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US University Puts Electronic Assistants in All Student Housing

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One American university is putting electronic voice-controlled assistants in every student housing room on campus.

Saint Louis University recently announced it will equip every student living space with Amazon’s Alexa system. The school in St. Louis, Missouri, will place about 2,300 Echo Dot “smart” devices in all student dorms and other university housing.

Officials said the university will be the first in the world to put the devices in every student living space. The devices and the Alexa service are being provided at no costs to students.

The Amazon Echo is a speaker with the ability to listen and “talk” to users and can perform some operations. The Alexa assistant competes with similar systems made by Google and Apple.

Devices linked to the systems have become increasingly popular in homes in recent years. They can be used for things like looking up information, playing music, ordering food or buying things on the internet. The devices can also complete actions in the home. These include turning lights on and off, and controlling systems for heating and cooling and security.

Amazon calls these different tasks Alexa can perform “skills.”

Amazon said in a website post that Saint Louis University chose the Alexa system after carrying out a test program. The program involved the Echo Dot and a device from a competing company. It said the students had a better reaction to the Alexa system.

The Echo Dots will include a special skill developed especially for Saint Louis University. It will provide information and answer questions about local school activities and campus life.

In this March 2, 2016, file photo, David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, pushes down on an Echo Dot in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
In this March 2, 2016, file photo, David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, pushes down on an Echo Dot in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Next year, the university plans to add more personalized skills, such as providing information about classes and grades.

The university said it did not increase student tuition to pay for the project. Instead, officials said, it was financed through the school’s general fund, as well as partnerships with Amazon and n-Powered. The company, based in Los Angeles, California, helped develop the parts of the system that are related to Saint Louis University.

David Hakanson is Saint Louis University’s vice president and chief information officer. In announcing the project, he said it will fit well with students who are “highly driven to achieve success in and out of the classroom.”

He added: “Every minute we can save our students from having to search for the information they need online is another minute that they can spend focused on what matters most: their education.”

While the devices are being placed in every university housing space, students do not have to use them. For those wishing not to take part, the school suggests students just remove the devices from their rooms and put them away in a safe place.

Other universities have also experimented with voice-controlled assistants in student living areas.

A year ago, Arizona State University announced a program that provided Echo Dot devices to a special housing area for engineering students. In the program, all engineering students moving into the special housing community were given the choice of receiving an Echo Dot if they wanted one.

As is the case at Saint Louis University, Arizona State students are able to use the system to get the latest information on university programs and events. However, the Arizona students also have the chance to sign up for classes that teach subjects related specifically to creating new uses for Alexa devices.

Bhavik Patel, a mechanical engineering senior and peer mentor at Arizona State's community housing center Tooker House, demonstrates use of an Amazon Echo Dot while working on formulas. (Charlie Leight/ASU Now)
Bhavik Patel, a mechanical engineering senior and peer mentor at Arizona State's community housing center Tooker House, demonstrates use of an Amazon Echo Dot while working on formulas. (Charlie Leight/ASU Now)

Octavio Heredia is a director with Arizona State’s Fulton Schools of Engineering. He said he thinks it is a good idea for students to get as much experience as possible with the voice assistants to improve their development skills and prepare for future jobs.

“Once they are familiar with the devices, they are going to want to further develop their own skills and begin integrating that technology - the hardware and the skills - into other projects,” he said.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, school, etc.

dorm n. large building at a college or university where students live

grade n. number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test​

tuition n. money a student pays to be taught at a college or university

fund n. amount of money collected

achieve v. succeed in doing something good, usually by working hard

focus v. center on something

integrate v. combine two or more things to make something more effective

hardware n. machines or equipment used inside computers or together with electronic devices

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