Using Siri and Alexa in the Classroom

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As an English teacher, I totally understand why voice-triggered “assistants” feels like something straight out of 1984. It might be too soon to use AI for anything confidential or sensitive. 

But as a technology nerd, I do see potential here for classroom use.

“Hey Siri, remind me at 8:00PM to read Justin’s essay.”
“Alexa, what’s the weather like outside?”
“Hey Google, play my Classroom Writing playlist.”

How I Started
Recently, my husband and I have been dabbling with home automation, such as the Ring doorbell, a front door lock, and certain lights/outlets with timers. It’s particularly helpful to safely allow babysitters into our home (or those moments of “Did I lock the front door?”). Throughout this experience, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the potential for the classroom might be. 

Things to Know Up Front
Before you buy (or use) any kind of automation technology and/or virtual assistants, you should know that…

 1. You’ll need decent WiFi for certain Siri/Alexa/Google features. 
If your school doesn’t have reliable internet, you won’t be able to do as much. 

 2. You’ll want to think through rules and exceptions for use. 
I explain this more below, but you’ll have to consider putting away your devices during certain scenarios, such as tests (so students can’t ask it for an answer). 

 3. I’m not an expert!
These are just my personal experiences. I’m not an expert at either device, and this post is not an ad. 

Trial #1: Alexa (Amazon Echo Dot)
My husband and I were gifted an Echo Dot, and we primarily use it for home automation voice commands, like telling it to start the Roomba, turn the kitchen lights to 30% brightness, or lock the front door.

 I took one to my classroom as an experiment. Here’s how that went. 

  • I really liked being able to ask Alexa questions. For example, it would be helpful, right before recess, to ask her, “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?” or “Alexa, define egregious.” As an English teacher, the latter is pretty fun. 
  • You can ask Alexa to set a timer. 
  • My students and I like to play JEOPARDY! 
  • If you say “Alexa, good morning,” then she responds with not only a greeting but a trivia fact, such as informing you that it’s National Dictionary Day, which my homeroom students found amusing in the morning. 
  • I never set up any Amazon music with it, but in theory you could play music through it. 
  • If you bought the right outlets, you could have some fun with statements like “Alexa, turn the lights to 50%.” However, that would be pricey.

  • She doesn’t always hear my voice across the room on the first try, such as when the classroom is too noisy or if music is playing nearby. I need to stand close enough to it and/or ask the classroom to quiet down. HOWEVER, I’m sure this would be an issue with other brands too, so that’s not necessarily a weakness of the Echo. 
  • I had ONE student who wasn’t mature enough to leave it alone and use it at the correct times. He always wanted to be near it, touch it, or ask it mildly inappropriate questions. I had to unplug it for a while for that reason. I recommend setting classroom norms and consequences if using any Alexa-enabled Amazon device. 

Trial #2: Siri (via Apple Watch)
My iPhone has to stay out of sight during the school day, but I can wear an Apple Watch. 

  • I love being able to customize the face of my Watch. I chose to have the date, time, weather, exercise rings, and to-do list at a glance. These enable me to quickly tell students at-a-glance if they need a coat to go outside or not. 
  • I most frequently use it in the classroom as a timer. My students were always amused whenever I said “Hey Siri, set a timer for 2 minutes”, and they’d excitedly start the task because somehow the Siri timer was more motivating than looking at the clock on the wall. 
  • It’s super helpful for me to read text messages and see phone calls. (For example, I NEED TO KNOW if my son’s daycare is calling, and having the Watch helps me know which messages I can ignore without getting out my cell phone in front of students.)I also use Siri to add reminders, either to the Reminder app or my Todoist app. If I’m standing next to a student’s desk and not near my computer, it’s extremely helpful to just say “Hey Siri, remind me at 8:00pm to update Google Classroom” or “Remind me to write a recommendation letter for Justin.”

  • If there’s no WiFi, Siri has fewer capabilities. 
  • Occasionally, my Siri doesn’t listen the first time. That might just be my poor, heavily-used watch (ha) and not a product norm. 

Honorable Mention: Google
I obsessively use Google Apps, but I haven’t purchased or tried any Google assistants yet. I imagine they would behave similarly to the pros and cons listed above. 

The Bottom Line
In certain scenarios, having an “assistant” in the classroom feels like a helping hand. You just have to find the right one for your budget and what you want to accomplish.   

What do you think?
Tell me in the comments!

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