Amazon’s Alexa Becomes Teacher At Maharashtra’s Primary School

Maharashtra, Feb 05, 2019 —

Virtual assistant, the third teacher in Waruda’s primary school, is being seen as a game changer

Unlike other municipal primary schools in Maharashtra’s Badnera town, the one in Waruda has ‘three teachers’ for its 42 students studying from Classes I to IV.

For a similar school, the ratio may have been only two teachers. In Waruda, besides teacher Amol Bhuyar and headmistress Sushma Kapse, there is also Alexa. Amazon’s ‘virtual assistant’ is the ‘third teacher’ in the Marathi medium institution.

Slow net speeds

Sharing the one-time investment cost with Ms Kapse, Mr Bhuyar has independently built a mannequin around an Amazon Echo device, giving a face to Alexa. Poor Internet speeds in the hinterland notwithstanding, students speak to Alexa in English and are now learning math, poems, general knowledge, weather information and more, from the device. Bollywood music now forms a part of the school’s extracurricular activity.

Mr Bhuyar said he realised very early that Alexa could be a game changer for his students.

“It was during a ‘go digital drive’ by the Amravati municipality in its schools that I had this brainwave of trying to push boundaries using technology,” he explained.

Mr Bhuyar discovered the technology on the Internet. However, “Connectivity is a major issue in Waruda, despite being just 2 km away from the Badnera Junction Railway Station. Also, since a phone placed near the window sill for better signal quality got stolen, we now have to ask students to skip class and stand outside the classroom holding the device,” he said.

The initial challenge, according to Mr Bhuyar, was that the children only converse in Marathi, a language that the device does not offer. “We have in the last 11 months trained students in the structure of posing Alexa a question. Students ask about 15 questions a day. They prepare these questions at home and come to school,” Ms Kapse explains.

“Voice interface is set to transform the way we use technology in our everyday lives… since its launch, Alexa has been at the forefront of this disruption,” said Puneesh Kumar, Country Manager, Alexa Experience and Devices, who learnt about the ‘Alexa teacher’ at the Waruda school on cable television.

He added, “We didn’t want Alexa to sound like a visiting American. So, we started by defining what sort of Indian she would be — who would be her favourite authors, what movies would she watch, does she have a favourite festival? Alexa has to know the Indian context when answering common questions like ‘Who is the President?’ and ‘When is Independence Day?’”

As an ongoing exercise, Amazon is building the device’s basic domain knowledge — Alexa no longer mistakes ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ for ‘Bakhan’, for example. Using a ‘skill’ called Cleo, users can also teach Alexa Indian languages. Also, localised experiences include cricket and Bollywood — subjects in which Amazon has programmed the device to be an ‘expert’.

Students have also become bolder with their questions now. For instance, “Alexa, spell the word cow,” has replaced questions like, “Who is your father, Alexa?” Mr Bhuyar has also begun integrating the school curriculum with the voice interface, and chapters like one on Sachin Tendulkar generated “a lot of interaction.”


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