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University gives Amazon Echo Dots to students to improve freshmen experience

Andrew Hudson   ||   Jun 22, 2018  ||   

Amazon's voice-activated smart speakers have quickly become a hot ticket item. They're used to set reminders, alarms, control other smart home tech, ask questions to be answered by Google, and more.

Now, a Northeastern University spin-off company is leveraging Amazon's Echo Dot smart speaker to help improve the student experience on campus. As reported by [email protected] the company, N-Powered, is providing incoming freshmen with the speakers, equipped with an Echo Skill called Husky Helper. Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa can then answer common student questions that pull data from a variety of university sources.

N-Powered conducted a pilot study of Husky Helper with 60 Northeastern students this past academic year, and upon examining pilot results, found that student feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

One Northeastern student reported using Husky Helper to figure out who their academic advisor was, which was helpful, because the advisor had changed numerous throughout the semester. A different Northeastern freshman reported using the smart speaker to play music, as well as set timers when doing laundry.

The idea for the Husky Helper pilot was in part inspired after visiting the Northeastern University call center and examining the top 20 questions asked by students over the past three years. Some of the most common questions encountered in the call center regarded financial aid, account holds, advisors and balances on meal cards.

Interacting with Husky Helper via the Echo Dot works in the same way as any standard smart speaker. Students can ask Alexa questions from anywhere in the speaker's vicinity regarding relevant campus or student account information.

N-Powered officials stress that protecting student privacy is a top concern of the system. Each student that participated in the pilot willingly signed a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act document that enabled access to their student records. The system is “obfuscated end-to-end,” meaning all data is stored with encryption that is “near impossible to break.” Students can opt out of using the Skill altogether, or pick and choose which of their data is accessible.

Planning is underway to make Husky Helper available to incoming students this fall.

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