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“Hey Alexa, why is tuition so high?” wrote Lexie Vasos on her university’s Facebook page.
The 22-year-old recent graduate of Saint Louis University (SLU) wasn’t expecting a response from a smart speaker. And she didn’t quite get one.
“Hm, I don’t know that one.” Amazon’s virtual voice assistant replied. .
Vasos was actually voicing concerns over how her alma mater spends funds after it announced that it was installing more than 2,300 Echo Dot smart devices in student living spaces campus-wide.
At face value, its seems like a natural fit for young adults to use high-tech assistants in a connected age. However, the digital roommates supplied by Amazon were met with varying degrees of acceptance by students descending on their campus homes for the new school year. Privacy and security also play a major role when introducing college students, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, to technology that could turn out to be a surveillance nightmare.
“When I first heard about it, I was actually pretty shocked – in a bad way,” Vasos said. “If a friend breaks it, then who pays for that? What if it gets stolen – how do I prove that? I guess it just seems like it could lead to a lot more problems.”
Some students decided to unplug the device altogether.
“I stored away my Echo Dot because I don’t plan on using it,” said SLU freshman Savannah Smith, 18. “But I think it’s a great idea and learning tool for students to use on campus.”
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Others applaud the school, saying that they’ve already begun using the cloud-based service to get help with homework.
“I’m very proud that my school is using such innovative technology,” said Brendan McGuire, 19. “Instead of fumbling around with Google while I’m writing I can just ask Alexa. ‘Hey Alexa, ask SLU what’s the molecular weight of water?’ And I can have the answer without interrupting my process.”
McGuire, a resident adviser at one of SLU’s on-campus apartment complexes, said far more than the majority of students on-campus have welcomed the smart speaker.
“Sure, some individuals have unplugged or muted them, but for every one case I’ve heard of someone not using it, I’ve heard 20 or 30 cases of students using them,” McGuire said.
SLU said it expects students to use Echo Dots to get instant answers to questions like “What time does the library close tonight?” or “Where is the registrar’s office?” However, students have expressed interest in using smart home devices for other tasks.
“The only thing I would want to ask it are the same silly questions I ask Siri, like ‘Hi, Alexa, what’s your favorite color?’” said Lisa Millar, 21, a senior at the university. “That’s such a silly thing for a university to have for students when we should be focused on education.”
Vasos said the Missouri-based institution already has an app that students can use to get answers to common questions, and she suspects the hockey-puck-shaped smart speaker may have an adverse effect on campus culture. “It just makes it easier for students to avoid talking to one another and socializing.”
Another concern is privacy. The popular internet-enabled device, dominating 75 percent of the virtual assistant market, is always listening and stores recorded voices in the cloud. To ease privacy concerns, universities like SLU use versions of the gadget that don’t store personal data.
“There are those rumors that the government listens to what you’re talking about and you can’t help but wonder, could the university be listening in, too?” Vasos said.
“Privacy is part of the reason why I didn’t plug it in,” said Monica Ryan, 21. “As a senior, I’ve been around the block. I don’t really have that many questions to ask it, so I don’t really see the point.”
Earlier this year, a woman in Portland, Oregon, was shocked to find out that her Echo smart speaker eavesdropped on her private conversations and then sent an audio-recorded snippet to a random contact in Seattle. Amazon called the incident “an extremely rare occurrence.”
SLU isn’t the only campus to experiment with Echo Dots in undergraduate housing. Students at Northeastern University in Boston have the option of linking the smart speakers to their university accounts and last fall and Arizona State University equipped 1,600 students with devices donated by Amazon.
Some students at universities that have been slower to embrace the Alexa movement have encountered firewalls.
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“I essentially wanted my Echo Dot to be my mother at school – minus the nagging,” said Jamie Jones, a 20-year-old sophomore at Truman State University in Missouri. “I synced it with my Google Calendar to remind me of my class schedule. I set it up to tell me the weather in the morning, and I added a playlist of songs to play while I got ready for classes.”
However, when it came time to install her Echo Dot at school, she discovered she wouldn’t be able to connect it to the school’s private WiFi hotspot.
“The Echo Dot requires a direct internet connection, but to use the campus WiFi you have to enter a username and password. I instantly assumed that if I brought it to school, it would have been completely useless.”
Instead, she shipped the device back to Amazon. “As a college student, money is tight. I didn’t want this thing that’s worth 40 bucks just sitting there that I couldn’t use,” Jones said.
Some have even taken to Twitter to express their frustrations about the challenges with on-campus connectivity.
Twitter user @antonicelea writes, “I pay 20,000 dollars to go to a school that doesn’t let me connect my echo dot to the WiFi.”
Twitter users @jacindaknudtson writes “i’m so sad my echo dot doesn’t work in my dorm :(“.
Twitter user Christina Ayers, writes, “My Echo Dot is my favorite thing I own, and it doesn’t even work with the campus WiFi.”
“I tried everything,” said the 20-year-old freshman at the University of Nevada. “I tried using the guest WiFi and the secure WiFi, but nothing worked.”
She said she wanted the smart speaker on campus so she can more conveniently play music and call family members.
“I like that I can just be lazy or just sit around. You just say the command, and it does it. At home, I had an Alexa connected to my lights so I could command the lights to change colors, but at school, I can’t do that.”
Aside from being used to blast music, order pizza and to get help with calculations, the Echo Dot and similar internet-connected speakers can help give both students and parents an added sense of security.
“I’m not sure how often she uses it, but the Echo Dot serves as a safeguard so my daughter can call someone to come help her if she needs it,” said Julie Davis, Director of Instructional Technology and Innovation at Chattanooga Christian School.
Davis’ daughter Kendall, a freshman at Tennessee Tech, is a Type 1 diabetic. Kendall has a history of low blood sugar episodes, which can be disorienting. In severe cases, low blood sugar could lead to passing out or going into a coma.
“If a diabetic low happens or if she doesn’t feel well, she could just tell the Echo Dot to ‘call so-and-so,'” she said.
The tech is also useful enough for mom to use at work. Davis said she studied the educational uses of Alexa-enabled technology for the past three years, helping to start a pilot program at the elementary school where she works. Five classrooms at the school are now using the devices as teaching aids.
“It’s almost like having another teacher in the classroom. I can set up an Alexa in a group of four or five kids and it can teach them, read to them and quiz them on things,” Davis said. She also stressed the importance of student privacy, adding that the devices the teachers are using don’t record or store student data.
“I really believe the Echo Dot can be a great asset for students who want to use it, but I think that it should be completely choice-based,” Davis said. “We all make privacy decisions every day. We just have to be aware of what we are giving up in order to enjoy convenience.”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter @Dalvin_Brown
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