Inside Higher Ed, Meet The New Kid on Campus:
All students moving into residence halls at Saint Louis University this week will find a corner of their desks already taken up by a new roommate. Her name is Alexa.
Housed in a SLU-branded Amazon Echo Dot, Alexa is the anthropomorphic personal assistant every 21st-century student needs, or so says David Hakanson, chief innovation officer at SLU.
SLU purchased 2,300 Echo Dots from Amazon to put in students’ dorm rooms.
The devices are preloaded with an Alexa voice app or skill, called "SLU", which enables students to easily access information about what’s going on on-campus. Alexa can currently answer around 130 campus-related questions, and more questions and answers will be added at students’ request, said Hakanson. The SLU skill was developed with n-Powered — an ed-tech company spun out of Northeastern University.
The Echo Dots were purchased using money from SLU’s IT equipment budget. Hakanson confirmed that the devices, currently priced at $39.99, were purchased at a discount, but he would not say by how much. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to discuss specific customer accounts and pricing.
It would be easy to dismiss SLU’s Echo Dot purchase as a marketing gimmick -- a cool new toy for students that’s cheaper for institutions to provide than an iPad or laptop. But Hakanson says that SLU’s decision to invest in the Alexa devices and develop the SLU skill is part of an institutional strategy to help students feel more connected to the university and get engaged in campus life quickly. Time spent searching online to figure out when the library opens, or how to get to the registrar’s office, is time wasted, said Hakanson. Why not just ask Alexa instead?
This immediate access to information could be game-changing, says Hakanson. He thinks voice-activated technology will play an important role in higher ed and help students, faculty members and staff to increase their productivity.
For now, the virtual personal assistants at SLU can’t get that personal with students. Students can’t link their personal Amazon accounts to the Echo Dots, and the devices are managed centrally by SLU through an Alexa for Business account. ...
SLU is not the first university to experiment with Alexa devices. Arizona State University placed 1,600 Echo Dots (reportedly donated by Amazon) in a residence hall for engineering students last year. The University of Oklahoma also encouraged students to develop Alexa skills that would be useful to OU students by hosting a hackathon competition. It provided 600 devices to residential students.
Northeastern University has perhaps gone the furthest with Alexa. Working with n-Powered, the start-up spun out of the university earlier this year, Northeastern has developed an Alexa skill called Husky Helper that will be accessible not only to students with Amazon Echo devices but any student with a smartphone later this year.