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Is Amazon Alexa harmful to children’s educational development?

AI and virtual assistants are fundamentally changing children’s educational development. Read the benefits and drawbacks to more AI in education.

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Thanks to Apple’s Siri, voice recognition software is now relatively ubiquitous. As consumers, we have become comfortable using voice activated controls for routine, day-to-day tasks. AI systems like Amazon Alexa, the software that sits behind Amazon’s Echo device, is designed to make everyday actions more convenient. But what about the children growing up surrounded by this advanced technology?

Edtech has proven to inspire and engage pupils, and provide a vehicle for collaborative learning. So, is there a place for artificial intelligence in education too, or is it breeding a sense of entitlement and damaging communication skills in younger children? Some argue AI and use of other home-tech can impact a child’s educational development.

Early adopting industries like fashion and retail make extensive use of emerging technologies to drive business; virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence all provide game changing interactive experiences. It’s natural, then, that these technologies drip into other industries to enhance the provision of services.

Education is no different — edtech provides teachers with interactive platforms to enhance learning, engage mixed-ability classes and ultimately drive results and attainment. So, what are the benefits and drawbacks of the youngest generation growing up surrounded by AI?

Communicating with virtual assistants

Amazon Alexa’s voice recognition algorithm can teach children to understand language complexities, and help them identify patterns and rules in speech. It also differentiates AI communication from human interaction, teaching children that you can’t engage a machine in the same way as a human. Alexa’s voice recognition software teaches children the need to remain quiet when another person is communicating with the device, in turn improving behaviour in class.

With so much convenience in the household and schools, however, some children are treating Alexa like a human servant. Engaging with a virtual assistant is arguably shifting the way children communicate overall. Adults, unfortunately, tend to be impolite when instructing their devices, and children naturally take a cue from their social interactions. It is advised to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to AI devices in schools, to set a solid example.

Conversation complexity

While children can have a ‘conversation’ with Alexa, the passive nature of communication with any AI robot is entirely different to human-to-human interaction.

This reduced complexity can sometimes be positive; limited feedback can boost the confidence of children with communication challenges. Young people, however, will never be challenged or corrected when they make mistakes, ask Alexa impertinent questions, or make impatient commands.

Rather than sit back and let a pupil communicate with an AI device one-on-one, get involved in the conversation. Educators can enrich the communication by taking an active role. And once the communication has finished, ask a child for feedback and find out what they learnt.

Interactive learning

Some educators fear that AI could jeopardise the teaching profession in the future, but AI is far from sophisticated enough to replace a human teacher. AI can supplement teaching, however, with forms of interactive, personalised learning and progress tracking in the classroom. It can give teachers more time to focus on value-adding activities at school, rather than on data management and administrative duties.

Much like other forms of edtech, Amazon Alexa has a bank of interactive games that can enhance learning. These activities include collaborative storytelling, spelling tests, maths exercises, fact finding lessons, and general knowledge quizzes.

Amazon Alexa’s top activities for interactive learning are:

  • Earplay — storytelling game with interactivity and decision making that encourages creativity
  • Bingo — a digital version of the traditional numbers game
  • Twenty Questions — a guessing game in which Alexa asks questions to identify an animal, vegetable or mineral
  • Spelling Bee — a spelling quiz with different levels for various learning abilities
  • Maths Mania — maths lessons with multiple options and levels

Provide a tech balance

Some argue that children can form an unhealthy attachment to their AI devices, or become too reliant on their services. Technology like Amazon Alexa can exacerbate anti-social or withdrawn behaviour in quieter children, while underdeveloped minds can form an addiction to technology.

Much like other forms of edtech — tablets, mobile devices or interactive front of class displays like ActivPanels — AI-enabled devices like Amazon Alexa encourage digital literacy and collaborative learning, develop core interactive skills and boost pupils’ confidence. The onus, then, is on educators to provide a healthy balance when children are free to use this technology. Enforce time limits on device use, set up teacher profiles and passwords so usage is only be carried out in a supervised or controlled environment.