Monday, January 28, 2019

The Siri/Alexa Effect: It's a Real and Significant Thing, Part 2

The Siri/Alexa Effect was mentioned the other day in a professional learning session when a teacher noted how easy it is for kids to get homework help from Siri, and that's precisely one of the things I talked about it my first post about the Siri/Alexa Effect.

So let's talk a bit more about these fabulous resources, and I'm not being tongue-in-cheek. Like a proud parent, Amazon likes to tout new skills Alexa is learning. Apparently Alexa has over 70,000 skills, and counting. You can find Alexa's top 2018 skills here, or just ask her about her top skills.

Let me say this about Alexa: there are a lot of game connections. A lot. There are other features for home security and management, task management, and wellness. I don't think education was at the forefront of developers' minds when they started developing Alexa.

The voice assistant boom isn't limited to Siri or Alexa, of course. In the run-up to Christmas, we saw Facebook and Google advertising their versions with video and video call capability as well. What tech insiders are trying to tell us is that this technology isn't nearly as sophisticated as we might think; not yet anyway.

Music is the number one reason to use the smartspeaker, or the news or weather. It's stuff we can find anywhere else pretty easily but it's just so much easier to say "Alexa, what's the weather today?" than go all the way over to the computer and make sure it's out of sleep mode and find the icon for The Weather Channel and then, oh my goodness, tap the icon and then actually read the weather information. Exhausting.

But I have an understanding of why people dig the access of Siri and Alexa. And I understand the suspicion many have of Siri or Alexa secretly recording everything we say and not just to make the AI interface smarter. In my house, when we're talking about Alexa, we say "Voldemort" so she doesn't try to respond to something that isn't an actual request.

Some time ago I was talking with a first grade teacher was annoyed that her students didn't understand why they needed to learn how 2 + 1 equals 3. They seemed to think it was enough that they knew that 2 + 1 = 3. They're in first grade so the nuances of place value or number sense is still a work in progress for them. I've been thinking about this a lot and I realize this is likely an outcome of the Siri/Alexa Effect not to mention the Wikipedia/Internet Effect. I mean, why should I know the why or how of something when I can watch it on a YouTube video or when I can just look it up on the internet or ask Alexa? I'm being facetious, but these first graders are likely reflecting what they see happening in their homes with their parents and any older siblings.

Just recently I read an article titled "The Rising Relevance Gap." Let me sum up: school is boring and what kids are learning isn't relevant. Oh yea, I can hear teachers protesting loudly and rightly so in most cases. However, let's think about this a bit.

Last week a facilitator shared a story about a lesson she'd done with some students. They were learning about the life cycle of plants, watching a plant grow and learning a bit about what bees do to help plants grow. The teacher mentioned something about the possibility that some of them might build a robotic bee if there weren't enough bees in the world. One little guy went over the makerspace and started gathering stuff. When asked what he was doing, he said, "Building a robotic bee. Why wait?"

Indeed. Why wait?

Did he know how? No. But he didn't care about that. He cared about figuring out how to create a robotic bee because that could solve a problem. And knowing how to solve a problem often means knowing how to ask questions.

A friend of mine asked me if she could use Voldemort to ask the names of an athlete's children. It took us a few times to craft the question to get to the answer. There was important learning on our parts to figure out how to ask the question to get the answer we wanted.

Just recently I found an article from last August about universities experimenting with Alexa. Students could ask about the university--what time a building closes, the final exam schedule, etc. The universities want more: they want to be able to set up smart tutors. And students want more: they want a personal assistant rather than "a reactive device."

But I want to go back to that smart tutor because I think that's what could really make the most sense for K-20, but then we might be in Google Home, Amazon Echo Show, and Facebook Portal territory. It's one thing to ask Alexa the answer to 3 + 2 or even more complex math problems, though she has her limitations.
Alexa did fine with some basic questions, as you can see. But then I asked her how to calculate a cube root.  Her answer was not helpful. Then I gave her a longer word problem. I asked her, "Alexa, if the width of a square is 4 and the length of a square is 6, what is the area of the square?" She asked me to repeat it, which I did, and then she told me she wasn't sure. I guess Alexa isn't a fan of word problems either.

I realize, though, that one of the reasons kids watch a lot of YouTube videos is because they can learn stuff from them. And let's be real: kids are not alone. I started baking bread again this winter and my first few loaves came out looking really weird. I couldn't remember how to shape the loaf, so what did I do? I looked for a video on YouTube. I can imagine being up to my wrists in flour and bread and asking a smart assistant for a video on how to shape a loaf of bread.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and asking a smart assistant how to solve a differential equation. (Not really, but I've had some weird fixation about differential equations recently; I can't explain it.) I know I'd need to see the process.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing someone to proofread my paper, and that one is a bit tougher. But what if there was a way for me to share my paper with the smart system and have it read the paper aloud to me while I followed it with the text. And what if the smart system were smart enough to recognize problem phrases, awkward transitions, shifts in verb tenses, etc.?

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing a way to review for a test. Wouldn't it be amazing if the smart tutor had access to a teacher's old tests, the study materials, and my notes and could quiz me? And, even better, help correct me and direct me where I need to go to review?

I think one of the significant points is that students can learn many things through using a smart system. Maybe they learn how to ask better questions. Maybe they learn that some things they don't really need to learn because they can always ask or look it up.

I believe what's important for all of us to consider is what we'd like students to be able to learn. Perhaps if we helped developers understand those skills, they could begin to design with those ends in mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment