Smart speakers and digital assistants such as Google Home, Alexa, Cortana, and Siri have made talking to our computers and hand-held devices possible. Users can ask questions, control music, manipulate home lighting, and much more. Smart speakers are completely hands-free. By simply stating a trigger word (ex: "Alexa" or "computer") users engage these speakers to work with a variety of spoken commands (Clauser 2018). It feels kind of like science fiction, but once the settings are correct these personal smart speakers can be very useful.
When thinking about our school libraries and our students/populations being served, the idea of a hands-free, voice-activated system appears to be ideal. As librarians we seek to serve all students within all levels and abilities. Smart speakers could be a seamless match to differently-abled students, those who speak English as a second language, or students who simply want to delve into a variety of technology with their learning.
In this article we will explore the use of Google Home in a school library. We will look at technology implementation, realities of this particular smart speaker with multiple users, the successes, and the challenges.
Origin of the Smart Speaker?
Voice assistant technology, is moving quickly into widespread use. Most well-known are Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana, and the Echo. As the years progress, as with all technologies, we will see names rise and fall. This type of technology originated in 1960s with the IBM Shoebox that had the capability to recognize sixteen words and digits. Many of us in education in the 1990s will remember Clippy from Microsoft. He was also an assistant. Clippy's biggest issue was that he gave too much aid, whether asked for or not. The 1990s also brought us Dragon Dictate, a technology that is still around and has made great strides over the years for voice commanded dictation. In 2011 Apple introduced Siri. This is the type of voice recognition/assistive technology with which we are more familiar. Since Siri, tech companies have scrambled to compete. Google introduced Google Now, Amazon gave us Alexa and Echo and Microsoft offered Cortana.
With smart technologies, the voice smart speaker was integrated into our daily lives. Google introduced Google Home, Microsoft integrated Cortana into Xbox, Bose created earbuds to work with Google Assistant and Siri Support, Roku introduced an entertainment assistant. It will be interesting to see this technology grow, integrate, and mature (Mutchler, 2018).
Examples from a School Library
The steps for pursuing research primarily lie in the range of visual-spatial tasks in which students process and store information simultaneously (Carpenter, Just, & Shell, 1990). In the goal-shifting stage of a task, the working memory keeps track of current and future tasks in the declarative working memory (Rubinstein, Meyer, and Evans 2001). In essence, when the brain is doing research tasks (including reading), pausing to change goals or seek a different avenue for research clogs the working memory and causes a break in concentration—similar to a drawn out attentional blink. The initial goals are lost from declarative memory. This is where distraction happens. Think through your own research practices and what happens when we as adults get distracted during an information-seeking task. Just as we get distracted, so do our students.
Smart speakers help bridge this gap in two ways. First, they cut down the necessary time dedicated to the shift in goals and secondly, because they are audio and not visual-spatial, they activate different areas of the brain. For students, this means that their eyes never have to leave the page while asking a clarifying or reference question.
While researchers are only just scratching the surface of how smart speakers can be used, we see two primary uses: first, to minimize breaks in concentration and, second, to provide research access to non-readers and those with limited English.
Reference and referral interviews can both be lost when it takes too much time to answer small questions. For example, Joshue comes down to the library to look for a biography. Mae, his librarian, has an awesome biography of Jane Goodall that he might like; but, as they are walking over he says, "I'd like a biography of someone who is alive." With a smart speaker, she says, "OK Google, Is Jane Goodall alive?" Joshue and Mae both get an immediate answer. Without this assistance, Mae disrupts the interview to return to the circulation desk to look up the information and return to Joshue in a few moments. In this time, he's lost focus and has either picked up a random book, or worse, left without one.
Reference interviews already experience a success rate of around 55% (Durrance 1995). A little less than half of these interviews end without success. However, decreasing wait time may increase the success rate.
Libraries can take cues from marketing research. Reference interviews, in many ways, mimic interpersonal sales interactions in which we are "selling" our collection to our patrons. Gordon Fullerton's and Shirley Taylor's 2015 Study, "Dissatisfaction and Violation: Two Distinct Consequences of the Wait Experience," found that "in service encounters, consumers form negative evaluations when the performance of the service provider does not live up the consumer's expectations" (p. 32). Disappointment, dissatisfaction, anger, and outrage are emotions we never want associated with library services. However, making our patrons wait unexpectedly while we walk back and forth to the circulation desk in search of a kernel of information creates these kinds of emotions. Joshue's leaving without a book or without the book he wants reflects his disappointment and dissatisfaction. A small device that can significantly reduce wait time and, as a result, promote patron satisfaction, could have a place in a library setting.
Another possible use in a school library is the ability of the smart speaker to conduct non-visual research. Because the research is only auditory, it eliminates the need to decode language, which is a major stumbling block to students with both visual impairments and dyslexia. According to a 2003 John's Hopkins study, students with mild disabilities had improved knowledge acquisition when using audio content rather than timed reading. "The groups scored similarly on the pretest. However, following the intervention, both experimental groups using the audio textbook scored significantly higher than the control group as reflected in knowledge acquisition scores" (Boyle et al., p. 204).
The effectiveness of audio for differently abled students could provide a doorway through which they can access research and reference materials easily. While the materials provided may not always be of the highest quality, they present far fewer barriers to access for both dyslexic and visually impaired students. There are no logins, requests for access, computers, links, or buttons to keep students from the information they need. They need only ask.
Last, the smart speaker may become an important tool for connecting English as a second or other language (ESOL) students to content and culture. The Google Home, for example, can understand questions in thirty different languages, but will only respond in the language set by the individual account. For example, a student can ask, "Quién es el presidente de Honduras?" and Google Home will respond, "The president of Honduras is Juan Orlando Hernández." In this way, a smart speaker can facilitate language acquisition. It can also provide rudimentary translation services. When asked, "How do you say book in Spanish?" the smart speaker will respond "libro." A Chinese student and a Guatemalan student can use the speaker to have a real conversation with each other. While many students already use online translation services to communicate, smart speakers eliminate the necessary decoding skills, providing an important connection to the community for those students who are non-readers.
There are two major and, as yet unsolved, obstacles to deployment of smart speakers in public education. First, they are unfiltered and secondly, they must be linked to a personal email account.
In the area of E-rate and Universal Service funding, "Schools and libraries subject to The Children's Internet protection Act (CIPA) may not receive the discounts offered by the E-rate program unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures. The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors)" (FCC, 2017, para. 1). Because smart speakers are an audio-only device, they currently unfiltered. Installing them in public schools without the individual permissions of the parents or guardians risks funding assistance provided by the Universal Service program.
Secondly, as of the writing of this article, smart speakers must be attached to a single email address. This conflicts with two other requirements for schools subject to CIPA: Internet policies that offer monitoring of online activity of minors and education to minors in the area of appropriate online behavior (FCC 2017). With smart speakers' having a single email attached and housed in the library—a heavily trafficked and public area of the school—there can be a great deal of difficulty connecting searches to particular students. However, adding the smart speaker, as a lab component, station, or as a checkout option for teachers may better serve to monitor student interactions with the technology.
At this time the focus of smart speaker technology appears to be more on home and entertainment integration. However, as we have discussed in this article, the possibilities for teaching and learning are extensive. Those of us in education and librarianship are typically excited by new technologies and how they might be used for teaching and learning for our field. As with all technology it will continue to be interesting and exciting to see how these speakers will grow and potentially enhance the living and learning experiences of those in our school communities.
Boyle, Elizabeth A., et al. "Effects of Audio Texts on the Acquisition of Secondary-Level Content by Students with Mild Disabilities." Learning Disability Quarterly 26, no. 3 (2003): 203-214.
Carpenter, Patricia A., Marcel A. Just, and Peter Shell. "What One Intelligence Test Measures: A Theoretical Account of the Processing in the Raven Progressive Matrices Test." Psychological Review 97, no. 3 (1990): 404-431.
Clauser, Grant. "What Is Alexa? What Is the Amazon Echo, and Should You Get One?" Wirecutter. https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/what-is-alexa-what-is-the-amazon-echo-and-should-you-get-one/. Accessed June 10, 2018.
Durrance, Joan C. "Factors that Influence Reference Success: What Makes Questioners Willing to Return?" The Reference Librarian 23, no. 49-50 (1995): 243-265.
FCC. "Children's Internet Protection Act." FCC. https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/childrens-internet-protection-act. Accessed June 1, 2018.
Fullerton, Gordon, and Shirley Taylor. "Dissatisfaction and Violation: Two Distinct Consequences of the Wait Experience." Journal of Service Theory and Practice 25, no. 1 (2015): 31-50.
Mutchler, Ava. "A Timeline of Voice Assistant and Smart Speaker Technology from 1961 to Today." Voicebot.ai. https://voicebot.ai/2018/03/28/timeline-voice-assistant-smart-speaker-technology-1961-today/. Accessed June 12, 2018.
Rubinstein, Joshua S., David E. Meyer, and Jeffrey E. Evans. "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 27, no. 4 (2001): 763-797.