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.
- Alexa, sing me a song.
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. The device 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.
- This device can also be a great way for kids to practice speaking as they must enunciate pretty well in order to be understood. You can also have them practice their questioning skills by thinking of the question they want to ask before asking it.
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 the tech by visiting Erintigration’s site.
There 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. You can also use Spelling Champion, which will let you enter your own words to practice.
- 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. There’s also a Teen Jeopardy available.
- 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. The Amazon Storytime skill has professionally narrated stories for children ages 5 to 12.
- Math Mania – Solve these addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems.
- Magoosh Vocabulary Builder – Alexa will ask questions about five different vocabulary words to help you increase your vocabulary.
- Ditty – Ask Alexa to make a fast song with Ditty, which turns any message you give it into a song. This is a great way for students to quickly create a song about a particular topic.
- This Day in History – Check in with Alexa to find out what events happened on this day.
- Learn Spanish – Learn the most commonly used phrases in Spanish.
- Black History Facts – Live stars share important facts about African American history.
- Texas Fun Facts – Help students learn more about their home state.
- Time Machine – Listen to the top headlines of the same day in a randomly chosen year from 1851 on.
- 1-2-3 Math – A math challenge which tests your elementary computing skills, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, comparison, etc., in three modes.
- My Math – This is a powerful skill that can do lots of different things to help students master math facts.
- Colonial History – Looking to learn more about our Founding Fathers and the era that they lived in? This skill shares interesting historical information about the era of American colonial history.
- Take part in the breakout explosion and have your students Escape the Room. There are currently four different rooms to try and escape from. This activity is great for logical thinking and problem solving, as well as small group teamwork.
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 January 19, 2018.
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