That’s right: Saint Louis University (SLU) is going to put an Amazon Echo Dot in every single on-campus living space, for a total of more than 2,300 of the Amazon smart speakers at the university. And to make the devices more relevant to student living, the university’s IT department has developed an SLU-specific skill to answer more than 100 common student questions about sports games, concerts, speakers on campus, student events and organizations, and opportunities to serve.
The school itself is a popular, private Catholic university with more than 13,000 enrolled students. It’s also located in the state’s most populous city and a county that serves more than one million residents.
The initiative is unprecedented in its size, coming together over the course of just three months, following a pilot of voice assistants in the spring semester that pitted the puck-shaped Echo Dots versus a competing device. Similar programs have also been tested at Arizona State University and Northeastern University, with varying levels of engagement with campus services.
“I think it’s really innovative,” said Katlyn Martin, president of SLU’s student government association. “By interacting with technology in a cool way, our students will have another resource to find things on campus, to meet other people, and to take advantage of the holistic Jesuit education that Saint Louis University offers.”
The University’s IT department has a variety of partners in the project including n-Powered, a technology company that develops the custom skills that provided the framework for the SLU Amazon skill as well as Amazon Web Services.
Students can use their Echo Dots to answer SLU-specific questions and general questions, and to play music through the iHeartRadio and TuneIn skills as well as a Bluetooth speaker for streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. The university says it is working to expand the availability of music streaming options as well as developing a personal device wireless network on campus, anticipated to go live this fall.
Because the devices are running an Alexa for Business Platform, the custom SLU skill can be updated constantly without disrupting students’ schedules. The school has also limited what the smart speakers can access compared to other institutions like Northeastern, which has enabled its devices to access sensitive student records including grades and financial aid.
The institution was adamant in stating that the funding for the smart home technology adaptation and the cost of the devices themselves were not funded through any increase in tuition costs. (What exactly is the worth of the personal data and daily habits of more than 2,300 university students anyway?)
“The students we attract are highly driven to achieve success in and out of the classroom,” said David Hakanson, SLU’s vice president and CIO. “Every minute we can save our students from having to search for the information they need online is another minute that they can spend on what matters most: their education.”
Weirdly, SLU is not allowing any student to opt out of the program due to privacy concerns or other objections. “If you would rather not use your SLU-provided Echo Dot you can unplug the device and store it in a safe location in your room,” advises the school.