Alexa, time for sophistication: How one college put an Echo Dot in each dorm room

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Alexa, time for class: How one university put an Echo Dot in every dorm room


Simply west of downtown St. Louis, a stone’s throw from the Gateway Arch, sits St. Louis College. Based in 1818, this non-public, Catholic college is steeped in custom and faculty delight. However the centuries-old college — the oldest college west of the Mississippi, the truth is — is the primary to place sensible audio system in dorm rooms. 

As at most schools, new initiatives are popping up on daily basis. You possibly can see the evolution of expertise and the passing of time in a single scan of the numerous campus structure. 

Subsequent door to the imposing, Romanesque dwelling of 19th-century St. Louis entrepreneur Sam Cupples is the Pius XII Memorial Library, inbuilt 1959 and lately reworked to incorporate 3D printers, robots and collaborative areas with touchscreen tables and whiteboard partitions.

Throughout the concourse is the latest dorm on campus, Grand Corridor. It opened in 2017 and homes 528 first- and second-year college students, however even newer than the dorm rooms is the addition of a tiny, puck-shaped roommate for each pupil: the Amazon Echo Dot.

Now in its second 12 months, the Alexa at SLU initiative is a fixture within the residence life tradition. Every dorm room comes geared up with an SLU-emblazoned, second-gen Echo Dot and directions on the best way to use it, what college students can ask and what to do if there are technical points. 

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The Sam Cupples home sits within the heart of St. Louis College’s campus, beside the lately renovated Pius XII Memorial Library.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The community of two,300 Echo Dots is powered by Amazon’s Alexa for Enterprise platform. A non-public SLU talent constructed by Amazon Internet Companies is enabled on every Echo Dot. That talent can reply greater than 135 questions on campus occasions, constructing hours, even close by meals choices.

College students can stream music, podcasts and reside radio by iHeartRadio and name any telephone quantity, together with contacts in SLU’s listing of pupil companies. 

How did Alexa come to school? That journey begins with David Hakanson, who joined SLU in 2013. He is now the vp, chief data officer and chief innovation officer overseeing the college’s IT division. 

An adopter of sensible dwelling expertise in his own residence and a proponent of upper training as a pioneering house for tech, Hakanson did what all tech junkies do after they’re searching for the subsequent large factor: He hit the CES present ground in Las Vegas. 

“One of many issues we do yearly is ship a group to the Client Electronics Present,” stated Hakanson. “We all know that lots of the applied sciences you see there are going to come back to our home, and for us, it will go to our college students.”

That idea was confirmed by the three college students I talked with throughout my campus go to. Every one got here to school from a house with a wise speaker in it.

“My mother and father really each purchased one another an Alexa for Christmas on the identical time,” stated Justin Pointer, a sophomore in aerospace engineering. 

Hakanson is aware of that a rise in sensible dwelling tech off campus goes to affect what college students convey with them on move-in day. 

“The scholars are both going to wish to convey it right here, or they will wish to use that kind of expertise to work together with the college,” stated Hakanson. “It was apparent there was a giant focus round voice expertise, Alexa and the linked dwelling.”

The group’s CES go to sparked a dialogue about the best way to greatest use voice assistants to enhance the campus expertise. The outcome was a concentrate on residence life, bringing a community of sensible audio system on-line and creating an SLU-specific Alexa talent to assist new college students navigate campus life. 

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David Hakanson (left) and Kyle Collins headed up the Alexa and SLU undertaking. 


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Kyle Collins, assistant vp for expertise transformation, led the group in creating the SLU talent. Their aim? Serving to new college students acclimate to school life. 

“The aim was actually about attending to know campus and getting individuals comfy with campus,” stated Collins. “Being 17 or 18 years outdated, residing by yourself with any person you in all probability do not know that effectively, it may be lots of stress. We’re making an attempt to ease that transition into college life.”

David and Kyle began out with a pilot program. Units of Google and Alexa sensible audio system had been deployed to college students with the problem to set them up, use them and report again. The overwhelming pupil response was in favor of Alexa.

It additionally helped that Amazon has a groups of AWS representatives and many help for talent constructing by Alexa for Enterprise, a sector of the sensible speaker universe Google has by no means actually targeted on.

Defending privateness

All main voice assistant platforms have confronted their fair proportion of public skepticism relating to privateness, and the SLU group is effectively conscious of that. That is a part of the rationale why Alexa for Enterprise made sense for a school campus utility.

“The traditional Alexa platform is supposed for a family the place everybody is said; in a residence corridor state of affairs, you might have two or three people who aren’t associated in a single house,” stated Hakanson. “If that is linked to a single particular person’s account, then there are lots of privateness points that may provide you with that, and rightfully so.”

For that cause, there isn’t any personally identifiable data recorded, saved or handed over to the SLU group. Every Echo Dot is labeled with a sticker containing the dorm room quantity and a MAC handle, however there isn’t any information gathered on which room is asking which questions.

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Every Echo Dot will get a St. Louis College sticker.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The IT group can see some very primary statistics throughout the group of gadgets as a complete, however nothing that may determine a pupil or perhaps a particular room. 

“We will not see any query by itself; it is extra classes, what number of interactions with music, what number of interactions with basic information,” stated Hakanson. “We are able to see that, and we will see it over time, however we won’t see what’s being requested at two within the morning.”

Whereas defending pupil privateness is the primary precedence of SLU’s Echo Dot deployment group, the Alexa for Enterprise platform does restrict their perception into what wants enchancment within the SLU talent. 

“We can also’t see what questions we’re unable to reply,” famous Hakanson. “For us, we might like to know what are the questions we won’t reply, so we will add that to our talent, however we won’t see that and I totally perceive why and might admire that.”

Daniel Sutton, senior analysis analyst at IHS Markit, focuses on service suppliers and platforms like Alexa for Enterprise. 

“Alexa gives a chance to cut back the variety of communications with college students by offering an automatic device to permit them to entry primary data,” stated Sutton. “Alexa voice interface implies that college students can immediately achieve entry to school data with out referring to complicated intranet websites or pupil help companies which can imply lengthy wait instances.”

College students must ask Alexa to ask SLU (pronounced “slew”) with the intention to entry the talent’s library of data on matters like campus occasions, library hours and shuttle schedules that may take considerably longer to lookup on a pc or smartphone.

Sutton additionally pointed to a latest survey of 14,000 shoppers throughout six markets that confirmed 15% of individuals did not buy a wise speaker due to privateness issues. Throughout the coed inhabitants, Sutton stated that privateness concern development is echoed, however the extra limiting issue was really price.

If college students cannot or do not wish to spend cash on their very own sensible speaker, SLU’s Echo Dots supply a strategy to convey voice assistants into the dorm with none added price to the coed, for the reason that undertaking went by the capital funding course of and wasn’t funded by tuition will increase. 

Alexa as a roommate

How do college students really feel about Alexa of their dorm room? Fairly good, it seems. Some are even concerned within the setup course of. Getting a free Echo Dot in your campus orientation packet sounds actually cool, however there’s much more behind-the-scenes work that goes into it. 

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Dorm rooms at Grand Corridor embrace an Amazon Echo Dot.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Every summer season, the Echo Dots are collected, checked for any issues, up to date and positioned again into their dorm rooms earlier than college students transfer in. When Echo Dots are able to exit to dorm rooms, resident assistants are the primary college students to work with the audio system.

“Earlier than shifting day they gave us containers, and every field had an Alexa that was room-specific,” stated Mateo Catano, a junior in aviation administration and an RA. “We additionally received two sheets of paper. One sheet stated the best way to set it up, the best way to join it to the Wi-Fi and every part, after which we had one other pamphlet that had examples of what you may ask Alexa.”

All 2,300 Echo Dots are coated with a customized SLU sticker, a beacon of faculty delight and not-so-subtle reminder to school youngsters that the Echo Dot is college property. 

To this point, no Echo Dots have disappeared from the dorm rooms. That is doubtless as a result of the college treats the audio system like every other piece of furnishings. In case your dorm room’s Echo Dot is lacking on the finish of the 12 months, you are going to get charged for it.

In terms of interacting with Alexa, the most typical questions aren’t too shocking. They vary from climate to meals and basic information. 

“I like to make use of it for the climate,” stated Pointer. “I am not gonna stroll downstairs and step outdoors, so if my telephone’s not close to me then I ask what is the temperature outdoors and decide my wardrobe in keeping with that.”

As a result of the Echo Dots are on the Alexa for Enterprise platform, personalization is minimal. Streaming music is restricted to the college’s iHeartRadio subscription until you join your telephone to the Echo Dot as a Bluetooth speaker. 

Most college students do not do this, although. They carry their very own audio system with extra premium sound high quality. One factor they want they may do? Order issues by way of voice with their Amazon Prime pupil accounts.

“I can see it being a privateness situation, however on the identical time with the ability to say ‘Alexa are you able to order this off of Amazon Prime?’ can be cool,” stated Callie Kariotakis, junior within the Faculty of Nursing. 

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SLU college students check the Ask SLU talent with their hardest campus-related queries. 


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Purchases by way of voice in a dorm atmosphere aren’t prone to occur anytime quickly, however college students can nonetheless recommend questions and solutions for the SLU talent.

“There is a web site on SLU.edu the place you may recommend to IT a few of the questions you need within the subsequent semester,” stated Catano. “So that they at all times refresh and add extra questions which are associated to SLU.”

College students can even make calls to the college’s listing of contacts and to native companies. The group favourite? Asking Alexa to name Pickleman’s Sandwich Store (conveniently open till 3:30 a.m., by the best way). 

Professor factors

I requested Flavio Esposito, assistant professor of laptop science, if he has any privateness issues about sensible audio system.

“Sure, completely, sure,” stated Esposito. “It is an open space of analysis; how will we inform somebody with out jeopardizing their privateness?”

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Flavio Esposito teaches tech-forward lessons like laptop safety.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Esposito says there are lots of issues firms are already doing to guard privateness, however that does not imply we should always take our guard down.

“It is not clear but whether or not there are actual risks,” stated Esposito. “However anytime you use a pc or cellphone, you must belief in some way the {hardware} and software program.”  

In terms of the Echo Dots on campus, Esposito sees the Alexa for Enterprise setup as a strategy to join college students with synthetic intelligence with out asking them to supply private data. 

“I believe it is helpful in a way, so long as it is moral and so they hold it that means,” stated Esposito. “It is a unbelievable outreach alternative when individuals are invested within the expertise; they see it, they contact it, after which they go find out about it and wish to study extra.” 

What’s subsequent

When Kyle and his group created the SLU talent, it was privately obtainable to only the campus Echo Dots, however that is altering. 

The group is working to make the talent public by the beginning of this college 12 months, so college students residing off campus or at dwelling can nonetheless ask Alexa all their SLU-related questions. 

All of the Echo Dots within the SLU dorms are second-generation fashions. The third-gen Echo Dot does boast a brand new design and higher sound high quality, however as a result of the SLU talent depends on software program updates slightly than {hardware}, Kyle and David say upgrading gadgets is not prone to occur quickly. 

Kyle and his group are additionally exhausting at work on integrating Alexa’s Q&A chatbot into the SLU talent. 

The chatbot would be capable of reply questions by extra mediums than voice. College students may kind questions right into a customized webpage or textual content a devoted telephone quantity. These strategies would reply questions like, “What time does the library shut?” with the identical response the Ask SLU sensible speaker talent would supply. 

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St. Louis College will welcome college students again to high school with Amazon Echo Dots for the second 12 months this fall. 


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon launched the Echo Dot in September 2014, and simply 5 years later we’re reaching a degree the place many college students are leaving a nest managed no less than partially by voice assistants and transitioning into school dorms. In that mild, it is sensible for college students to start out bringing this tech to school. It occurred with radios, microwaves, TVs and even recreation consoles. 

Throughout my campus go to, Alexa knowledgeable me that lessons start Aug. 26. That is when the AI will welcome new roommates into Grand Corridor and dorms throughout the St. Louis College campus, answering the all-important freshman questions on buses, lessons and the place to get sandwich throughout these inevitable all-nighters.  



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