Amazon Really Wants Echo Devices In The Hands (And Dorm Rooms) Of College Students

If you want future developers of technology to create new things for your product, try giving it to engineering students for free. Amazon is experimenting with that at one college, giving away an Echo Dot (list price $49.99) to every student in a new dorm at Arizona State University.

An “Emerging Field”

The university partnered with Amazon to put 1,600 of the smart speaker devices in the dorm rooms of engineering students. We can only imagine what the speakers might overhear in that environment, but it’s also exciting to think about what kinds of new skills they might develop for the Alexa voice assistant or uses the speakers could be put to in that environment. Some of the new skills might even not involve burrito delivery.

“ASU’s main motivation was to develop an opportunity for its engineering students to gain skills in voice technology,” a university spokesman told EdSurge, noting that voice-activated devices are an “emerging field.”

Amazon wants the next generation of students to start thinking about this “emerging field” while they’re still in school, offering a $2.5 million Alexa Prize to university teams developing conversational artificial intelligence, and funding Alexa Fellowships at major engineering schools where fellows receive “funding, access to Alexa devices, and mentoring” from the Alexa team at Amazon.

Gimmick or essential skill?

Sometimes it’s the faculty and staff who drive development of new uses for devices, not students. Utah State University developed its own voice-controlled classroom for the use of a visually impaired instructor. Teachers using that room can control the projector, screen, and other electronic elements of a modern classroom using voice commands instead of switches.

Is this all a gimmick, though, or is it the future of technology? Faculty members who spoke to EdSurge had varying viewpoints. One professor at Rice University sees the use of voice technology to control things at home as gimmicky, but sees the potential for them in vehicles. Others have started using voice technology in the curriculum more, but remain wary of the privacy issues possible when always-on speakers are everywhere.

“What if a faculty member has [an Echo device] in their office they end up using, and a student comes in to talk to them, but the student doesn’t know that there’s an Alexa device listening?” one educational technology consultant speculated.

Elsewhere on campus

Amazon is also working to sell the devices to students outside of engineering and computer science programs, expanding its campus pickup points that are also Amazon product showrooms. According to Amazon’s job site, on-campus pickup points are now available at 31 colleges and universities, with new ones opening all the time. Students can try smart speakers at these counters, which have Amazon Lockers and demonstration products, and are meant to ease the Amazon shipping load on campus mail services.