Amazon donates 1,600 Echo Dots to ASU’s new high-tech dorms
BY JACK HOLMES August 18 2017
Engineering students at Arizona State University will have the opportunity of living in a college housing that is equipped with Echo Dots this year, in an interesting new program that encourages them to practice voice user interface development skills on consumer hardware
ASU has built a brand new, high-tech dorm for first-year engineering students called the Tooker House that sports cutting-edge amenities and those who are moving into its residence hall will be able to opt into the program and receive an Echo Dot for their dorm room. This dorm is designed to be the crown jewel for ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering which the school says to be the largest engineering program in the country. Thanks to Amazon’s donation 1,600 freshmen moving into Tooker House will be getting an Echo Dots and Amazon is also providing developer kits to help add the technology to ASU’s existing engineering curriculum. It must be noted that it is not compulsory to every student to take advantage of the offer, some may elect not to take advantage of the offer.
With the normal Alexa features, including setting alarms and playing music these devices also come equipped with an ASU “skill,” built in collaboration with Amazon, which lets students quickly get information on the academic calendar and events on campus just by asking the Echo’s Alexa digital assistant.
Outside of Tooker House, any student in ASU’s engineering school can enroll in one of three upcoming fall courses that teach concepts like voice user interface development, which includes Alexa skills and they will also be encouraged to independently build their own Alexa skills in and outside their classrooms that can ideally be integrated into other project programs, or to solve local community needs.
Previously many company partnerships and initiatives in colleges have not been entirely successful. Granted, ASU’s program is more likely to succeed given that it’s opt in, directed toward engineering students, and is centered around a piece of hardware that is not a replacement for an item crucial to a university’s learning experience. And perhaps most importantly, the devices are there for the students to tinker with instead of relying on.
Amazon Alexa’s growth since its launch in 2014 has been largely contributed to third-party developers, and the company has continually encouraged people to create and build experiences with the Alexa Skills Kit. This year, Amazon opened up certain backend functionalities to all developers and also offered to pay developers who create Alexa skills with the highest engagements in the US, UK, and Germany. This ASU initiative is yet another avenue for Amazon to encourage more people to grow Alexa’s capabilities, this time right from the classroom.
According to Fulton Schools dean Kyle Squires, from ASU’s perspective, the Echo Dot speakers speak straight to the engineering program’s mission and he says that the Echo Dot speakers merge the living environment with the learning environment thus it is encouraged by the school’s curriculum to build their own Alexa skills.
Amazon Alexa director Eric King says that for Amazon, this “first of its kind” ASU partnership speaks of bigger things to come in higher education. And it’s going to give students an incentive to build voice apps in general, and Alexa skills in particular. So that’s good for Amazon and the Alexa platform as a whole. He also says “It’s going to inspire the next generation of developers to use voice,” and also says that both Amazon and ASU are working closely together to see how students actually use their Echo Dots, not through directly monitoring their usage or tapping their devices to listen in, but by observing and gathering feedback.
That feedback, in turn, will be used by Amazon as it figures out the best ways for Alexa to integrate itself into living spaces and academic life. Today, that might be setting an alarm for an early class; tomorrow, Alexa might be able to tell you the best route to your intramural soccer game, or the content of your next exam, says King.
Ultimately, he says that universities are a crucial part of the future of Alexa and Echo, as the future of voice-based computing takes shape and that he hopes the collaboration with ASU is the first of many in the years to come.
In that light, King also says that the donation of these 1,600 Echo devices was as much an investment as it was a donation.