Julie Daniel Davis is something of an evangelist when it comes to voice technology in education. Originally a full-time educator, she transitioned to a career as a voice technology expert and consultant thanks to her love of technology and willingness to take matters into her own hands. Davis is an Alexa skills builder, a finalist in the 2020 Project Voice Awards and was recently named an Alexa Champion.
Davis finished her Master’s in Instructional Technology in 2007 and says she has looked for ways to incorporate the latest technology in her classroom ever since. She bought one of the first Amazon Echo devices back in late 2015 and immediately wanted to see how she could use it.
“I have always believed there is a place in education for voice technology,” she said.
Over the next couple years, Davis polled her network of fellow educators on Twitter only to discover that no one was really using voice devices as a tool for the classroom. So, she took matters into her own hands. The 2018 Alexa Conference (now Project Voice) was coming up in her hometown of Chattanooga, TN. She contacted the organizer and expressed her strong interest in learning how to incorporate voice into her lesson plan. She not only received an invitation to the conference—but an invitation to speak on the subject.
“I really got my feet wet at the Alexa Conference,” said Davis. “It was such a cool opportunity to mingle with big players in the voice industry. The conference opened doors for me to become a spokesperson for what education needs and wants from a voice assistant.”
“We learn by doing,” as the saying goes, so Davis jumped in feet first by building with Alexa Skill Blueprints, rather than coding from scratch. She then started a podcast, Voice in Education, which led to the 2020 Project Voice Awards naming Davis as a finalist in both the Voice AI Commentator of The Year and the Flash Briefing categories.
“I started my podcast because it was an easy way for me to put out information to teachers,” said Davis. “But I’ve gained a huge following of voice developers—which I didn’t expect at all—because they want to make sure they’re creating what educators want.”
Despite her following, Davis faces challenges as a woman in technology. But in true Julie-fashion, Davis is taking that challenge into her own hands, too. Within the Alexa voice developer community, Davis is an active proponent and encourager of women who feel the pressure of working in a male-dominated industry. At the 2019 Voice World conference in Chattanooga, after asking a female speaker about the impact of being a woman in voice, four women she’d never met before followed her outside.
“They wanted to thank me for asking that question,” said Davis. “Women in technology have to constantly prove themselves. However, I’ve found the voice community more welcoming to women—to everyone, actually—than any other industry I've ever been a part of.”
People want to learn and that naturally leads to an interest in educational technology. Davis says she’s personally seen how voice technology can enhance learning—from organizing teachers, to helping students learning English as a second language, to reigniting a love of learning in adults. And with her foot firmly in the door, Davis intends to push to ensure voice technology makes an even bigger impact on education.
“We speak three times faster than we type, so voice is just a natural, efficient way to learn,” said Davis. “And it lends itself to creativity. Every day I see people dreaming up possibilities with voice technology that I hadn’t even thought about.”
Davis says she continues to consult with developers on how to expand voice in education. She recently interviewed some members of the Alexa Education Team for her blog about several new opportunities for using Alexa skills in a learning environment. An active member of the voice developer community on the Alexa Developers Slack Channel, Amazon recently named Davis an Alexa Champion, an honor which both shocked and delighted her.
“Becoming an Alexa Champion is one of the highlights of my career,” said Davis. “I don’t consider myself a developer and thought it might be a mistake. But they told me they felt my podcast is important for the future of voice."
Davis says she feels fortunate and excited to be an integral part of the changing face of education, especially when the pandemic has further accelerated the role of technology in the classroom in so many ways. According to Davis, it is unlikely education will ever go back to the way it was before, and she knows that the role voice plays in learning will continue to grow.
“I firmly believe that if we continue to dream bigger, voice technology can meet the needs of future teachers and students,” said Davis. “I was literally in the right place at the right time. And this is where I’m supposed to be, helping voice develop into something truly helpful for education purposes.”
“We will see voice become more widely accepted as an input interface. Many of the platforms we currently use in education especially will embrace a more multimodal approach to access. With this, I think we will see more niche products hit the market for specific consumers. For instance, new parents will have their own devices to log baby habits. I think many niche markets will see more capabilities of voice being embedded in their current and future platforms.
Voice technology is beginning to show efficiencies and results in a wide range of areas, and developers are beginning to listen to the wants and needs of these niches. COVID has forced the world to look beyond the norm and towards low contact, no contact alternatives for connection. The current world of virtual/mobile connectivity to get the job done opens the door for innovators to dream differently for the future. In March 2020, no one could imagine a world where K-12 students would all be learning from home. I believe this imposed change will have ripple effects that make the unimaginable happen out of perceived necessities.”
- Julie Daniel Davis, Adjunct Edtech Professor