Do Voice Assistants Have a Place in the Classroom?

Jul 27, 2018

A panel of experts discuss if the possibilities of voice assistants in the classroom during the 2018 Amazon VOICE Conference in Newark.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

Ever ask Siri the answer to zero divided by zero?

"Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn't make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies, and you are sad that you have no friends."

Not exactly the answer voice and education experts have in mind for students, but certainly light hearted and humorous.  Beth Ritter-Guth is the Director of the Innovation Center at Union County College in Cranford.  She believes such technology will find its way in higher education. 

“Voice and virtual reality are the two technologies that are really going to be impacting our students and our communities as well,” Ritter-Guth said.  “Voice [makes it] a lot easier to say, ‘turn on your phone’ then unlocking the screen and doing all of the things that you have to do.”

The use of voice technology is expanding in US households more rapidly than mobile devices, even the internet says Sanjay Pothen, Director of Emerson Launch, Emerson College’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The internet took about twenty years to get to fifty percent of the US population.  Mobile took about six or seven years.  Voice is projected to take three or four years.  Right now, we’re at about forty million devices and 250 million people. We’re projected to go really quite quickly,” Pothen said.  “From an education perspective we’re working a lot with the students.  We’ve conducted a survey with students around voice and voice receptivity and what we’re finding is there’s definitely interest, tempered with caution and cautious optimism.”

Keith Williams Director of the Web and Information Systems program at New Jersey Institute of Technology says voice applications are developing and maturing through text messaging.

“We’re going to go through a stage of text and natural language processing to develop the smart applications that actually know what to do with your voice.  I think in the beginning it will be hard to conceive what voice can deliver and how to make usable interfaces for meaningful interactions.  You also can’t guarantee that every student in a class is going to have a voice device,” Williams said.

When asked if he’s opposed to students brining a voice assistant to the classroom one day, Williams welcomes the idea, but doesn’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

“To use it in the classroom you’re really going to have to have an enterprise infrastructure to connect these devices to.  If a student brings a [Amazon Echo] Dot to a class, that’s great but what are they connecting it to.  You’re going to need an institutional application to connect it to. That institutional app is going to have to work with all kinds of systems,” Williams said.

Dee Kanejiya is the founder of Cognii, the creator of Virtual Learning Assistant, a program that provides an A.I. based tutoring system for students. 

“Students should be the first beneficiary of the technology for education,” Kanejiya said.  “Students want to master certain skills or topics and they would like it to provide support where they can practice certain questions and feedback.  Voice technology can play an important role not only in answering questions but quizzing them and making sure that they understand the concepts of the subject matter.”

Kanejiya says voice technology can even benefit teachers with tasks outside of the classroom.

“For the universities, their main challenge is providing more engaging education as they move online.  Provding this chatbot type support can certainly help them achieve that goal.”

Privacy of course is another issue when talking about bringing voice assistants into the classroom.  That’s an issue some might argue is as complex as creating the technology itself.