Monday, 2 January 2017

An Amazon Echo in the classroom?

We succumbed over Christmas and bought an Amazon Echo Dot (the little sister of Alexa with the much smaller speaker). It's a fun digital assistant which will answer simple questions, play music from the radio, Spotify and Amazon, set alarms for you in the kitchen, make lists and more. Its speech recognition is great, even from a distance or when whispering to it close up. The default wake up call is Alexa, so you just say Alexa and then speak away. Its LED spinning light tells you she's listening.

So you can see where I am going with this. For a small outlay, an Amazon account and with a wifi classroom connection, you could set Alexa to your chosen language (only German so far)  and use her as a language learning aid. Note that Alexa is always on and needs no other devices to function apart from the teacher's smartphone with the Alexa app.

When the app is set up you can add specific "skills" (like mini-apps) which allow Alexa to perform further functions. Thee can be accessed via the app.

What could you do? Most of these can be done at intermediate level or above. All of these tasks involve careful listening, sometimes combined with note-taking, translating or summarising.

1. Ask Alexa factual questions in TL and get students to note down or transcribe her answers, e.g. "what is the longest, second longest, what is the highest, how long is..."
2. Practise weather expressions by asking her for the forecast in different locations, e.g. towns in France.
3. Practise distances/measurements by asking her the distance between locations in the chosen country.
4. Set alerts for timed classroom activities.
5. Say good morning to her (she responds with interesting facts about the day). Students can listen and note down what they hear.
6. Set up a news flash briefing (for advanced students only).You can customise news briefings, choosing from a range of sources. Students take notes.
7. Ask for spellings of words. This would work with near-beginners too. Alexa spells put words clearly for you.
8. Ask for definitions of words. Alexa has access to a dictionary. This could be useful when you are stuck for a meaning or could be done as a combined listening/vocab task
9. Ask for biographical information about famous people. Alexa gives brief answers which could be summarised, translated or transcribed.
10. Practise times by setting up a specific skill. These depend on the country and language, but you could search for something like train times.

Note that the Echo with the larger speaker would be better for a large classroom, but you can connect the Dot to an external speaker either by wire or bluetooth. The language delivery is very clear, but with some minor intonation issues.

If you ask Alexa for a translation of a word she says she cannot pronounce but it is recorded in the app (as all answers are).

Am I in the realms of gimmickry here? I'm not sure. Once the Echo is set up it is always on and can be consulted at any time. You'd also have to have clear protocols about its use with students so they don't set it off for amusement or ask dodgy questions if you are out if the room. In addition, the Echo has to be set up through an Amazon account, so you don't want students ordering you things without your knowledge! You might find a copy of The Language Teacher Toolkit waiting for you at home!

The Echo is the best digital assistant you can use from a distance in a room, with Google Home on its way to the UK at some time. In time, when they become more sophisticated, I can imagine them being used routinely in classrooms.


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