#VoiceEDU: Why Waiting Mattered to Me
February 3, 2019
I bought my first amazon echo the year they hit the market in hopes that it might have good uses for the classroom. After briefly playing around with it in the classrooms of willing teachers and in situations that I could, I decided the risks did not outweigh the benefits. The deciding factor? After a long field day morning for our elementary students, most went home for the day. About 20 students remained and we created a STEM day for the remaining time. I pulled out my echo during carpool time and students would whisper a question in my ear and then I would give them permission to ask Alexa. We danced to the songs she played, we laughed at jokes, and then I asked her to tell us a story. Without hesitation she starts in a sultry voice: “he was riding his bike right there in front of me. His legs were pumping in the sunlight…” and I scream “ALEXA, STOPPPPPP!” I still don’t know why she chose that story based on the skills I had enabled. She was quickly relegated to my office where she often helped me with efficiencies. Meanwhile, Alexa and her pal Google Assistant started showing up in every corner of our home.
Fast forward to January 2018 when I find out the Alexa Conference is coming to my home town. I reach out to Bradley Metrock, the organizer of the event, and he not only graciously allows me to come to the conference but asks me to speak at it as well. This opened a door for me that still puts me in a position to be aware of what’s next, to bend ears, and to share concerns. At this year’s Alexa Conference, Bradley once again allowed me to be a part. I will forever be grateful for both his vision and willingness to allow a Chattanooga, Tennessee teacher into this space.
When the Kids Edition Echo Dot came out, I remember thinking “this is it!” Bradley introduced me virtually to Dave Isbitski, the Chief Evangelist for Amazon Alexa and he and his wife sent 5 Kids Edition Echo Dots with remotes to our school to pilot. What an amazing opportunity! I sat down with those five teachers that volunteered to try things out and we planned to create blueprints to personalize the learning in the classroom. Our goal was to use the devices to create more independent learners.
We soon found out that blueprints didn’t work with the Kids Edition Echo Dot and that only “kids skills” could be used on the device. The teachers kept apologizing for not using them more regularly and I kept feeling like every road was a dead-end.
Until January 2019, when I finally realized that you could “whitelist” skills using Amazon FreeTime. No longer were we just using kids skills but any educational skill. And a week after the Alexa conference, Kids Edition Echo Dot could start using blueprints! Blueprints are template skills that allow owners to go in and add their own information into a skill without needed to know how to code. All of a sudden, the possibilities with Alexa just got personalized for each individual classroom.
The really funny thing is that the weekend after the Alexa Conference I was sitting at home and decided I would just change those devices to regular echo dots weighing student access to student privacy. I mean, teachers were using them all over the nation already… why not us? I sent an email out on Friday asking the teachers to let me pick them up to perform this task but on Monday I said: “never mind!” I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t like the idea of Alexa carrying on adult conversations in the classroom because one kid thinks it’s funny and potentially yells out an inappropriate question.
I’m so glad I waited! This week I plan to work with our integrated units and create Hyperdocs that will walk students through a lesson that will utilize Alexa in the learning process. While I would say Alexa was never a true brick in the classroom, her ability to truly make a difference in the learning process and safely doing so by using FreeTime just got real!
Anytime a new technology enters the marketplace, we as Edtech leaders must make choices. In this case, I chose to embrace the device but keep limits and barriers in place. The cutting edge is messy and cumbersome but I’m thankful I waited out my concerns. I can’t wait to see what Amazon for Education will come out with in the future to even take this tool further in being helpful for teachers everywhere. I feel certain it will be a hybrid of the Amazon Alexa for Business Tools and taking student privacy into account. I just hope they will continue to keep their price point minimal so that this device can truly be a game changer for educators everywhere!
NOTE: You don’t have to buy the Kids’ Edition Echo Dot to access FreeTime, you can buy free time as a stand-alone but FreeTime is free for one year with the Kids’ Edition Echo Dot.