07 Jan

Could Alexa work for you?

Second blog for #WeeklyBlogChallenge17

Like many great ideas this blog was born of a comment on twitter by @pepsmccrea

I have a fascination with AI – albeit the kind of HAL AI – but still… Having yet to try Alexa at home, but surrounded by Bluetooth enabled devices and the internet I can’t wait to give it a go. In the meantime I’ve given myself some time to consider uses for this tech in schools.

It is worth mentioning first of all, that there will always be issues of privacy with an always on internet device in schools. This is something that will need to be seriously thought about, I’ve looked into it and I am unclear as to what exactly happens with the voice commands that are sent to the cloud. But – let’s imagine right now that the device is on or off – that it learns, but doesn’t save all recordings for years… (the ethic of this could be another post!) Also, learning from other voices would need to be in there.

Instantly you can see how children merely asking questions and receiving answers, facts and things may not be such a good idea… Alexa would need to have a kind of Socratic approach to answering. It cannnot be simply a high powered calculator. Ask Alexa should not just be the last thing on our ‘if you are stuck…’ list. No, Alexa will need to be a bit smarter – to learn to respond with pointers, hints and other ideas that the children could try first. Saying that however, there is much to be said for an oral account of eye-witness accounts from history, or a different explanation of fractions and decimals. Children will need to learn to listen carefully, and of course, to formualate their questions appropriately.

Some of the above issues could be solved by textbook/curricula providers having Alexa linked modules. This would mean that the children could actually say, ‘Alexa I’m stuck with Chapter two’ or ‘Alexa what does so and so mean in Question 3’. Linked with a smart board (or projector) and it could show videos or other resources. I’m imagining a virtual science experiment whereby videos from a service such as the BBC Schools, or Expresso might be genuinely useful. Google classroom links are obvious here – as this could also lead to children identifying themselves by username and getting personalised content. Again, I realise the technology is not quite there yet – but it is within reach.

Personalised Learning
This is the area that really makes me think we could see a game changer. I already find iPad apps and google classroom brilliant for SEN. An AI enabled device would be able to offer more resources and more ideas for children as mentioned above. Recording the initial teacher input, or reading aloud chapter from books. But also the formulating of questions, the dictation of ideas and the organising of their thoughts could be vitally supported by an AI enabled device. ‘Alexa record this…’ ‘Alexa read back what I just said’ A device which connected to a visualiser could, maybe, learn to read handwriting or support the child in editing. Or upload the images to google classroom and ping the teacher – link to an iPad and you have the pupil recording their words and then sharing with other apps. Again specific apps and providers could link with Alexa.

This is the most obvious area where teachers could be supported. Send to printer command; take the register; share school messages; share school calendar; check emails; read aloud lunch menus… If you use an electronic assistant at home you will realise how it could support your classroom. This is where most privacy issues will come in – you couldn’t really ask it to read aloud school emails if it then saves all the information on a server. Your school calendar probably shouldn’t be that detailed. But then… emails are similarly saved, and many schools already use google calendar or a similar device. One to think about definitely…


Again, I know there are many hurdles to this, I know that the internet connection will need to be faster than most schools currently access. There will be privacy issues, and parental worries. We will need to ensure strong, unbreakable firewalls. Other educational companies will need to get on board to make it genuinely useful…

But I think this is worth investigating – and if anyone wants to donate a few so I can get started….


CNet Review

Donald Clark Blog – ideas and more link

27 Sep

The Digital Native Myth in Primary

Or… Just because children can use an iPad don’t assume they are ‘great with tech’…

This article caught my eye this morning: Kids can’t use Computers.. and why this should worry you from Marc Scott or @coding2learn .

It caught my eye because as I read it I was thinking to myself how true it is. Adults in school still complain when a PowerPoint doesn’t work, we rarely explain just why that youtube video doesn’t work, a change of wifi password can throw the entire school community. The comment: children are great with computers, is oft repeated ‘It just comes naturally to them doesn’t it?’.  I was thinking how everytime I hear that in my own school I always repeat, ‘you mean they are great with so-and-so app‘ or ‘you mean they can use your phone to play angry birds‘. I’m sure I sound like a bit of a pedant, but it does bother me. Especially when teachers assume that the children they are teaching will just ‘pick up’ the skills that we are supposed to teach them.  From Scott’s post:

If you teach IT or Computing, this is a phrase that you’ll have heard a million times, a billion times, epsilon zero times, aleph one times. Okay I exaggerate, but you’ll have heard it a lot. There are variants of the phrase, all espousing today’s children’s technical ability. My favourite is from parents: ‘Oh, Johnny will be a natural for A-Level Computing. He’s always on his computer at home.’ The parents seem to have some vague concept that spending hours each evening on Facebook and YouTube will impart, by some sort of cybernetic osmosis, a knowledge of PHP, HTML, JavaScript and Haskell.

This article was written two years ago – and the misconceptions it addresses are still alive and kicking. I thought the Digital Native thing had gone…

I can’t stress how often I have to explain to Parents that we need to use technology in school because our children need to see it used effectively and appropriately. Recent, lazy journalism has not helped this point at all.  Children (and adults) need to understand that it has a complexity that goes beyond restarting and shutting an app down. They need to know that at the end of it all ‘we’ (a kind of collective human race) has programmed and controlled everything that the computer does, and they can learn how to that too.  We need to stop confusing ‘being comfortable with tech’ for ‘being in control of tech’.

Primary teachers need to have a basic understanding of technology themselves; not in the least because they may be asked to teach this. The difference between the internet and the world wide web anyone?  They need to be able to communicate effectively for their job, so sure email and sharing work, but then they also need to model the safe and effective use of tech in the classroom. To understand why Wikipedia is not always the best source of information or why creating a Power Point for a topic is not, really, computing but is in fact summarizing and presenting information (which can be useful of course).

I’m hoping that the changed focus for the computing curriculum will help this. I’m hoping that in a couple of years we will have school leavers who not only understand the power in their phones, their tablets and watches but who can see how this can be improved. Most teachers and most schools cannot see how they can be improved – we’re struggling to make use of what computers can already do, and faced with many barriers now – but we can help our children see the nuts and bolts beyond the façade – and give them the chance to develop their own understanding and vision.

Incidentally, Scott wrote this post One Year Later .


Further Reading:

How Ed Tech Worship Erodes Great Teaching (TES) – Joe Nutt

Neil Selwyn’s 2009 paper – The Digital Native –  Myth and Reality