How Innovations in Voice Technology Are Reshaping Education

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

How Innovations in Voice Technology Are Reshaping Education

from Amazon Web Services (AWS)

By Diana Lee     Mar 2, 2020

How Innovations in Voice Technology Are Reshaping Education

We are just getting started with voice technology in education. From simple commands that retrieve stored information to a future where voice-activated AI coaches help us set and reach educational goals across a lifetime, the potential for growth is undeniable. Voice, after all, is one of the most natural ways to interface with technology, says Coursera’s Alexander Sanchez.

Sanchez leads the Mobile Experiences and Emerging Technology team at Coursera, the online learning platform where students anywhere can take courses, master a career skill, get professional certificates, and earn degrees from 200 top universities and companies, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Google and IBM. As a senior product manager, Sanchez looks for innovative opportunities to maximize learning experiences across devices and technologies.

EdSurge spoke with Sanchez about new voice technologies—the impact they have on student learning and how his company is making the most of them.

EdSurge: Coursera decided to build an Alexa skill because you saw voice technology as a smart investment. How did you know it was the right decision to invest in voice?

Sanchez: When we looked at our users, it just made sense. No matter what segment you're looking at, they use devices, especially our most engaged users. They're using tablets. They're using computers. They're using mobile phones, and they're using them at different times of the day and in different contexts. It could be in their car, for example. Voice has a high amount of penetration in the marketplace right now where it's just grown prolifically because it's such an easy thing to engage with. There's no training required.

What use cases did you design for? How do you imagine Coursera students using voice to support their learning?

It was very clear there were several different ways we could introduce a voice story to our customers. One of them was just listening to lectures, a core experience: “Play my next lecture.” It could also be voice acquisition, which is one of the #1 questions asked to Alexa: “Tell me about a topic.” “Tell me about artificial intelligence” or “Tell me about machine learning.” Then the follow-up is, “Tell me more.” The moment that happens, you've got some real magic taking place and something being unlocked—a potential opportunity where, if you could hear a little bit more and it could be from some of our content, then all of a sudden, you could be brought to Coursera. But, because voice is still in its infancy in education, we chose to start with administrative use cases so learners don’t have to pull out their phones or open their computers to find out due dates or grades on quizzes.


Visit Alexa for EdTech and Learning Companies to learn more about getting started with voice.


Were there any use cases that you didn't anticipate that you'd like to add for the future? What are you excited about?

I'm excited about wiring up the use cases to AI-powered virtual assistants, like an Alexa-enabled speaker or an Echo device. And we’ve been thinking about how intelligent they might be powered by data science products, the kinds of problems they can help you solve. It could be basic questions about, “Am I taking a class to become X?” or “How strong are my skills relative to other people?” An assistant can help with that. It could potentially be a coach, something that follows you the rest of your life for education. I'm excited about that. People that can't normally get access to this kind of information will get access to it. That's the future.

What do you see as the future of voice technology in education?

Voice is the most accessible form you can think of when you think about any interface. In education, it's already started to take off.

It all comes back to innovation. When you think about voice, are we just talking about the voice interface? That's one aspect, but there's also the AI component. We want to make these smarter. Everything we're doing right now in terms of interacting with Alexa could populate an assistant.

There's really this whole spectrum that voice covers. We also want to make sure that we're being socially responsible with whatever we create. We’re trying to solve one of the world's most critical problems, which is providing better access to high-quality education, but you still need to be responsible.

A lot of people, they're coming to the platform because they're looking for skills to be job ready so they can make a better life for themselves or for their family, to put food on the table. Other places, it could be in a country where the only way to move forward is through education—they have very limited resources. Voice, in that capacity, isn't there yet for education. Now, it could be, if you get creative.

We know that Amazon has done this. Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer there, spoke about utilizing Amazon Web Services (AWS) and some Alexa components at the last AWS conference. A story he told was about using technology to empower Indonesian rice farmers with information that helps them optimize their crop yield. That's one of those things where you start to see the tree bearing fruit in the case of voice virtual intelligence. That is tremendous.

You've got to identify the right problems. With voice and education, there's something there. It's just going to take a little time before we can demonstrate that and do it at scale. But it’s coming.

   

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