Voice control to teacher Tom...

Voice control to teacher Tom...
Date25th Oct 2021AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesTeaching

This piece was initially published on the Cogitate It blog here. 

Those who know me will be aware that I’m a bit of a technology geek. I’m an early adopter. For those who haven’t heard the term it means someone who’s prepared to spend, say, four times as much on a piece of kit in order to get it today instead of next year like the rest of you normal people.

However, when it comes to some things my “Big Brother is watching you and is trying to take all your money” paranoia takes over. So, for example, I won’t have Facebook on my phone, and whilst I have an account (to protect my name) I don’t use it. Also, up until fairly recently, I have refused to have a “smart” speaker device in my house. Until fairly recently. 

What changed my mind? Was it a deep review of the specifications and capabilities of the devices and investigations into the privacy issues they raise? Sadly no. My 90 year-old mother-in-law got one and I was, to say the least, a bit put out. I mean, I’m the early adopter in this family. The cheek of it!

So a few months ago I got an Amazon Dot (in a sale, no less, 25 quid) and haven’t looked back. I’ve since bought a few Alexa compatible plug devices and all the things in the house that need to be turned on and off now can be by voice command. A good example of where this helps is with my printer which is on a different floor to where I usually work, so I can turn it on, then print. When we add things to the shopping list it also adds it directly the Tescos order (using IFTTT). Also, at the end of the day there is a single command that turns everything off that needs to be off, turns everything on that needs to be on and sets the alarm. When I come home from work, I can tell it to put some music on.

So far, so sad.

Let’s get on to the education bit.

My Alexa Dot recognises my voice. The software in the system doesn’t (currently) restrict actions that I can make it carry out but there is no reason why it could not. I would suspect the standard Dot would do this within a couple of years.

So I start to think of all those trivial tasks I currently have to do on the computer and wonder why we can’t have a system like this that does it in the classroom. 

  • “Computer, take the register, John and Amy are absent.”
  • “Computer, add an achievement point to Asif for his excellent effort today.”
  • “Computer, freeze frame the projector.”
  • “Computer, order some exercise books.”
  • ”Computer, set Exercise 5a on page 56 for homework, due in on Wednesday.”

Each day as a teacher I lose count of the number of these tasks I have to carry out. Have I remembered to put them all on the system? How much time am I having to take out of the lesson, and after, to do all this? How much time would I save if the act of saying these things meant they were done?

I know there is at least one system under trial at the moment that works along these lines. Any such system has to have:

  • Voice identification.
  • Interoperability at the same level as Alexa.
  • Interoperability with, for example, IFTTT and/or Zapier.

The key point is there’s no technological reason preventing this from happening. All the bits are there. They’re no longer in beta, nor are they obscenely expensive.

People often ask why technology has not so far provided teachers with the help that everyone (well, people like me) keeps saying it should. I think there are a number of reasons. 

Firstly, insufficient training has been provided to enable all to get the best out of systems that do exist. 

Secondly, and this is the unpopular one, there are a substantial minority of teachers who baulk at the use of technology. This is the same in most professions but in schools it is particularly problematic as most of the substantial gains from technology are to be had by blanket implementation and usage. There is no room for the “I prefer to use pen and paper” person. 

And thirdly, it is only very recently that all this technology has come together into a capability this usable and this effective. You can try it at home and see how useful it is.

If every school is not voice enabled within. 10 years, preferably 5 years, then I will consider that a failure of imagination on the part of those who have the power and influence to make it happen.

Mike Cameron is a school governor and computing teacher with experience in accounting and school leadership. He blogs about education at Cogitate It.

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