Kids story

Alexa in class? Amazon’s voice assistant runs story time for kids


The group of children, aged 7 to 12, sat around a table, trying to keep up with the reading assignment. It was after lunch. The energy was high, the attention span short.

No one kept any books, however. And a teacher was not reading.

Alexa from Amazon.com Inc. ran story time, lining up with professional narrators to read the story aloud, questioning the kids with her robot voice, and offering clues when someone missed a story. answer to questions about “Davy Duck’s Grumpy Day”.

Voice software has colonized smartphones, car dashboards and the living room. If technology follows the path of tablets and cloud computing, the next frontier could be the classroom.

This is why Irina Fine brought together the group of elementary school students to test the latest version of educational voice software designed by her start-up, Bamboo Learning Inc. “There is a preference for voice with the younger generation”, Fine says. “It’s hard to imagine that it’s not everywhere.

Founded by Fine and Ian Freed, a former Amazon executive who helped introduce Alexa to the world, Bamboo has Amazon-sized ambitions. “Our goal is to create a company that is the leader in voice education,” says Freed.

To get there, Bamboo will have to prove that its product is not a gimmick and stand out from a host of competitors who are trying, most with limited success, to build a business on top of software better known as the name of digital trivia machine and music box. For now, the startup is targeting parents and children, but says the technology could eventually find its way into schools if it spreads.

Persuading parents that Alexa is an appropriate educational tool for children can be tricky. Amazon’s voice assistant has recently been caught up in debates about privacy in the digital age. Bloomberg reported in April that human listeners were reviewing some Alexa voice recordings. Meanwhile, a coalition of advocacy groups accused Amazon of violating a child privacy law with its smart speakers. Amazon claims to be in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

There are very few assessments that take place prior to the adoption of these technologies.

Josh Golin, Campaign for an Ad-Free Childhood

Promoters of voice technology will also need to advocate with educators, some of whom are already reeling from the heated debates over whether using gadgets in the classroom helps children learn or simply diverts resources from budgets. from school districts to Apple Inc. and Google to Alphabet Inc.

“Much of what’s happening in the education technology space is driven by this notion that we need to use more and new technologies in our classrooms,” says Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for an Ad-Free Childhood, which was among advocacy groups accusing Amazon’s Alexa of violating COPPA. “And there are very few assessments that take place before these technologies are adopted.

“If I were a school principal or a program director, what I would like to understand is how this will help me teach children more effectively and efficiently.

Fine and Freed met in the early 1990s. Freed, who grew up in Chicago, ended up in Moscow, where his small consulting firm had landed a contract to analyze what part of the old Soviet telecommunications networks could be used. to access the Internet. A two-week assignment for the state privatization agency turned into five years to help reshape a centrally planned economy into a western market-driven economy.

Fine, a classically trained musician and linguist from the Russian city of Archangel, started at Ian Freed Consulting as a receptionist. By the time she left, she was helping run the operation from Moscow.

Their paths parted from there. Fine would continue to work in counseling and the development of educational programs. Freed remained in the tech industry, eventually joining Amazon in 2004 and spending about a year in the coveted role of “shadow” or technical advisor to CEO Jeff Bezos. Then, he participated in the creation of the Amazon Kindle e-reader.

He was at the 2011 meeting when an Amazon team introduced Bezos on voice software and then led teams working on Amazon’s Fire smartphone and the Echo smart speaker. The phone landed with a thud and was interrupted. The echo was a shattering blow, giving Amazon a surprise lead in home software.

A few months after leaving Amazon in 2017, Freed called his former pal Fine to discuss a start-up idea.

Bamboo launched three Alexa skills last year, as Amazon calls out voice apps. These are short lessons and quizzes on music theory, math, and reading. All of them are designed to work with Amazon devices like the Echo Show and Fire TV Cube, which allow Alexa to use visual aids, in addition to voice-only gadgets. A fourth skill went live on Wednesday: a storybook program in partnership with Highlights for Children, the magazine for 73-year-olds.

The focus group, which was held at Fine’s house in Brooklyn on a rainy Saturday, tested an early version of the software. The program reads aloud condensed versions of stories a few sentences at a time. After each pass, Alexa’s voice rings to ask questions.

Children, comfortable with tablets at home and at school, were not regular users of voice software. Still, they seemed comfortable navigating the voice prompts guiding them through stories such as “Balto” and “The Three Little Pigs”.

The technology left much to be desired.

Often the interaction was perfect. But sometimes a child would answer correctly, only to be greeted with a “that’s not quite right,” because of their pronunciation or the order of the words. There was an awkward delay between a child’s response and Alexa’s verdict on the response as Amazon routed the interaction through digital plumbing in its cloud.

“We’re doing our best with technology,” Fine says. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect yet, she adds. “We want to be there first. “

Bamboo is not alone in adapting voice software for education. An app replaces Alexa as a teaching assistant for young schoolchildren, offering timers and countdowns, and even guided meditation and dance sessions. Colleges equip dormitories with smart speakers to broadcast information about campus and answer common questions.

Bamboo hopes it can carve out a niche for itself as a useful tool for parents who want an educational diversion for their children on the new voice software. This could mean offering their support to more companies like Highlights looking for expertise in educational apps for Alexa. Or, echoing the models of internet giants that rely on user-generated content, they could create a platform for teachers and schools to create voice tools.

In a brainstorming session earlier this year, Bamboo had more ideas than time. Freed, Fine and Michael Nail, their software leader, debated options such as adding game-like elements to keep kids interested or perhaps inserting into reading apps an option for be creative in responses. Nail, a former Freed’s colleague at Amazon, suggested letting the kids add their own twist to a story in the mind of Mad Libs.

For now, Freed says Bamboo is following Amazon’s playbook: trying to create something that customers – i.e. kids and parents – want to use, and trust the rest to be. ‘will arrange.

There might come a time when the company will bid on a contract with a school district, Freed says. “Before we do that,” he said, “let’s go to a school.


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