Entering the new world of ‘voice’

How colleges can use voice-enabled technology to enrich student learning and campus life
Sanjay Pothen will discuss how colleges can use voice-enabled technology such as Alexa for college students at UB Tech 2020.
Sanjay Pothen, director of Emerson Launch at Emerson College.

Sanjay Pothen sees Emerson College returning to its roots as a school of oratory with the emergence of voice-enabled technology in higher education. Once again, the Boston institution has a more pronounced focus on communications and the arts. “We realized that in this new world of voice-enabled technology, noncoding skills will be critical again, since much of the coding will be done by artificial intelligence and machines,” says Pothen, director of Emerson Launch, a center that helps students launch start-up ideas and brings innovation into classrooms. “We feel like our story and legacy are perfectly suited for this new world.”

Pothen plans to demonstrate the voice skills that he and Emerson students created, during his UB Tech® 2020 presentation on how to integrate voice technology into the curriculum. Visit ubtechconference.com for more on the event, to be held June 15-17 in Las Vegas.

Why is voice-enabled technology crucial for higher ed to adopt?

There are large numbers of people who use voice-enabled technology already: 500 million active Google users and 375 million monthly active Apple users. There are also 200 million smart speakers in the marketplace and hundreds of thousands of Alexa skills. Last week, I saw Mercedes-Benz demoing voice in a new model car that allows the driver to turn on the windshield or heat just by using their voice. There’s also voice in the home. Basically, it’s clear that the world is moving in this direction. So why not higher ed?

What are the advantages of using voice-based tools to enrich learning?

At Emerson, we have identified some key advantages:

Accessibility. Other emerging technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, require expensive gear that can be cumbersome. Voice doesn’t require fancy equipment.

Moving away from screens. There’s a big discussion in society about what our screens are doing to negatively affect our attention and learning. Voice doesn’t use screens. It helps us taper that daily digital diet.

Convenience. Emerson students use voice to study on the go in the subway and the “T,” which they find convenient because it’s hands-free.

Enforces learning. Studies show that the act of listening and speaking helps with retention.

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Which types of students benefit from interactive auditory learning?

Voice would benefit visually impaired learners and English language learners. For example, a peer of mine is using voice technology to help ELLs study. They can pause the voice assistant if it’s speaking too quickly and practice their own pronunciation, learning in a nonjudgmental manner. Voice can also help those who struggle with reading and perhaps students on the autism spectrum.

How can colleges integrate voice technology into a campus setting?

First, identify why you want to do this. At Emerson, we realized that coding skills and expertise will no longer be critical. Much of the coding will be done by AI and machines. So the critical skills we need to foster are communication and conversation.

Next, get smart in this space. We had hackathons and speakers tell us about the tech and provided demonstrations for everyone, including teachers and students.

Build official voice skills. Emerson has a college radio station called WERS. So we created a skill where people can now say to their smart speaker, “Play Emerson College radio,” and it will play our station.

Construct a voice assistant. In conjunction with a student task force, we brainstormed answers to certain questions that people could ask their smart speaker, such as “What’s happening on campus?”, “Where’s the dean’s office?” and “When’s the last day I can drop a class?” Then we deployed this skill to students.

Think how to use voice in classrooms. Emerson began running a concept we call “Voicelet,” which is a Quizlet for voice or voice-enabled study aids. We ran a pilot where the Voicelet was in multiple formats: true or false, multiple-choice and flashcard. Students now use their phones or smart speakers to study. For example, the Voicelet could ask, “What’s the capital of the US? A. Washington DC, B. San Diego, C. New York or D None.” Then the student answers the question.

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