Voice technology commands a place in higher ed

Growing campus uses for voice-enabled tech emerge as administrators realize the promise these smart speakers offer, in areas such as instruction and residential life
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 21, 2019
Image: gettyimages.com: Irina_StrelnikovaImage: gettyimages.com: Irina_Strelnikova

Is voice-enabled technology the next big thing on campus? That remains to be seen, although it’s certainly getting its share of conversation time in education circles.

“Offering campus-based voice tech is a logical 
extension of what’s already going on in students’ lives,” says Sanjay Pothen, director of a voice technology initiative at Emerson College in Boston. In an internal survey conducted last year, 70% of students reported already using a voice assistant, either on a cell phone or home-based device, at least once per month.

Others in higher ed are building on applications made possible by devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s HomePod. These smart speakers, along with apps for cell phones and other devices, offer promise in multiple areas, from instruction to campus life.

Easy access to student info

When Emerson students want information about on-campus happenings, they consult Em, the school’s virtual assistant. Accessed by any Amazon Alexa-enabled device, Em helps locate rooms and offices, determine when to drop or add classes, and obtain other college-related information. Students can also listen to the college radio station via voice command and hear the latest campus news.

They like having such ready access, says Pothen. “We’re finding that voice enables one to get the 
answer to a particular question or search quickly and directly.”
Most students provide their own devices. For others, about two dozen devices are available for free, weekly checkout from the college’s center for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Another broad-based initiative is in place at Saint Louis University in Missouri. Officials there have deployed Echo devices in every residence hall room, with almost 2,300 units currently in place, says Kyle Collins, assistant vice president of technology transformation. IT staff took off-the-shelf devices, branded them with SLU-themed wrappers or stickers, and onboarded them into the university’s Alexa for Business environment. Staffers can manage the devices and deliver university-specific information in response to student requests.

3 tips for implementing voice tech

Renaud Rodrigue, partner executive for higher education at Ricoh, offers this advice for adopting voice technology in campus settings:

1. Focus on the user experience. Interaction has to be as natural as a traditional person-to-person conversation.

2. Identify the right source of technical expertise. In choosing a vendor partner, keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all for this type of deployment. Seek help from those who understand the unique needs of your campus.

3. Ask for feedback. Intended users must be part of the decision-making process, and their feedback can reduce the chance of surprises later. Ask users what would work best for them every day and have them test out the technology.

Students, meanwhile, can obtain details on university services and activities, pose general knowledge queries, and set timers or alarms. The college has seen more than 100,000 uses of the residence hall devices in a single semester, Collins says.

In addition, tech staff have placed devices in 100 conference rooms across campus. A device tied to a conference room’s calendar can check room availability and even begin Skype meetings.

Real-world learning assistance

At Arizona State University, students use voice-enabled tech to complete projects that expand their technical skills and help them explore real-world applications.
During an on-campus competition, one team of students developed an app that allows children with autism or Down syndrome to access voice-guided relaxation techniques, to pose questions or to hear reassuring words spoken by a caregiver.

Another team created an app designed to strengthen study skills. Students can interface with Blackboard or Canvas learning management systems to run their grades through an algorithm that suggests how much time to study for each class. They can also receive voice messages announcing the end of preset study intervals.

Bringing voice-enabled technology to Saint Louis U

Officials at Saint Louis University in Missouri use a proof-of-concept (PoC) approach to explore options for technology innovations such as voice-enabled tech. Planning strategies include internal discussions, vendor reviews and focus groups.

“With the PoCs, we try to very quickly perform a targeted implementation of a new technology and review its success,” says Kyle Collins, assistant vice president of technology transformation. “Typically, this takes less than 90 days.”

The university has equipped all residence halls with voice-enabled tech through PoCs, and administrators are now reviewing applications to support existing classroom technology. Conference rooms and event spaces may also be targeted.

Voice tech at Saint Louis U by the numbers:

40—Students in the initial PoC effort

350—Classrooms targeted for implementation of voice tech

2,300—Voice-enabled devices placed in residence halls

100,000—Total uses of voice-tech devices by students in one semester

Deputy CIO John Rome says the activities are part of an overall effort that has included introducing voice tech in residence halls, classrooms and public meeting spaces.
He’s optimistic about continued expansion. “Student surveys have been very positive, and several faculty members are figuring out how to introduce voice technology into their classes,” he says. “There have even been requests to do research on voice usage and impact.”

Students at Park University in Missouri can use voice commands to access the Canvas LMS and retrieve audio lectures, course announcements and assignment due dates. They can also support academic research by submitting data searches to EBSCO Information Services.

These features, along with general information access, have led to rapid growth in overall adoption, says James Nelson, associate vice president of information technology services. “We have more than doubled the number of unique users in the last five months.”

Classroom support

With the residence hall project’s success and continued student and faculty enthusiasm, Saint Louis University planners are now exploring ways to support instruction and access classroom tech.

One plan involves installing devices in classrooms to allow faculty members to easily control audiovisual technologies in rooms and be less tethered 
to lecterns.

At San Diego State University, tech staffers are working with a professor who teaches from a wheelchair to support voice activation of classroom presentation equipment.

“We want to make sure his needs are being met when he teaches in one of our tech-rich learning spaces,” says James Frazee, senior academic technology officer and director, instructional technology services.

While the work is still in progress, Frazee is confident it will bring positive results. He sees support for people with disabilities as one of the many benefits voice tech will bring to campuses everywhere.

“In 10 years, we’ll be asking how we lived without this technology,” he says.


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Investment and privacy concerns

A hefty financial commitment is not necessary for voice technology use. Relying on students to provide their own devices can minimize usage costs, and institution-funded devices may cost under $50 per unit (most units are less than $300 each). Personnel costs associated with programming, communicating with users or conducting research on potential applications may be more substantial.

Voice technology does pose some data and privacy concerns, especially for colleges interested in providing more personalized student experiences, says Dan Drapeau, head of technology at Blue Fountain Media, a New York-based digital marketing agency. “Multistep user authentication or encryption of data needs to be considered to prevent access to sensitive data such as grades or financial information.”

But advocates say the timing may be right for exploring options in the world of voice tech.

Saint Louis’ Collins says now is a “great time to be innovative, to start getting comfortable with the technology and to build an understanding of how it could be useful to your stakeholders.”

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.


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