Saint Louis University Puts Amazon Echo Dots in Every Dorm Room

Universities need to engage with students in innovative ways.

What that means changes from year to year as the pace of the technological revolution accelerates. It’s important for schools to find ways to use the technology that students themselves are using, not just the technology the institution previously invested in.

How can universities better leverage technology when it comes to scaling student service?

David Hakanson, Vice President, CIO & Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Louis University, and Jay Goff, Vice President for Enrollment and Retention Management at Saint Louis University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about their ambitious Amazon Echo Dot initiative and custom voice AI skill, and how institutions can better leverage technology when it comes to scaling student service.

Why Launch an Amazon Echo Dot Initiative?

“We looked at social media trends,” Jay told us, “and we found a thing that I think probably most of the listeners are familiar with.”

Fewer traditional students are using Facebook and Twitter. Instead, we’re seeing huge increases in Snapchat and Instagram. That realization led Jay and David to ask the question: What technology would help us serve students better in the future?

“At St. Louis University, we placed an Amazon Echo Dot in every living space on campus,” David said. “So that’s over 2,300 devices available to every student who lives here.”

That Echo Dot is branded St. Louis University, and it has a custom St. Louis University skill on it, called the Ask SLU skill. There are over 130 functions that can be asked of that skill now.

Not only can students use the Echo Dot for the SLU skill, but they can also use it for all of the other normal purposes that you would use an Echo for. They can ask it general purpose questions such as how many teaspoons in a cup or what is the weather today?

“To build the first set of questions we worked with a variety of offices across the university,” David said “to get a list of what are the things they think are the most common questions to ask. We took that and that became our list of 130.”

It’s all focused on getting faster access to information to our students to help them be more productive with their time.

Resolving Potential Student Privacy Concerns

“We take the security and privacy of our students very very seriously,” David said, “so we spent a lot of time focusing on how to ensure that we were addressing any of those concerns.”

SLU worked with the Amazon web services team, which has an area called Alexa for business that allows SLU to manage these devices without connecting a student account. When they came for move-in, the device was already in the room, already ready to go. It had no idea who they were. So, if anyone asks a question to this device, it is not attached to an individual, hence the school is not able to see any individual statistics.

“We can see very high-level information,” David said. “We can see that 75% of the devices have been used. We can see that the number one use may be music, and the number two device may be general knowledge. We can see those things, but we can’t see at any individual device layer, and the devices aren’t connected to the students.”

Students who do not wish to use their Echo can either press the button on the top of the device to mute the microphone or unplug it and store it somewhere.

Using the Echo Dot Initiative in Outbound Marketing Communications

We asked David and Jay if SLU is optimistic about utilizing this on-campus feature as a potential opportunity to set their university apart in the marketplace.

“Absolutely,” Jay said. “That’s our goal. To be quite frank, David and I see this as a first step.”

Voice technology has a bright future. Soon, students will use the Echo Dot as a productivity device to be able to get access to key information very quickly.

“We’re working on the next phase of this technology,” Jay told us, “and while there is still work to do on ensuring the security and privacy if we start connecting accounts, that is a big focus. We want to make sure that we continue to provide value to our students and our other stakeholders so that this technology can be something that they use on a daily basis, and that’s providing a value to them.”

Next Steps Innovation Advice for Colleges and Universities

“What we are looking at is, can we make an investment of about 10% of our operating budget to do specific test projects like this every year or every other year?” Jay said.

For SLU, it’s a matter of budget.

“And from my perspective,” David added, “I would say there are two things for organizations that are looking to implement this type of technology. First, collaboration is very very critical. The second piece of advice is really more on the technology side, and that’s around bringing in the right partners.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Jay Goff and David Hakanson from St. Louis University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.