Alexa seems like it (or she) has become a part of our culture. As more and more homes are subscribing to WiFi services, smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa have become increasingly common. Regardless of how you feel about having a device that is “constantly listening” in your home, the popularity of smart speakers as well as smart-enabled lightbulbs, switches, plugs, and even thermostats and locks is difficult to deny.
The ability to control devices simply by speaking a learned phrase opens doors for many individuals who have physical or intellectual impairments. And although functionality is certainly a major motivator for investing in this sort of technology, it’s certainly not the only reason. Many individuals purchase smart speakers, such as Alexa, simply for their entertainment. Users can subscribe to many skills ranging from simple trivia games to brain teasers and choose your own adventure type stories and games.
Of course, what’s most significant to those of us who teach blind and VI kids is that is one of the rare out of the box usable devices that really don’t need modification for our kids to use. Sure, an adult may need to do the setup, and a blind adult could do it just as easily as a sighted one, but the fact remains that the original devices did not have a screen and required the user to interact with it only with voice commands or through the app (which, at least on iOS is accessible with VoiceOver)
Alexa and Education
Not that there are not PLENTY of Alexa skills that can be used as educational tools, but sometimes you want to make your own.
And you can!
This article will walk you through creating a specific blueprint, provide screenshots and tips, and share the link to the skill as well as an audio sample of how it works!
Which Skill Blueprint Should I start with?
As you can see from the screenshot below, there are LOTS of education related blueprints. I chose the “Listening Quiz” Blueprint because I wanted to focus on listening comprehension.
Once I chose this blueprint, I am presented with the main site with an explanation of the skill as well as a short sample, both as an embedded audio file and in text form. There is also a large button labeled “make your own”. This is what you would click on to create your own version of the listening quiz.
If you are new to blueprints, you will get a short walkthrough of how to make your skill. You may also be asked to sign in and/or be told that you must create a developer account. All of these steps may also be presented after you’re ready to publish your skill.
The first thing you will need to create is an introduction to your listening skill activity. I chose to base my skill on an online article in Catster Magazine (see the references section for the link), but you can use pretty much anything that already exists in electronic format (or if you don’t mind scanning the print in or copying it by hand you may also use hard copy materials).
Using the template provided by Amazon, I modified the introduction section by copying and pasting part of the article into that section. I kept the .5 second “pause” that was in the template, but changed the sound from the SciFi Radar to a Meow (which fit my words much better than the science fiction radar did). I could have chosen to delete the pause and sound effect had I chosen to do so. But come on, who can resist a good sound effect!
Creating the Body of your Skill
The body of your skill will consist of blocks of text (similar to the introduction) and questions that relate to that block of text. Let’s look at an example.
In this particular block of text, I included part of the article as shown. I also added a sound effect. Again, it was easy to copy and paste text from the article into this area of the skill blueprint.
For each “listening section” or block of text, you can customize the questions that Alexa asks, the various responses she will accept as correct, and her feedback when a player gives a correct or incorrect response. As you can see from the questions, I chose to accept various responses which varied in word choice. Since Alexa is very literal about the answers she will accept as “correct”, it’s a good idea to include all possible responses a student could give.
Sections of the skill body or “listening sections” can be added or deleted as needed. The same is true of questions.
Wrapping things up
After all of the listening sections and questions have been added, you may add an ending to the skill. You may choose to determine how many questions merit a “pass” and differentiate the response Alexa will give if the player “fails” to get the required number of questions correct. You may even indicate a “zero” questions correct needed to pass and thereby cause Alexa to generate the “fail” response (which you can modify to be a standard ending to your skill regardless of how well the participant did). The choice is yours.
As you can see, I added an expression to this portion of the skill. These expressions are simply Alexa’s voice saying the given phrase with the appropriate inflection.
After all the major parts of your skill have been created, you may choose a background for devices with screens that support it, then you will have the opportunity to name your skill. Amazon suggests a two to three word name. I chose to keep it simply by naming the skill “meow quiz one”.
Once your skill is created, you have the option of editing, deleting, sharing, or publishing the skill to the Skill Store.
There are a lot of important things I learned when creating my first Skill using Blueprints:
- It should be noted that the Blueprint site was NOT tested for accessibility with VoiceOver, NVDA, or any other screen reader, but experimentation and feedback in this area is most certainly encouraged….and please share your experiences in the comments section so we can all benefit from your knowledge.
- Blueprints do NOT like special characters. Examples include quotation marks, slashes, and a few other characters that many would not think are classified as special characters. When you attempt to move from the skill blueprint area to the “experience” area, Amazon will let you know which, if any, text blocks contain these special characters. It’s pretty much trial and error from there to determine which ones are not accepted. Once the offending character is removed, the red print informing you of your error will disappear.
- Though it is possible to create a Blueprint from a phone, it probably is not the best idea, especially if there is a lot of copying and pasting (and editing). Using a desktop or laptop computer is much easier.
- Alexa will “bleep” out words she considers offensive. So if your article contains a word, no matter how innocently used, Alexa will censor it regardless of context. Enough said. \
- The Listening Skill Blueprint is limited only by your imagination. For example, I see using this skill with an online subscription to Scholastic or maybe a listening comprehension test that requires flawless reading and little inflection. Again, the copy/paste method is certainly the most convenient. And skills can be used over and over, so keeping a good up to date list in your teaching binder may help (so you don’t need to sign in to your account and check what skills you’ve created.
- The use of sound effects and expressions is strictly voluntary, so if you have a student that would find these distracting, it is possible to create a skill with these included and a second skill without them. We all know that being aware of and knowledgeable of our audience is a major component of teaching success. And if you misjudge what a student can or cannot tolerate, consider it a learning experience.
Link to the Finished Skill Created in this article (feel free to add this to your own device or share as appropriate)