New pilot project puts free Amazon Echo Dots into the hands of 200 Illinois students

Written by: Mariana Seda, Technology Services


The Social Research and Technology Innovation Lab (SRTI) at Technology Services is exploring how helpful and effective virtual assistants can be for students through their Alexa-Illinois Pilot project, launched at the end of the Fall 2018 semester.

Growing technological possibilities coupled with a recent successful campus-wide wireless network upgrade, has increased the potential to further integrate smart technology into the University of Illinois campus.

Smart devices such as Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home are increasing in numbers on campus as more students bring them into their university homes. But these devices are limited to the skills that can be found free or for purchase on virtual marketplaces. The SRTI Lab is hoping to change that with the development of a new Illinois Alexa skill that encompasses the entirety of student life on a wholly personal level. 


New Strategies for Student Success

Alexa: “Welcome to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Menu Checker. How may I help you?”

Student: “Gluten-Free”

A: Got it, gluten-free filter activated.”

S: “What’s the lunch tomorrow in Ikenberry”

A: “Sure. Tomorrow in Ikenberry for lunch entrees there are grilled buffalo chicken, herb-smoked turkey breast. If you want to know more details such as salads, soups, or desserts, you can ask another query now.”

This is a true exchange using one of the skills developed by the group called the Menu Checker. It is one of four skills that are central to this pilot project. 

There are now 200 Illinois graduate and undergraduate students using Amazon Echo Dots in their residence hall rooms to help them navigate campus life at Illinois, including discovering what’s for breakfast, when their favorite library is open, which computer lab has an open workstation, and how many washers and dryers are available in their building. And best of all for the students, they received the devices free through the program.

But what if a student could ask Alexa anything related to their University life? Like, “when is the next free food event at the Illini Union?” Or, “what business-focused RSO can I join?” Or even, “how many credits do I need to graduate?”

Enhancing student experience and academic success has been front of mind for Illinois Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson since he joined the Illinois leadership more than four years ago. “How do we engage with our students to provide them real-world experience?” asked Henderson, “How do we make them successful?”

After learning about other schools’ integration of Alexa devices into their student population, Henderson charged Joseph Yun, Leader of the Social Media Analytics team at Technology Services, with initiating a new research lab focused on technology and innovation, and an investigation into an Alexa project.

"Students are already using these technologies,” said Henderson. “Based on their feedback and the data from this pilot program, we may be able to develop a tool that will transform the entire experience of being a student at Illinois.”


What would you want from a virtual assistant?

Yun received recruiting help from Dr. Robert Brunner, Illinois professor of Astronomy, who researches computational science and machine learning. Brunner identified talented students with an interest in learning how to build Alexa skills and develop other projects for the SRTI lab.

Curtis Donelson, Data Analyst for SRTI and Alexa Project Lead explained, “we asked the students, ‘what would you want from Alexa?’ and then asked them to build the skills.” Over the summer, this student team built nine different skills relevant to student life at Illinois.

Some skills were inspired by what other universities have built and incorporated into their pilot projects. But all of them are specific to life at Illinois.

Other skills developed by the students didn’t make the cut into the pilot program. But they may show up in future iterations of a comprehensive Illinois Alexa skill. These include: recent facts and scores about athletic events, an MTD bus skill that designates how best to get anywhere now, a faculty and staff directory that can pull up an email address or office location in seconds, course availability for a desired class, and wireless traffic at a particular building.


Alexa, what is the point?

For this pilot project, the Alexa-Illinois Project team purchased 200 third generation Alexa Echo Dots and programmed them with four of the Illinois-specific skills: Menu Checker, Lab Checker, Library Checker, and Laundry Checker.

"The point of the pilot is not necessarily to build more skills,” explained Donelson, “instead, we deployed the devices with these four skills built in, and are investigating how students are using them? What are they asking? When are they using it? Are they adding more skills?”

Why ask Alexa for these Illinois-specific details when a student could pull up the same info on their computer or phone? Time savings. Time that they would spend searching google on their phones to find the right library, or booting up their laptops to log into course explorer and check course availability, or walking to the laundry room with a huge laundry bin only to discover it will be 45 minutes until the next washer is available. Time that students might otherwise spend studying, building friendships and connections with others, or planning their next academic or career move.

A more informed student is a more successful one

"The ultimate plan,” said Nickolas Vance, Director of Operations for the SRTI Lab, "is to have a singular ‘Illinois Skill’ that has all of these capabilities.”

And Donelson added that once more is known about how and why students use the devices, they can take the project further. “We can bring in a third-party vendor to build a very robust program that can help students succeed by answering more common, personal questions like ‘what’s my grade in this class? What is my current GPA? How many credits do I still need to graduate?’” This information is crucial for student success and yet sometimes difficult for students to track.

Privacy and security are always top of mind when it comes to technology and our student population. Finding the right vendor that will work with the university to develop a secure and robust skill package is a major factor in ensuring security and privacy. “Two-factor authentication might be necessary to protect student privacy,” said Donelson, “especially if a student has a roommate who will also have access to the device.”

The team is also considering installing Alexa devices in public spaces on campus. Major bus stops such as Transit Plaza and communal areas like the Illini Union could be great locations for a virtual assistant to help students and visitors navigate, while taking into consideration people with different needs and abilities.

An ideal outcome, according to Vance and Donelson, would lead to every incoming Freshman being issued an Alexa preloaded with a University of Illinois skill that provides quick and easy answers to their most common questions.

Thinking beyond that, the Illinois skill may one day be available on the newer Amazon Alexa application. Illinois students could then access Alexa through their smartphone, tablet or laptop from anywhere on campus, without an actual Echo Dot or virtual assistant device.

"This project aligns perfectly with the university mission,” explained Henderson. “The students who work on this project are gaining real-world experience in technology, while helping us learn how this can be used more broadly to enhance student success at Illinois.”