Just west of downtown St. Louis, a stone’s throw from the Gateway Arch, sits St. Louis University. Founded in 1818, this private, Catholic university is steeped in tradition and school pride. But the centuries old school — the oldest university west of the Mississippi, in fact — is the first to put smart speakers to in dorm rooms.
Like most colleges, new initiatives are popping up every day. You can see the evolution of technology and the passing of time in one scan of the varied campus architecture.
Next door to the imposing, Romanesque home of 19th-century St. Louis entrepreneur Sam Cupples is the Pius XII Memorial Library, built in 1959 and recently remodeled to include 3D printers, robots and collaborative spaces with touchscreen tables and whiteboard walls.
Across the concourse is the newest dorm on campus, Grand Hall. It opened in 2017 and houses 528 first- and second-year students, but even newer than the dorm rooms is the addition of a tiny, puck-shaped roommate for every student: The Amazon Echo Dot.
Now in its second year, the Alexa at SLU initiative is a fixture in the residence life culture. Each dorm room comes equipped with an SLU-emblazoned, and instructions on how to use it, what students can ask and what to do if there are technical issues.
The network of 2,300 Echo Dots is powered by Amazon’s Alexa for Business platform. A private SLU skill built through Amazon Web Services (AWS) is enabled on each Echo Dot. That skill can answer more than 135 questions about campus events, building hours, even nearby food options.
Students can stream music, podcasts and live radio through iHeartRadio and call any phone number, including contacts in SLU’s directory of student services.
How did Alexa come to college? That journey begins with David Hakanson, who joined the SLU faculty in 2013. He’s now the vice president, chief information officer and chief innovation officer overseeing the university’s IT department.
An adopter of smart home technology in his own home and a proponent of higher education as a pioneering space for tech, Hakanson did what all tech junkies do when they’re looking for the next big thing: He hit the CES show floor in Las Vegas.
“One of the things we do every year is send a team to the consumer electronics show,” said Hakanson. “We know that a lot of the technologies you see there are going to come to our house, and for us, it’s going to go to our students.”
That concept was proven by the three students I talked with during my campus visit. Each one came to college from a home with a smart speaker in it.
“My parents actually both bought each other an Alexa for Christmas at the same time,” noted Justin Pointer, a sophomore in aerospace engineering.
Hakanson knows that an increase in smart home tech off campus is going to influence what students bring with them on move-in day.
“The students are either going to want to bring it here, or they’re going to want to use that type of technology to interact with the university,” said Hakanson. “It was obvious there was a big focus around voice technology, Alexa and the connected home.”
The team’s CES visit sparked a discussion about how to best use voice assistants to improve the campus experience. The result was a focus on residence life, bringing a network of smart speakers online and creating a SLU-specific Alexa skill to help new students navigate campus life.
Kyle Collins, assistant vice president for technology transformation, led the team in creating the SLU skill. Their goal? Helping new students acclimate to college life.
“The goal was really about getting to know campus and getting people comfortable with campus,” said Collins. “Being 17 or 18 years old, living on your own with somebody you probably don’t know that well, it can be a lot of stress. We’re trying to ease that transition into school life.”
David and Kyle started out with a pilot program. Sets of Google and Alexa smart speakers were deployed to students with the challenge to set them up, use them and report back. The overwhelming student response was in favor of Alexa.
It also helped that Amazon has a teams of AWS representatives and lots of support for skill building through Alexa for Business, a sector of the smart speaker universe Google has never really focused on.
All major voice assistant platforms have faced their fair share of public skepticism when it comes to privacy, and the SLU team is well aware of that. That’s part of the reason why Alexa for Business made so sense for a college campus application.
“The normal Alexa platform is meant for a household where everyone is related; in a residence hall situation, you have two or three individuals who aren’t related in a single space,” said Hakanson. “If that’s connected to a single individual’s account, then there are a lot of privacy issues that can come up with that and rightfully so.”
For that reason, there’s no personally identifiable information recorded, stored or handed over to the SLU team. Each Echo Dot is labeled with a sticker containing the dorm room number and a MAC address, but there’s no data gathered on which room is asking which questions.
The IT team can see some very basic statistics across the group of devices as a whole, but nothing that would identify a student or even a specific room.
“We can’t see any question on its own; it’s more categories, how many interactions with music, how many interactions with general knowledge,” said Hakanson. “We can see that, and we can see it over time, but we can’t see what’s being asked at 2:00 in the morning.”
While protecting student privacy is the first priority of SLU’s Echo Dot deployment team, the Alexa for Business platform does limit their insight into what needs improvement in the SLU skill.
“We also can’t see what questions we are unable to answer,” noted Hakanson. “For us, we would love to know what are the questions we can’t answer, so we can add that to our skill, but we can’t see that and I fully understand why and can appreciate that.”
Daniel Sutton, senior research analyst at IHS Markit, focuses on service providers and platforms like Alexa for Business.
“Alexa offers an opportunity to reduce the number of communications with students by providing an automated tool to allow them to access basic information,” said Sutton. “Alexa voice interface means that students can instantly gain access to university information without referring to complex intranet sites or student support services which may mean long wait times.”
Students have to ask Alexa to ask SLU (pronounced “slew”) in order to access the skill’s library of information on topics like campus events, library hours and shuttle schedules that would take significantly longer to look up on a computer or smartphone.
Sutton also pointed to a recent survey of 14,000 consumers across six markets that showed 15% of people didn’t purchase a smart speaker because of privacy concerns. Across the student population, Sutton said that privacy concern trend is echoed, but the more limiting factor was actually cost.
If students can’t or don’t want to spend money on their own smart speaker, SLU’s Echo Dots offer a way to bring voice assistants into the dorm without any added cost to the student, since the project went through the capital funding process and wasn’t funded by tuition increases.
Alexa as a roommate
How do students feel about Alexa in their dorm room? Pretty good, it turns out. Some are even involved in the setup process. Getting a free Echo Dot in your campus orientation packet sounds really cool, but there’s a lot more behind-the-scenes work that goes into it.
Each summer, the Echo Dots are collected, checked for any problems, updated and placed back into their dorm rooms before students move in. When Echo Dots are ready to go out to dorm rooms, resident assistants (RAs) are the first students to work with the speakers.
“Before moving day they gave us boxes, and each box had an Alexa that was room-specific,” said Mateo Catano, a junior in aviation management and RA. “We also got two sheets of paper. One sheet said how to set it up, how to connect it to the Wi-Fi and everything, and then we had another pamphlet that had examples of what you can ask Alexa.”
All 2,300 Echo Dots are covered with a custom SLU sticker, a beacon of school pride and not-so-subtle reminder to college kids that the Echo Dot is university property.
So far, no Echo Dots have disappeared from the dorm rooms. That’s likely because the university treats the speakers like any other piece of furniture. If it your dorm room’s Echo Dot is missing at the end of the year, you’re going to get charged for it.
When it comes to interacting with Alexa, the most common questions aren’t too surprising. They range from weather to food and general knowledge.
“I like to use it for the weather,” said Pointer. “I’m not gonna walk downstairs and step outside, so if my phone’s not near my then I ask what’s the temperature outside and pick my wardrobe according to that.”
Because the Echo Dots are on the Alexa for Business platform, personalization is minimal. Streaming music is limited to the university’s iHeartRadio subscription unless you connect your phone to the Echo Dot as a Bluetooth speaker.
Most students don’t do that, though. They bring their own speakers with more premium sound quality. One thing they wish they could do? Order things via voice with their Amazon Prime student accounts.
“I can see it being a privacy issue, but at the same time being able to say ‘Alexa can you order this off of Amazon Prime?’ would be cool,” said Callie Kariotakis, junior in the School of Nursing.
Purchases via voice in a dorm environment aren’t likely to happen anytime soon, but students can still suggest questions and answers for the SLU skill.
“There’s a website on SLU.edu where you can suggest to IT some of the questions you want in the next semester,” said Catano. “So they always refresh and add more questions that are related to SLU.”
Students can also make calls to the university’s directory of contacts and to local businesses. The crowd favorite? Asking Alexa to call Pickleman’s Sandwich Shop (conveniently open until 3:30 a.m., by the way).
I asked Flavio Esposito, assistant professor of computer science if he has any privacy concerns about smart speakers.
“Yes, absolutely, yes,” said Esposito. “It’s an open area of research; how do we inform someone without jeopardizing their privacy?”
Esposito says there are a lot of things companies are already doing to protect privacy, but that doesn’t mean we should take our guard down.
“It’s not clear yet whether there are real dangers,” said Esposito. “But any time you operate a computer or cell phone, you have to trust somehow the hardware and software.”
When it comes to the Echo Dots on campus, Esposito sees the Alexa for Business setup as a way to connect students with artificial intelligence without asking them to provide personal information.
“I think it’s useful in a sense, as long as it’s ethical and they keep it that way,” said Esposito. “It’s a fantastic outreach opportunity when people are invested in the technology; they see it, they touch it, and then they go learn about it and want to learn more.”
When Kyle and his team created the SLU skill, it was privately available to just the campus Echo Dots, but that’s changing.
The team is working to make the skill public by the start of this school year, so students living off campus or at home can still ask Alexa all their SLU-related questions.
All the Echo Dots in the SLU dorms are second generation models. Thedoes boast a new design and better sound quality, but because the SLU skill relies on software updates rather than hardware, Kyle and David say upgrading devices isn’t likely to happen soon.
Kyle and his team are also hard at work on integrating Alexa’s Q&A Chatbot into the SLU skill.
The Chatbot would be able to answer questions through more mediums than voice. Students could type questions into a custom webpage or text a dedicated phone number. Those methods would answer questions like, “What time does the library close?” with the same response the Ask SLU smart speaker skill would offer.
Amazon released the Echo Dot in September 2014, and just five years later we’re reaching a point where many students are leaving a nest controlled at least partially by voice assistants and transitioning into college dorms. In that light, it makes sense for students to start bringing this tech to college. It happened with radios, microwaves, TVs and even game consoles.
During my campus visit, Alexa informed me that classes begin Aug. 26. That’s when she’ll welcome new roommates into Grand Hall and dorms across the St. Louis University campus, answering the all-important freshman questions about busses, classes and where to get a good sandwich during those inevitable all-nighters.