Digital Assistants Move In At Saint Louis University

    By George Sells

    The college experience has changed a great deal in recent years, but the latest advancement intended to help students at Saint Louis University represents another sizable technological leap.

    Amazon Echo devices, with the popular “Alexa” technology, have not only arrived on campus, they’ve taken up residence. There is one in every university owned dorm room and apartment.

    If you have a question about the university and its activities, SLU officials hope students will “Ask SLU.” The devices are programmed to respond to that command with answers to queries, such as, “When is spring break?”

    “Spring break is from Monday March 11 to Saturday March 18. What else would you like to know?’ responds the device, which is about the size of a hockey puck.

    About 2300 of the devices have been installed, with the reason, according to the university, going far beyond the “gee whiz” of a new gadget.

    “The focus of the project was really around productivity,” SLU Chief Innovation Officer David Hakanson said. “And that can be productivity just general knowledge questions, that you can ask Alexa in your home or here. But also what about the SLU specific questions? What are the things our students might be looking for that are taking time for theme to find? Where they’re searching through websites, looking through calendars, and how can we take a process that’s taking five minutes and get them that answer in about five seconds or less?”

    It is being met by students warmly, but with a little skepticism, too.

    “I like it,” senior engineering student Annika Hylen responds when asked about it. She then continues, “I think it has a long way to go as far as productivity. So right now I use it for setting reminders, timers, I use the I heart radio skill it has as well. As an upperclassmen I have found a few questions to ask using the Ask SLU skill, but probably not as many as expected.”

    She also points out that basic questions are not always answered on the first try, or even the second, when you ask, for example, about the day’s events on campus.

    “Sorry, couldn’t find any information on that or maybe I misunderstood you,” the device responded when asked, “What is happening on campus?”

    Hylen elaborates, “She either responds that she doesn’t know or she responds with a really long list of every professor’s talk that’s going on, or every game that’s going on. So you have to be really specific in how you ask what’s going on on campus.”

    Officials say working out the bugs is a major focus right now.

    The university has also been faced with a little bit of public relations work. A tweet announcing the new devices, along with an accompanying video, set off a small uproar among some alumni and students. They questioned the need for such an expenditure, and, in some cases, if there was a privacy issue. Some worry the machine is “listening” to them.

    Hylen says getting used to the device will take time for some.

    “Personally speaking, I don’t know how trustworthy I would be of the device as of now, so I think it would take a couple of more years on the market for just everyone to get more comfortable with it.”

    But the university sees it as a wind for the students with an emerging technology. In just the first week of school, 75% of the devices were used and some 1700 “SLU-specific” questions were asked according to school officials.

    “Success is really feedback from the students and general usage,” Hakanson said. “Seeing the 75% usage in one week, we think that’s fantastic because we know with this technology, it’s gonna grow over time. Like in the household, you ask it a few questions, but you really don’t have it as more of your daily routine until you’re more accustomed to it and that takes a little bit of time.”

    Making it part of that daily routine will require making it better, something Hakanson says SLU is working with programmers to accomplish.

    “We’ll be focused on personalization,” he said. “So how can we not only get general purpose information to students, but how can we get specific information, such as being able to ask when is my next class today or what was my grade on that assignment? Things very personalized. We see that as the future.”

    Hylen sees that future as an exciting one.

    “As an engineering student this is a field I’m interested in studying and potentially going into post-graduation,” she said. “So it’s been more than anything else kind of an educational tool as far as what needs to be improved and what is working now because I don’t see it going away any time soon.”