Alexa in the library

I'm part of the the Advanced Innovative Learning team led by Kerri Stoffel and Kim Young. This group gives me the time and support to explore new technology. I have a split focus for this year: understanding and making Alexa skills for the library, and integrating geospatial data into freshman history classes with Kim Young.

Last week I attended the tinkering day at the Weston Arts and Innovation Center with the entire group.  I worked on the Alexa project. Alexa is the voice assistant for the Amazon Echo. There are a bunch of other products like this on the market, like Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana. I became interested in working on this because I had heard a lot of talk online about voice assistants in the library, some against because of privacy issues, and other pro, because of the additional services they can offer patrons about the library program. Some people believe voice assistants are the next wave of library services.

Personally I'm horrified by the idea of voice assistants run by Amazon and Google. Neither company has shown much regard for anyone's privacy, and they make all of their money off of user data. However, this summer I watched my 5 year old niece ask Alexa everything as a matter of course and I understood the reality of voice assistants as part of our daily lives. Maybe not my life, but of many others, especially children.

The first time I played with Alexa was at my parent's house. Years ago I gave my father an internet radio, and he was able to listen to all of his favorite radio shows from NY even though he lived in Florida. My father told me he didn't need it anymore because Alexa plays all of those radio shows. I had just listened that fabulous podcast, Crimetown, and thought my father would love it. I said, "Alexa, play Crimetown" and nothing happened.

That's when I realized there was something behind Alexa besides asking it to play a song or recite the weather forecast. That thing was the Alexa app, where you customize your voice assistant to do various things like play your email aloud, control your home's smart features like turning lights on and off,  I also discovered there was something called "skills," programs you can connect to your Alexa.

The most popular skills on Alexa are sounds: sleep sounds, meditation sounds, white noise, music, radio stations. Educational, children's, games and news round out the categories. If you search for "library" you'll find a bunch of academic and public library skills that can do amazing things like search the catalog, put items on hold, renew, and answer frequently asked questions.  The search for "school" discovered skills created by school districts that give information on calendars, school closings and events, menus and similar information.

I didn't see anything in schools or library skills that related to instruction or content. This led me to wonder how we could use Alexa for teaching. The skills in the educational category are about vocabulary words, facts about certain disciplines (astronomy, history) world languages. One that looks interesting is "Critical Thinking Skill." I wonder what's in that?

My goal for the day was to understand the privacy implications of Alexa (of which there are MANY), and figuring out what it would take to make a skill. I found all the privacy info pretty easily as I hooked up my Echo.  The app on my phone walked me through all of the privacy settings. Basically, the fewer things you connect to your Alexa (your phone, email, smart home system, etc) the more privacy you have.

I was shocked to learn how easy it is to make a skill. In your app, you are led through the steps of making a skill, step by step in the Blueprint tab of the Skills category. I had to decide what topic the skill would be, and what format it would be in. There are hundreds of formats to choose from, like Custom Q and A, Listening Quiz, and Flashcards. I went with Listening Quiz and created a brief skill called "Avoiding Plagiarism." I wanted to call it "Why Cite?" but the word "cite" isn't in Alexa's vocabulary yet. I think it is now, because it was all over my "Avoiding Plagiarism" skill!

In "Avoiding Plagiarism," I explain what citing is, why we cite, and a few other important ideas associated with it. There is a one paragraph spoken introduction, followed by two paragraphs of content with associated questions that students can answer. I typed the text into the app, typed the questions in, and wrote out variations of correct answers so Alexa could "grade" the answers. It's kind of like an oral Google form, but with a lot more content. It took me about one hour to learn how to make the skill and then actually make the simple skill. Of course, longer  skills will take longer. And, I just threw together my content. Planning the skill should take the most of the time. Actually making it is pretty easy.

While my skill is rudimentary, I see implications for education: this is a great way to convert text to speech and ask comprehension questions. It could be adapted for active note taking activities. Students could make oral quizzes.  It could be used by all ages, from pre-reading to college.  Librarians could read stories aloud. Current thinking says this practice doesn't violate copyright. If you want your voice to be heard instead of Alexa's, you'll have to make a podcast and connect the online podcast to your skill.

As educators, when we think about how students would be using Alexa, it is a home-based, elective tool rather than a required, on campus tool. I'd feel very uncomfortable turning on the mic for Amazon in our school building. Our privacy needs to be protected. In addition, all families may not have an Echo at home. We could lend out Echo Dots to students who don't own them. They are relatively inexpensive: mine cost $30, but I think it was a sale. There may be some management issues with connecting apps to the device, and switching over to new owners. Also, some families may own voice assistants other than Echo, which poses another access question, and the additional work of educators creating skills for programs other than Echo. It might be easy, but I haven't done it.

I never found out how to listen to Crimetown on Alexa. But now I know that if I spend 10 more minutes on it, I can tell my dad how to hear the unbelievably corrupt and unbelievably entertaining tale of Buddy Cianci, mayor of Providence. Our students can hear a lot of us on Alexa if we put ourselves there and they listen. As always, if you want a hands on tutorial, please let me know and I'll be happy to walk you through. I have an Echo Dot (always unplugged) in my office and will be happy to plug it in for you to try.

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Image by flickr user Stock Catalog used under a CC by 2.0 license

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