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Voice as an Interface, is it the Next Big Battle Ground in Education for Tech Giants?

Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA’s) are one of this year’s hottest trends in consumer tech, with giants like Amazon and Google pushing the agenda of voice into the home. Platforms like Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant have been in our pockets for years and are now finding new homes across a range of home electronics. Amazon, with its Alexa interface has made the most running to date. The Echo portfolio started with smart speakers but has quickly expanded to include a smart display which can provide supporting images alongside audio feedback, and the Echo Show. The Show is a connected camera that takes pictures of you in various outfits and makes fashion recommendations; these recommendations can then translate to purchases and be fulfilled by Amazon.

So what can we learn from the VPA’s market recent past and what implications could these developments have for the education market?

Amazon’s product line suggests VPA’s are an interface which will be adapted for specific applications and vertical markets, including education. Amazon itself is already making a play in the higher education market, the company’s Alexa Fund Fellowship is supporting Universities with the intention of encouraging advances in voice communications between people and machines. The company recently donated 1,600 Echo Dot speakers to engineer students at Arizona State University with students able to opt into courses which teach Alexa Skills development. We can think of skills as apps for VPA’s and the number of skills available for Alexa to utilise is growing rapidly. Go to the Amazon website and you can find thousands of skills under the Education & Reference category, including those from developers like the History Channel and NASA. So, what could this mean for K-12 schooling?

The potential applications for VPA’s in the classroom are numerous. VPA’s can answer questions, tell stories and translate languages. In addition, the smart control features of VPA’s can be used to control lighting, AV and act as an intercom between classrooms. If we look back to the consumer market, we can see that VPA’s are being integrated into lots of different products. VPA’s in the home took off with the introduction of smart speakers, but the technology is now being integrated into TV’s, white goods, security and HVAC equipment. When thinking about education, there are a few starting points where the integration of voice control could make sense. Interactive displays are found in over 70% of US K-12 classrooms. These products are often supplied with a host of curated content. Perhaps voice would be a more effective way to search for assets instead of scrolling through lists and search bars. Maybe the same is true when pausing a video or moving to the next slide of a presentation. Ricoh, in partnership with IBM, has already developed an IBM Watson enabled interactive display to support ideation in the meeting room. So, can a similar use case be found in education? The concept of the flipped classroom offers opportunities for small group learning and discussion. Leading web filtering company LightSpeed Systems recently introduced Activate. The product utilises microphone pods, allowing teachers to monitor group discussions. Would the integration of a VPA into these devices, acting as a teaching assistant, offer value? These are questions the product and marketing companies of EdTech suppliers will need to address in the coming years.

The use of VPA technology for learning at home has been around for some time, thanks to connected toys. These often-cute looking companion robots have found an instructional role in the home study markets of countries like China and South Korea, teaching children to count, spell and speak foreign languages. Several of these skills are already available for Alexa. Looking a little further down the line, will VPA’s become an interface for adaptive learning platforms? Adaptive learning platforms are taking in and analysing an increasingly sophisticated data set to personalise content and learning actions. Will Amazon link Alexa to its education content discovery engine, Inspire?  Would the sharing of data between these platforms offer value to the learner, and if so, how much data is it prudent or legal to share? With potential usage models being so widespread, spanning both at home/personal use and in school/formal learning there are likely to be complexities in implementation. Data privacy is a very sensitive area already in the EdTech industry and the potential use of VPA’s in schools will likely bring new challenges, as well as additional complexity to this debate.

But why consider the impact of VPA’s on the classroom at all?  Well, the short answer is because the major tech companies will. The major OS providers (Google, Apple and Microsoft) are already engaged in a major strategic battle, fighting for share in K-12 school computing market (View the Press Release here>>). Apple especially has strategically focused on the education space for years, with a view that students used to using Apple products at an early age are more likely to choose Apple devices in the work environment and at home. Both Microsoft and Apple have been stung by the rapid emergence of Google with its Chromebook devices (Chromebooks reached 58% share of US K-12 sales in 2016) and this has resulted in major investments in the sector from both companies. 

It’s important to remember the primary motivator for the likes of Amazon and Google to introduce smart speakers is not to develop a strong home audio business, but to cement their VPA’s as the consumer interface for voice control. As the number of third party products integrating Alexa, Cortana and Google assistant increases, the role of the platform providers in hardware provision will decrease and these companies will focus on platform development. Therefore, we expect the battle to playout in the education sector with voice control another key aspect of the ongoing OS competition.

About the author

Ben Davis

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Here at Futuresource Consulting we deliver specialist research and consulting services, providing market forecasts and intelligence reports. Since the 1980s we have supported a range of industry sectors, which has grown to include: CE, Broadcast, Entertainment Content, EdTech and many more.