Taking her Amazon Echo to school this year gave Megan Gorkiewicz a bit of pause. She wondered if the students might abuse it, or if the device would say something inappropriate.
But the teacher at Harper’s Choice Middle School in Baltimore, MD, has instead found her students look forward to using the Echo and speaking with Alexa, its digital voice assistant. Gorkiewicz puts on classical or jazz music during class projects, kids can ask Alexa simple questions, and it even plays a fun fact in the morning. Gorkiewicz even has playing cards taped to desks and asks Alexa to pick a random number, with the students whose cards match that number getting to pick a prize.
“It’s been great,” says Gorkiewicz, a science teacher for more than 11 years. “It helps with classroom management.”
Digital assistants and smart speakers are growing in use at home. More than 35 million Americans were projected to use one of the voice-activated assistant devices, like Amazon Echo or Google Home, at least once a month, according to eMarketer.
Helpful at finding recipes, reading the news and even ordering groceries, Amazon Echo and Google Home are starting to also make some headway in schools, where teachers either bring in their own device or buy a second.
Gorkiewicz did just that. Picking up a second device just for her classroom, she linked the Echo to her Amazon account — but disconnected the buying feature. While no other teacher uses a digital assistant at her school, that she knows of, she says others in the building are definitely intrigued.
Early adoption is how other technologies, from Raspberry Pi to iPads, started their lives in classrooms, too. One educator trying a new tool leads first to interest, and then to curriculum integration.
“Go back a few years and we couldn’t imagine people would buy 3D printers at the price of $500 or $1K in classrooms,” says Miguel Guhlin, director of professional development for the Texas Computer Education Association. “We thought it would be in a special room. But they quickly moved into classrooms.”
That’s the direction researchers believe will happen, too, studying how children interact with speakers and the virtual voice assistants that operate inside them.
In Gorkiewicz’s class, students ask occasional questions, but mostly observe. But researchers at the MIT Media Lab found that in some cases, children engaged with the assistants as peers and in other ways as teachers, believing “…that they could teach the agents, and they could learn from them,” according to the 2017 paper, "Hey Google is it OK if I eat you?"
Students in the study, ages 3-to-10-years-old, played games and interacted with both an Alexa and Google Home, among two other voice assistants. And researchers see how these speakers could one day be tooled to become “learning companions,” with students potentially coding the devices themselves.
Gorkiewicz’s students already get to play as experts, she says. When she’s out for a day, she leaves detailed instructions for substitute teachers who come to take over the class. Most are impressed, she says, even if a little uncomfortable.
"Some people get nervous around technology in the classroom," she says. "But this is about giving [the students] access to technology they will need in their future."