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Learning With Alexa: Amazon Skills For Parents And Teachers

An Amazon Echo on a white background.
Amazon has a variety of Alexa devices, including the Alexa app for your phone.

When the pandemic hit and parents were suddenly tasked with helping teach their kids at home, there was a lot for them to quickly learn. So Tiffany Hunt, a University of Wyoming (UW) associate lecturer in the special education department, stepped in to help fill the gap. She partnered with colleagues from UW, the University of Kansas, and the University of Illinois to create a series of apps known as Amazon Alexa skills. One teaches parents strategies to support student's learning and another shows how to give their children effective feedback.

According to Hunt, there are certain steps to take to give effective feedback.

"It's not just saying 'good job,' or 'Nope, you didn't get it right.' There are steps that you take and things that you need to think about when you're giving effective feedback. So in this skill, it walks you through that," she said.

According to Hunt, Alexa skills are interactive, which means a lot of people engage with them more than other ways of learning. And it's hands-free.

"This is something that I could do completely on my own. Potentially, while I'm cooking dinner for my kiddos, I have my Alexa device going and I can be learning something that is going to benefit me," said Hunt.

The skills are more than just lectures. They include interactive quizzes that offer feedback and recorded examples.

But Hunt and her team didn't stop there. They also created a skill that helps teachers learn strategies to recognize and accommodate dyslexia. It's currently being reviewed by Amazon for acceptance, but Hunt has big plans for it.

"With this dyslexia one, when you first start the skill it will ask you if you're okay if it takes your email information. And if you say 'yes,' then we'll just collect your email address from your Amazon account and then we have a spreadsheet that will track your answers to any of the questions that you were asked about, like the true false and multiple choice questions," she said. "And if you get something like 85 percent of them correct, then when you finish the whole skill, you'll get sent a certificate of completion that says that you successfully completed the dyslexia skill."

They're still working with the Professional Teaching Standards Board on the specifics, but Hunt hopes these skills can be used toward teacher's required professional development.

"We'd like to see that educators are able to get credit for doing it, because, one, it's a unique way to receive professional development. But again, it's creating it in a way that is, maybe it's as doable for you as possible," said Hunt. "I don't have to attend a conference, I don't have to spend a day in my district's PD day and I sit in the cafeteria and I learn all the things that everyone wants me to learn. And that's important, I'm not taking anything away from those things, those are really important for our school district and our teachers. But this is something that I could do completely on my own."

Hunt has already completed a study with teachers and received a lot of positive feedback. She said most participants didn't even use an Alexa device, they just used the app, which makes the skill even more widely available to those who are interested. She hopes to create more skills in the future, including some with visual elements for Alexas with screens.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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