Alexa, the voice assistant to Amazon, is not just a bot in a box in the tiny primary school of Marathi, about 170 km from Nagpur. Within a mannequin dressed in intelligent clothes and rimmed glasses, the device is neatly equipped here. Her voice emerges via Bluetooth-connected speakers and has changed the way students learn in this Marathi medium school.
The concept of Amol Bhoyar, one of the only two educators at the college who has 36 students on the roll, was to give the device shape and form. During school hours, cheap internet connectivity via Jio ensures that she is always online.
AMC is not the only school to carry a speech assistant. Learning Matters, a Bengaluru-based Edtech startup, has created its own take on Alexa— its name is Tara and is presently being used in two Tamil Nadu Colleges. Gowri Mahesh, who co-founded the company together with Saras Ramamoorthy and Ramamoorthy G, states, “We focus on improving teaching results in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns. That also implies enhancing teaching quality. We came with voice-based technology because smartphones are often not permitted in classrooms.”
Headmistress Padma V of one of the school suggests, “The distinction between teachers and machine is that in a very gentle voice she corrects them. The children can hear the correct pronunciation, and they don’t feel judged to get something incorrect.”
Ramakrishna Aramhence Marg Municipal Marathi School based in Mumbai has used a speech assistant to assist their learners with English conversation. Pooja Sankhe, the teacher behind the concept, came up with it when she began asking Echo Dot device questions at home.
“Most of our learners come from neighboring slum fields and were so enthusiastic that there was a robot in their school. They often carry accessories to spice up their appearance,” tells the teacher who earned national award for the idea. They began with easy issues such as’ how are you’ and’ what day is it today’ and ramped up the questioning level rapidly.
Children also take the chance to ask Alexa questions of all types of general knowledge, as many of them do not have internet access. Encouraging the use of voice assistants in education, Amazon has Alexa Skills based on learning, such as the quiz by Amar Chitra Katha testing Indian mythology understanding. Teachers can also use Alexa Blueprints to customize their experience.
They want Tara to teach other topics for Learning Matters, while the focus is on English at the moment. “The objective is not to replace a teacher but to provide teachers with a resource to help”.
In the last three to four years, we’ve seen an enormous difference in schools being more open to integrating technology, and it’s just a matter of time and exposure before voice-based technology becomes more prevalent in education, says Mahesh.