School is back in session. For thousands of new college students, this means leaving home for the very first time. To ease the transition, St. Louis University (SLU) has equipped its dorms with a familiar, and helpful, voice. Alexa.
The Echo Dot smart speakers replicate home users’ experience with an added feature: students are granted access to SLU-specific resources with the aim of easing their transition into college life.
Tech To Enhance College Life
SLU’s ambitious Echo Dot program was birthed as a result of two university staff members — Kyle Collins, assistant vice president of technology transformation and David Hakanson, vice president of technology, chief information officer, and chief innovation officer — attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
“David and I were talking about voice technologies or voice assistance,” Collins tells Parentology of the idea as it began to be born. “So we really put a lot of effort into talking to different vendors, and exploring ideas to see what was new and going on in that market.”
Collins and Hakanson returned from CES with plenty of ideas for how voice technology could help SLU students, faculty and staff, including accessibility issues in the classroom. Narrowing their voice tech search down to the Amazon Echo, they enlisted 40 students to take on the project.
During the process, Hakanson floated the idea of providing every dorm with an Echo Dot. “Without knowing the answer to how many, I said, ‘Sure, we could do that!’,” Collins recalls. The answer to that question: “right around 2,300 Echo Dots,” Collins says, a number that constituted “the largest single purchase of Amazon Echo devices ever.”
The first fall rollout of the program was a success, with Collins noting good adoption numbers. Still, Hakanson and Collins wanted to make sure that students knew about the full range of SLU-focused capabilities the devices had to offer.
“We came up with the idea of stealing a page from Amazon’s playbook,” Collins says. Enter the email alerts with which so many Echo users have become familiar, ‘What’s new with Alexa?’
In the leadup to the first semester midterms, the team sent out an email informing students of the Echo Dot’s reminders feature. “Reminders hadn’t even been used up to that point, then it became the most used thing,” Collins says. SLU students had started to welcome Alexa into their lives with open arms, with over 100,000 uses of the device in the first semester.
Rolling Out New Features
In addition to the reminder feature, Echo Dots in SLU dorms comes equipped with skills that connect students with information about the campus. Collins says, “We had a partner help us build a skill that answered about 135 questions, and an address book, so you could say, you know, ‘Alexa, call the registrar,’ and it would call the registrar’s office.”
While the Echo Dot program is already making students’ lives easier in a variety of ways, Collins hopes the future will bring even more new features.
The number of questions the SLU skill can answer has grown to over 300 according to Collins, and the team is gearing up to introduce text functionality in the coming semester. “We’ve got a number dedicated to it,” Collins says, “so you’ll be able to text in from your phone, and it can reply back to questions.”
The team also plans to make this skill publicly available for parents and off-campus students to ask questions and stay connected, taking the program’s capabilities beyond the dorms and into homes. In this way, SLU is making it easier than ever for new students and their parents to get acquainted with the university.
While the process of adjusting to college life can be daunting for students and for parents, schools like SLU are providing an excellent model for how new technologies can be used to make the transition smoother than ever.
Saint Louis University Echo Dot: Sources
Kyle Collins, assistant vice president of technology transformation, Saint Louis University
CNET: How One University Put an Echo Dot into Every Dorm Room