received from the larger voice, edtech and educator communities. They plan to use this momentum and their AWS Promotional Credit to increase their support for families, particularly during this difficult time.

“We weren’t planning to launch to consumers until later this year, but given the incredible strain that COVID-19 has put on the entire education system and families everywhere, we’re accelerating our production schedule and making our screen-less, play-based learning platform available to consumers now on the SayKid website,” says Crosby.

When asked his advice for other entrepreneurs interested in developing voice edtech, Crosby’s answer is clear: “Start with the problem you’re trying to solve, not the technology—and that is especially important in education.”

People’s Choice Winner: VOGO Voice

VOGO Voice was able to develop and build out their skill quickly, including many critical rounds of testing and iteration to catch issues early on. This allowed them to improve their concept before publishing, making their skill more responsive and relevant to users.

As all contestants were required to submit an idea for approval before any development work could begin, timing itself was a big factor. “We saw the Challenge as a way to test and prove that our company could get a complex skill built and published in a very short time,” explains John Thompson, Operations Manager at VOGO Voice. “When we began, all we had was a concept document; we hadn’t done any development prior to getting selected.”

Kids Decisions is an interactive, story-based social-emotional learning (SEL) experience designed to help students in grades K-5 develop critical thinking, empathy and decision-making skills. Journeying through character-developing stories with narrator Ember the dragon, children learn to be more socially aware by exploring choices and their outcomes. Parents and teachers can also easily contribute to the Alexa-driven storytelling by adding lessons through an accompanying website.

We learned it’s best to partner with experts in the educational field for content creation.
- John Thompson

VOGO Voice had a great experience participating in the Challenge and learned a lot about developing a skill for edtech. “We found early on in our efforts that many assumptions we’d made around content were incorrect, and we needed to explore and test these assumptions more thoroughly,” Thompson explains. While their skill performed well, they had to learn how to successfully develop and manage the SEL portion of their creation. “We learned it’s best to partner with experts in the educational field for content creation, but it also reaffirmed our understanding that there is value in the product we built,” says Thompson.

VOGO Voice considers the People’s Choice award a huge accomplishment. “The AWS Promotional Credit will allow us to continue developing our product roadmap for Kids Decisions and also explore niche offerings of the skill for specific use cases without the worry of infrastructure costs,” says Thompson. Their plan for now is to continue to grow and engage with community content contributors while also looking for learning company partnerships to expand their offerings.

Thompson’s advice for other builders and entrepreneurs interested in developing for voice experiences echoes the sentiment of the Judge's Choice winner: Do your research before you begin. “Building an Alexa skill can be hard on your own when working with dynamic content. We encourage others to learn about all the resources out there before diving in,” he cautions. “It’s also really important to test early with the interactions to make sure you are addressing the pain points of your user base.”


Watch the 2020 Amazon Alexa EdTech Skills Challenge Event Recap.


Learn more about how AWS helps edtechs broaden their reach, deepen user engagement and support student learning with solutions like Amazon Alexa and AI/ML.


Other news