December 28, 2017Bertrand Vacherot
The University of Oklahoma is always seeking new ways to leverage innovative technologies to engage its students and improve the student experience. Voice is rapidly emerging as a promising new interface that OU students are leveraging in their day-to-day interactions with technology. Many are now bringing Alexa-enabled devices to college with them. OU Information Technology saw this emerging trend as an opportunity to engage students in a new and relevant way.
“Artificial intelligence and voice technology have become increasingly common in students’ homes prior to attending university, and they should be able to leverage the services they are already familiar with and enjoy using once they are here,” says Daniel Shuart, associate vice president of OU IT. “We know that engaged students perform better and are more likely to be retained, so we think Alexa can be a remarkable tool for helping us continue the success we’ve had with improving our retention rates.”
“We are seeing our peers experiment with voice to drive deeper engagement," adds Aaron Bighorse, IT architect at OU. "And we want to be at the forefront of this paradigm change and meet our students where they are.”
Inspired to leverage voice technology to drive student engagement, OU embarked on a pilot project to develop Alexa skills. OU’s first skills were a proof of concept to help the university understand how to provide meaningful information with voice.
The team chose to start simply, coding basic skills that delivered high value to students. Bighorse and his team hoped to learn from their prototypes and understand more about how voice fits into the university experience.
“Before writing a line of code, we needed to understand what was possible. We were amazed to learn the breadth of possibilities. The fact that we could quickly develop a skill and then rapidly deliver it to students was very compelling,” says Aaron Biggs, executive director of Technology Advancement.
OU’s first skill, OU Directory, provides quick access to the most frequently used university phone numbers. Bighorse and his team reviewed operator call logs and pulled in the top 10 most commonly requested phone numbers. The team then cross matched the numbers with the business function, hours of operation and address for each location. Doing so ensured the skill contained relevant, up-to-date information about OU’s core business operations that was useful to the students. Students can say for example, “Alexa, ask OU directory the number for Admissions,” and Alexa will reply with the campus contact number for the Office of Admissions.
The next skill, OU Facts, delights users by providing an inventory of 87 interesting facts about the university delivered at random. For this skill, the team simply pulled interesting facts from the public affairs webpage, making them available through a simple voice query.
To drive student engagement with these skills, OU provided nearly 600 Echo Dot devices to residential students. “We suggested skills for them to try, and there was a lot of excitement,” says Biggs. “The students couldn’t wait to try them out.”
While the OU IT team says it’s still too early to measure the impact the skills are having on student engagement, initial student interest has exceeded expectations. Not only have the skills provided key insights for the IT team regarding how to incorporate voice into the campus experience, but they’ve also sparked interest in student developers. At a recent OU hackathon, students had the opportunity to develop Alexa skills of their own.
“These skills have both provided a new way for students to engage with the university and led to student-driven innovation through our recent hackathon,” says Bighorse. “We love voice as a technology. Moving forward we want to keep our focus on serving the students, both as customers and developers.”
More than 100 students participated in the IT department’s first voice-powered hackathon. The four winning teams created skills focused on enhancing the student experience on campus.
The winning skills included:
The Oklahoma Governor’s Office provided a written letter of commendation and praised the great student community and OU effort.
The OU IT team says the Alexa Skills Kit simplified the skill-building process. “I love that the focus isn’t on tech coding or development but instead on delivering great experiences for users,” says Shuart.
“I really appreciate the time and effort Amazon is putting into its support tools. ASK is a fantastic, welcoming interface that’s easy to navigate and seems to be constantly in development, which is great,” says Bighorse.
From start to finish, the pilot skills took a couple of weeks to build. And while the skills were quick to code, the team found that it spent most of its time thinking through the utterances and user experience. The team wanted to be sure they were using authentic terminology and getting to the heart of what students wanted to know. “Our skills needed to accommodate student requests in the way they delivered them, whether they were asking for the bursar’s number, or how to pay their bill,” says Biggs.
Because of the focus on student needs, student participation in development was invaluable. "Students were involved in building the earliest version of the skill. They helped determine the utterances and what the conversations would sound like," says Bighorse.
In addition to developing for the specific needs of students, the team says building for voice in general is a learning experience. “You have to understand how voice differs from a point and click experience and be sure you’re not returning too much information to users. A paragraph over voice—as opposed to text—is too much,” says Bighorse. “The biggest takeaway from this development process was stepping out of our own heads to focus on user experience. Alexa allows you to think differently.”
Looking ahead, the OU IT team has big plans for Alexa. “When it comes to technology, the current generation of students is all about touch, but increasingly I believe it’s going to be about voice,” says Biggs.
The team imagines Alexa-enabled dorm rooms as well as voice-enabled classrooms that interface with core systems, including learning management and Customer Relationship Management. Considering all opportunities, Shuart hints that the next skill from OU might be a flash briefing skill that will help the administration understand retention and engagement numbers on an ongoing basis.
In the long term, Shuart believes that students may benefit from skills built by the OU IT team as well as those built by students at OU. “Students ultimately know what they like and need,” says Shuart. “If we can work with them to build innovative solutions, then I think we are promoting the best learning environment possible.”
For others in education exploring opportunities with voice, Shuart and Bighorse suggest developers consider getting started with ASK. “Think in terms of the way the consumer will utilize your skill. That’s the starting point,” says Shuart.
“Then just get in and get started,” says Bighorse.
The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) enables developers to build capabilities, or skills, for Alexa. ASK is a collection of self-service APIs, documentation, tools, and code samples that make it fast and easy for anyone to add skills to Alexa.
Developers have built more than 25,000 skills with ASK. Explore the stories behind some of these innovations, start building your own skill, and learn more about how Alexa can transform education.
Bring your big idea to life with Alexa and earn perks through our tiered rewards system. US developers, publish a skill in December and receive an Alexa developer hoodie. If 100 customers use your skill in its first 30 days in the Alexa Skills Store, you can also apply to receive a free Echo Dot to help you make Alexa even smarter. If you need inspiration, consider creating a holiday-themed skill to get into the holiday spirit. If you're not in the US, check out our promotions in the UK, Germany, and India. Learn more about our promotion and start building today.