Content Areas Educational Trends ESL/ELL

Alexa: Your New Teacher Assistant

Written by Dr. Bruce Ellis

Get a jump start on Alexa, one of the newest technologies, and how it can be used in your classroom to reinforce content and fun!

One of the newest trends that is getting a lot of attention lately involves controlling devices with our voices. Amazon is just one of many that are working to make their VUI (voice user interface) more intelligent and user-friendly. One way Amazon is doing this is by providing a host of skills to their personal intelligent assistant Alexa. Alexa runs on Amazon’s Echo, Dot, and Tap devices. You may know someone who has received an Echo, Dot, or Tap as a gift recently and wondered what all the commotion is about. I didn’t pay too much attention myself until I received a Dot as a gift. Then I started discovering the many ways Alexa could be used in the classroom…and possibly as your new teaching assistant.

Out of the Box

Once I unboxed my Dot and connected it to the internet via my wireless network, I was able to get Alexa to provide basic information and perform simple tasks:

  • Alexa, what is the weather for tomorrow?
  • Alexa, what is the capital of Alaska?
  • Alexa, what is 37 times 414?
  • Alexa, tell me a riddle.
  • Alexa, set a ten-minute timer.

Classroom Uses

There are many ways that Alexa can help you in the classroom even in addition to adding skills (which we’ll highlight in the next section).

  • Get rid of all of your dice, cards, coins, and other probability tools as Alexa can take care of that for you. Just ask her to flip a coin, pick a card, roll a dice, or pick a random number between 1 and whatever top number you want.
  • Use Alexa in your classroom to support literacy by having students ask her how to spell a specific word, suggest a synonym, or provide a definition.
  • Social studies students can skip an internet search by asking Alexa simple geography and civics questions.
  • Math students can use Alexa to check their work when they’ve finished an assignment, and science students will find Alexa is great at converting units of measurements.
  • If it’s been a stressful day, you can ask Alexa to play a track like “Nature Sounds for Relaxation” and give your students the opportunity to unwind.
  • To help your students keep up with current events, set up daily news briefings from the app.
  • Splurge for an Audible account (free 30-day trial; $14.95/month after that) and have Alexa read an audiobook to the class. Or have her read Wikipedia articles to students in need of reading support. Alexa can even read any Kindle book that you own (both free and paid), if you don’t mind the robot voice.
  • Encourage students to become more knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects with an “Alexa Fact of the Day.” Each day (or class period), a different student gets to ask Alexa a question about any (appropriate) subject the student is interested in. Have students keep track of these facts in a journal and then quiz each other about them at the end of the month. They can even use these facts to stump their parents.

Consider adapting your rule of “Ask three before me” to “Ask Alexa and three before me.” You’ll find more ideas of how to use the basics of Alexa by visiting Erintigration’s site.

Adding Skills

Alexa app category screenshotThere are plenty of skills that you can enable to allow Alexa to be more helpful and relevant in your classroom. Begin by locating the Skills section in the free Alexa app that is associated with your Echo, Dot, or Tap. While you can use the search feature, I have found it to be quicker to just browse the Education and Reference category. By default, your search results are listed by relevance, but you may want to change that to sort by average customer rating. Below are some skills that you might want to enable and how they can be used in the classroom. Search for the bolded skill name.

  • Earplay – Students will enjoy these choose-your-own-adventure stories featuring sound effects. You will need to sign up for a free Earplay account for Alexa to access.
  • Spelling Bee – The spelling bee is designed for students (grades 4 and 5) to help them practice their words.
  • Amazing Word Master Game – Match your word skills against Alexa as you take turns saying a word that begins with the last letter of the previous word said. Earn more points for longer words. Consider having elementary students work in groups and take turns saying their word after Alexa to see how many points the class can get and if they can beat Alexa. Be sure to enunciate clearly; otherwise she might mistakenly think you said a shorter word!
  • Word Chain – Similar to the Amazing Word Master Game above, this skill limits the game to two categories: names of countries or names of countries, states, and capitals. Social studies students will find this fun and challenging…especially since you cannot repeat a place previously said.
  • Difficult Word Quiz – This skill reminds me of the word quiz section of Reader’s Digest. You’ll find it very appropriate for middle and high school students to expand their vocabulary for the SAT and ACT. Each quiz has ten words, and you must choose the correct definition of each.
  • NASA Mars – If your students are studying Mars, you might find this skill very resourceful. You can ask Alexa questions about the red planet or the rover Curiosity. Other similar skills to check out include Planets Trivia or Star Facts or Earth, Moon and Sun Facts.
  • Jeopardy – Each weekday, Alexa receives six questions by the show’s official writers. How many can you get correct? This may be a great challenge for gifted and talented students.
  • Twenty Questions – Young students will enjoy thinking of an animal, vegetable, or mineral and seeing if Alexa can deduce it by asking yes-or-no questions.
  • The Magic Door – This is a choose-your-own-adventure skill that lets you explore the sea, hills, or dark forests. There are sleeping dragons, temples, the faint sound of music, and other mysterious sights and sounds to lure your students in. They probably won’t be able to finish the adventure during the class period. So then you can have them write their own endings to the story.
  • Short Bedtime Story – Each of these stories is 30 seconds to one minute long and can be personalized to one student’s name. These might work well as writing prompts.
  • Math Mania – Solve these addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems.

More Skills Coming

New skills are added every week. And as more folks rate the skills, you’ll find that it’s easier to find the best content. Regardless of the user rating, though, be sure to enable the skill and test it out yourself before you introduce it to the classroom. And if you have an idea for a skill that should be added and are interested in creating it for Alexa, jump over to Getting Started with the Alexa Skills Kit or the set of YouTube videos on Developing Alexa Skills.

If you find a skill that is great in the classroom or just plain fun, leave me a comment and we can enjoy it together!

This blog was updated with additional content on April 1, 2017, no fooling!


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About the author

Dr. Bruce Ellis

Senior Director of Professional Development at TCEA
Bruce specializes in leadership development and working with districts to tailor onsite professional development workshops.
Bruce earned his Ed.D. Curriculum, Instruction, and Supervision in Secondary and Higher Education and his M.S. in Learning Technology/Information Systems at Texas A&M University-Commerce and his B.S. in Elementary Education
at Dallas Baptist University.

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