Teaching with Amazon Alexa
Alexa is a voice-activated, cloud-based virtual assistant, similar to Siri on Apple devices, or Google Assistant. Alexa is an umbrella name for the cloud-based functionality that responds to verbal commands. Alexa uses artificial intelligence to answer questions or control smart devices, and has a range of “skills” — small programs that you can add to increase Alexa’s capabilities.
Like most other Amazon features and products, Alexa is primarily designed for home use, anticipating that users will be household members. While there are certainly a number of uses for Alexa in a classroom, keeping this in mind helps find the best ways for educational uses, while keeping students privacy and safety in mind.
Alexa is most often accessed in three ways:
- Smart speakers – Echo or Echo Dot devices are small stand-alone speakers that listen for Alexa commands and respond to your requests.
- Smart displays – Echo Show and Echo Spot incorporate video displays.
- Smart devices – Other devices such as Amazon’s Fire tablets or Fire TV that allow you to use Alexa commands to control them.
The Echo was the first Alexa-enabled smart speaker from Amazon. Today, there are several versions of the Echo that you might consider, and Amazon continues to expand the options. All Echos offer the same Alexa voice capability, with most of the differences in the Echo lineup due to the quality of the speaker and the ability to control smart home devices. The better the speaker, the bigger the device and the higher the price tag. The Echo Dot, which is about the size of a hockey puck, and Echo Flex, which plugs into the wall, are the smallest, with speakers that are adequate, but are not going to impress with sound quality.
The Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Studio all easily fit on a desk, and offer increasing sound quality at increasing prices. The Echo Plus and higher priced models add a built-in Zigbee controller, meaning you can control compatible smart home devices.
Alexa Smart Displays
The Echo Show line of devices add video capability to the baseline Alexa device.
These devices offer an easy way to do video calling, including Skype, and connect to other apps like Spotify, Amazon Photos, and more. You can subscribe to TV shows and other channels of video entertainment, and many Alexa Smart Devices come with introductory subscriptions to different channels and services.
How Alexa works
When you say “Alexa” – your Alexa-powered device automatically starts listening to whatever is said next and starts recording. This recording is sent over the internet to Amazon servers which use Artificial Intelligence to understand what has been said. If the recorded message is understood, Alexa responds with information or performs the requested task. If it doesn’t understand, it will respond with something like, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” or “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”
The default setting is that these recordings are saved on Amazon servers. Amazon uses them to improve the AI and responsiveness of Alexa. You can access these recordings, delete them, or turn off the feature completely.
What can Alexa do?
Alexa has a number of basic capabilities without adding any skills, and many of these may be useful in the classroom.
- Play music – You can set music to play, ask for specific songs, or play from a playlist. You can play background music, or even white noise.
- Timers, alarms, and reminders – You can ask Alexa to set a countdown timer, or a recurring alarm for the same time every day. Reminders add voice, you can ask Alexa to remind you to feed the class hamster at the same time every day. These can be set in the app or by voice.
- Random – Alexa can give you a random number between two numbers, or you can ask Alexa to roll a die (or even two dice), so it could be used for choosing students or as the dice for a game.
- Quick math – Ask Alexa to solve problems without getting out a calculator or using the internet. Alexa can also do things like convert currency, tell you what time it will be in 24 minutes, and many other simple calculations.
- Words – Alexa can spell out words, give definitions, synonyms and more. It is not perfect with homonyms, for example if you say, “Alexa, spell write” it will respond with R-I-G-H-T.
- Fast facts – If you need to know the capital of Korea, you can simply ask Alexa, who not only knows the answer, but gives you the correct answer for both North and South Korea. It knows things like capitals, population, distances between cities, science facts, and can read Wikipedia entries out loud. Just say, “Alexa, wikipedia: topic”
- Weather, time zones – Alexa can tell you what the weather is anywhere in the world now or in the future, and tell you what time it is in most cities.
- Fun and games – Alexa can tell jokes and has some funny built in responses if you ask things like, “Alexa, how are you today?”
- Reading aloud – Alexa can read aloud books in your Kindle library, even if you haven’t purchased an audio version. It uses text to speech technology so the reading is somewhat mechanical, but it is free.
- Volume control – You can ask Alexa to turn the volume up or down, or stop whatever audio is playing.
- Control smart home products – If you have the right devices, Alexa can control home automation products like smart lights and thermostats.
Alexa-enabled devices have a simple setup mode that starts when you plug them in. For most devices, you will need to download the Alexa app to complete the setup and connect your device to a wifi network. Follow the specific directions for your device and Alexa will announce that it is ready to listen to your commands. Devices that have displays will allow you to complete the setup without an app.
Alexa features are tied to one specific Amazon account. It will use this account for all shopping, purchases, location information, and more. Think carefully about the need to have a separate Amazon account for school vs. your own personal account.
If you are using Alexa in a classroom, one of the first things you should do is turn off the shopping capability of Alexa, called “Voice Purchasing.” Since Alexa is typically used in a home setting, one of the things it does best is allow you to purchase products through Amazon simply by asking it to. Voice Purchasing is enabled by default so this should be part of the initial setup you do, since this is something you don’t want happening in your classroom!
The Alexa app is the control center for Alexa and Alexa devices. You can download it from your phone’s app store. All settings are accessible from the app, so you will want to explore those settings to make sure every Alexa device is configured properly. The app also allows you to perform almost all functions that the voice-activation commands allow, so if it’s easier for you to look at menus instead of talking to a device, you can use the app. It’s much easier to discover and enable new skills on the app.
There are two aspects of purchasing to consider:
Voice purchasing – You can turn off voice purchasing for products found on Amazon through the app settings. However, this still allows items to be added to your shopping cart. You can also control voice purchasing by setting a PIN code. This allows you to purchase items by saying a preset four digit code. This code will only be accepted from a voice that you have trained Alexa to recognize, which should prevent someone from simply overhearing your code and trying to buy things without you authorizing it.
In-skill purchases – Some skills offer enhancements that cost money. For example, the Disney story skill has a few free stories, but if you want more, they cost money. You can configure the “Kid Skill Purchasing” in the app settings. This will let you completely turn off purchases in Kid Skills, or you can set it to send a text or email to you to approve requested purchases.
Skills are added capabilities that enhance Alexa. There are thousands of skills in the Amazon Alexa Skill store, accessed on the app or via the Amazon website. Skills range from serious to silly, and while many are free, others cost money or have features that you can purchase. Some skills enhance the native capabilities of Alexa. For example, a basic Alexa capability is that it can set a timer or tell you the time, but there are skills you can enable that have more capabilities, such as a countdown timer that has the sound of a rocket blasting off at the end.
It is important to read the descriptions of skills and any reviews. Skills are created by external developers, just like phone apps, and their quality varies widely. If you don’t like a skill you’ve enabled, you can just disable it.
- Quizzes – There are many quizzes, trivia games, spelling bee, or flashcard type of test skills.
- Music & Podcasts – Alexa can play music from your Amazon Music Library, but many music providers and streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, and others allow you to tap into your existing music or podcast accounts. There are also speciality music sound skills like white noise or relaxing sounds.
- News, weather, and radio – There are skills developed by a wide variety of news organizations that increase Alexa’s ability to read headlines or get weather alerts. Radio stations are also streaming through Alexa skills. Alexa allows you to define a “Flash Briefing” that will customize your news sources.
- Stories – there are many skills that offer stories read out loud for kids, including interactive or “choose your own” stories, or stories that allow you to customize aspects such as inserting your own name into a story.
Check these carefully for inappropriate content warnings, some skills say they are for “Mature” audiences, but many have no information. Some say they have “dynamic content” which means that the developer can add content at any time. You also can’t search Amazon skills for these kinds of ratings which is not very useful.
Blueprints – Make your own Skills
Create your own skills with Blueprints. Use the Amazon Blueprint site or the Alexa app to make your own skills that can be accessed through any Alexa device, or even shared with others. To make a Blueprint, select one of the templates and start to customize it. For example if you wanted to make a skill that randomly chooses a student name, you would start with the “Whose Turn” template. This template could also be used for playing a game, or randomly choosing who has to take out the trash, or other choices. You can then add custom names to the template, add sound effects and custom responses, and then name your new Blueprint something like “Random Student Third Period.”
When you are done, Alexa will create a new skill that you can use on any of your devices. You can also publish it to the Alexa Skills Store, although if you use student names, you may not want to do that. You can use the “Share” button to share a link to your new skill with others.
If you are using FreeTime, you will have to go to the FreeTime settings in the app, or to the Parent Control panel online to share the new skill with a child’s profile.
Managing Kid-Friendly Alexa Features
You can purchase cute “Kids Edition” versions of the Alexa products, with pre-set parental control features, but all Alexa devices have features created with kids in mind.
Some of these can be a little confusing because the features overlap, and there are multiple ways to access the settings. For example, there is a stand alone FreeTime app, but also a Parent Dashboard. You can turn off voice purchasing via the app settings, but FreeTime does it automatically. Once you get your device set up, you should be able to leave it alone.
Kid skills are skills that have been identified by the developer as having been designed for children under age 13. Kid skills require permission from a parent before they can be used. You’ll be asked to give permission the first time you attempt to use a kid skill. After you’ve given permission, you will receive a confirmation e-mail.
Now, just because a developer says that a skill is for children under 13, that doesn’t mean you will always agree. Check the skills in action to make sure they are appropriate for your students.
Kid skills may offer digital products for sale that can be accessed or used within the skill, such as additional stories or trivia questions. You can manage your voice purchasing settings for kid skills in your Alexa app. If you’ve turned off voice purchasing, no one will be able to purchase these skill add-ons.
FreeTime mode changes Alexa capabilities to be more aware that kids may be listening. You can set up FreeTime on most Echos and Fire tablets. When you enable FreeTime on Alexa, Alexa will play music or movies, answer questions, read stories, tell jokes, and more with younger ears in mind. It will block searches it deems inappropriate, and will not play music with explicit lyrics. Voice purchasing is automatically turned off and Alexa Communication is limited to only within the household or with contacts you select.
You can set up and manage FreeTime in the app settings, or the Amazon Parent Dashboard, which also allows parents to see their child’s FreeTime on Alexa activity, including which skills their child has used.
FreeTime works by adding a child profile to your Amazon account. Amazon accounts let you define a “household” with up to two adults, four child accounts, and four teen accounts, each with different settings. Things you can customize include the child’s age (to limit content with age ratings), limit time allowed on the device, limit the ability to make and receive calls, and more.
For a classroom, it will not be possible to have a profile for every student, so it is more practical to just create a single child account with a fake name. You can then add skills and set controls for that child account that are consistent with all classroom use. Be aware that a device either has FreeTime activated or not. You cannot switch between a child account and an adult account, so if you activate FreeTime, you may not be able to access some Alexa features. To go back to an adult account you will have to go into settings and turn FreeTime off.
There is also a paid version of FreeTime called FreeTime Unlimited, that gives the account free access to a lot of children’s content including books, movies, songs and more.
Anytime Alexa is used in a classroom, privacy of students should be a concern. These recordings of student voices raise questions about who can access them, and how they might be used in the future. There have been reports of some recordings being sent by email to contacts, and in some cases, police and government agencies have asked for recordings from phones and smart devices as part of an investigation.
Students have a reasonable right to privacy, and having an “always on” microphone should not only be something that you let parents know, but also students. As students become citizens, it is important that their rights are respected, and that they are informed when something is done to them that might violate their rights.
In the Alexa app, go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. From here, turn off the toggle switch that says “Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services to Develop New Features.”
Deleting voice recordings
This year, Amazon announced two new Alexa commands that will let you delete your voice transcripts by asking Alexa. Just say “Alexa, delete everything I said today” or “Alexa, delete what I just said.”
If you prefer to delete your entire history, open the Alexa app and go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History > Delete All Recordings for All History.
Alexa uses the address associated with the connected Amazon account for location information. This affects how it responds to requests for local weather or news
A small school solution – Using Alexa devices in multiple classrooms as an intercom
If you are running a small school with a few classrooms, it is possible to set up Alexa devices to assist with classroom communication as if you had an intercom, in addition to utilizing voice commands. If you have Echo Dots in multiple rooms, you can use the Alexa app to either “Drop in” or “Announce” to one or more other devices.
- Drop in enables a two-way communication between you and a specific device in another room. The other device can hear what you are saying, and you can hear anything going on in the other room.
- Announce allows you to create a message, and then send it to all your Alexa devices. The other devices will chime and play your message.
Running multiple devices in different rooms gives every room access to the Alexa voice-activated features, plus they will share all products, skills, blueprints, and other custom features you create on your Amazon account.
The Future of Alexa
Amazon is incorporating Alexa into new products and will continue to do so. Even today, rings, eyeglasses, fitness trackers, earbuds, and more have Alexa capabilities. The possibilities for learning and for adding these devices to the everyday life of classrooms is something we will all be grappling with sooner rather than later!
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