Saint Louis University (SLU) has rolled out 2,300 Alexa-powered Echo Dot virtual assistants to all of its student living spaces to provide answers to university-related queries about events, speakers on campus and more.
The university also plans to extend use of the artificial intelligence assistant into classrooms and meeting rooms in future and aims to use the technology to support workplace productivity for its faculty staff, according to CIO, David Hakanson.
Students arriving at SLU this month can access a custom skill that answers questions relating to university services, such as “When does the library open?” or “Where is the registrar’s office?”
Already, 130 university-related queries can be answered using the Alexa, and the university is working on more. The idea is that Alexa can reduce the time it takes for students to access information online from seconds to minutes. “The value proposition for us was around productivity,” said Hakanson.
While it is not alone in providing Echo devices to students — Arizona State University and Northeastern University are among those with similar initiatives, albeit on a smaller scale — SLU’s use of Alexa-powered devices can be a differentiator in helping attract more students, said Rob Arnold, industry principal for connected work at Frost & Sullivan.“It is an interesting deployment,” he said. “There is a lot of competition among higher-education institutions to attract students, and this appears to be a fine point of differentiation for SLU.”
Hakanson said that the rollout of Echo Dot devices to students is “just day one” in SLU’s plans for voice interfaces within the university.
“We are investing in this because we see voice technology as being a major component of improving productivity,” he said.
“We see a time in the next few years where people are spending less time searching for information through websites, or searching for reports, and instead using a virtual assistant to get immediate access to data.”
Deployment and management
SLU began investigating the use of the technology earlier this year, and the rollout took three months from conception to completion, with the actual deployment of devices requiring just three days.
A pilot project this spring saw 20 Echo devices and 20 devices from an unnamed rival provider given to students as a trial of the technology. “We surveyed them multiple times throughout that pilot, and the preference was the Amazon platform,” said Hakanson.
Amazon’s tools stood out for two reasons. For students, Alexa was the easiest virtual assistant to interact with. But equally important was the ability to manage devices using Alexa for Business, Hakanson said.
The Alexa for Business platform, announced by Amazon in November 2017, provides a management console to help administrators deploy large numbers of Echo devices in corporate settings.
“The ability to centrally manage devices through one system and the flexibility that comes from Alexa for Business was a significant differentiator,” said Hakanson.
“If we had 10 to 20 devices, then individually managing those [would be difficult], but at 2,300, there was no way we were going to effectively manage them without having some robust centralized management system.
“The Alexa for Business platform is what really allowed us to do this at any level of scale.”
The use of virtual assistants raises privacy concerns in the workplace, said Arnold, and this is also true in the university setting. “Admins and users need to be smart and aware of information they share in the presence of voice assistants in any environment,” said Arnold.
It is a factor that SLU took into account as part of the deployment project. “We were very cautious, and so we have the devices on a dedicated, secured network that is specific to this purpose,” said Hakanson.
Students are told they can simply press the mute button of the Echo Dot devices or stow them away until they leave the space where the device is located. The privacy guidelines offered by Amazon Web Services are also provided for students to view.
Furthermore, the devices are not currently linked to any individual accounts, meaning that students’ personal information is not accessed by the Echo devices. The downside to current security and privacy measures is that certain Alexa skills — for instance popular music-streaming services such as Spotify — are unavailable to students.
Over time, there will likely be more personalization of devices, however, allowing access to personal course information, grades, timetables and so forth. “We are not at that point yet, and we feel that there is some more due diligence needed to make sure that the appropriate level of security and privacy is in place before we offer those features,” Hakanson said.
Security was not the only challenge for IT, Hakanson pointed out. “Getting these devices on an enterprise corporate network is not always trivial, so you definitely have to look a the architecture of your network and make sure you are designing it in a way that these device can connect easily.”
SLU plans to deploy Alexa and Echo devices more widely in future too. The technology could be used in a variety of ways to support faculty staff.
A proof of concept has been set up to use the Alexa voice interface to start classroom or meeting-room systems. This means connecting Alexa for Business with SLU’s Crestron control and automaton tools to switch on projectors, TVs or conferencing systems.
“So you can go into the room and say, ‘Alexa start my class,’ or, ‘Alexa start my meeting,’ and then various technologies will come to life and have everything ready for you,” said Hakanson.
The virtual assistants could also be personalized for faculty staff for office productivity purposes, allowing staff to ask questions that might otherwise require reports to be created.
“We see a lot of potential from a broader productivity standpoint in the workplace through this type of technology, and so we are pursuing that,” he said, with the caveat that more work needs to be done on security before moving ahead.
Frost & Sullivan’s Arnold said that Alexa and other voice-activated assistants will become more commonplace in business environments. “In general, we do expect to see voice-driven AI become more prevalent in business environments, particularly for use cases such as virtual receptionists, concierge and orchestrating technology in meeting rooms.”