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SLU Continues Innovative Efforts to Enhance Campus Life for Students Through Voice and AI Technology

University is building on its pioneering Alexa at SLU initiative launched last year

ST. LOUIS (Oct. 16, 2019) – Last year, Saint Louis University (SLU) became one of the first universities in the nation to provide Amazon Echo devices in all on-campus housing.  

SLU Echo Dot

The Echo Dot smart devices in each room and apartment come with a custom SLU skill designed that can now answer more than 300 questions specific to the University and campus experience.

Now, SLU is taking another pioneering leap forward in adopting voice and AI technologies to improve the student experience through its Ask SLU Alexa skill. The University has added text messaging and web-based chatbot functions to its Alexa at SLU program, which is a first in higher education. 

Plus, the Ask SLU skill, which answers an array of University-specific questions, is being made available off campus for the first time. 

An Innovative Start 

In 2018, SLU outfitted every residence hall room and campus apartment with an Echo Dot managed through the Amazon Alexa for Business service. More than 2,300 units were deployed across the campus, and a skill was developed called Ask SLU that answered more than 100 questions specific to the University.   

During the program’s first year, students interacted with Alexa more than 150,000 times through the Amazon Echo devices that SLU provided. 

New Features and Functionality 

To further the innovation and to respond to student feedback, SLU partnered again with Amazon Web Services to expand its skill using AWS’s open-source project QnABot. That allowed the University to scale up its program quickly. SLU also is using Amazon Comprehend – an automated natural language processing service – to make its skill more intuitive. 

Ask SLU now answers more than 300 questions and provides real-time information students wanted, including telling them when the next campus shuttle will arrive and what’s being served in the University’s main dining hall. Students can also get the latest schedules and scores for SLU’s sports teams through the skill.   

Students will no longer need to be near their Echo Dot devices to get the answers they need. They can use a new chatbot on SLU’s website or send a text to 314-977-CHAT. Students are being encouraged to add the number to their contacts so that their virtual assistant is easy to reach.   

David Hakanson, the University’s vice president, CIO and chief innovation officer, said these latest enhancements will enable students to take the power of Alexa at SLU with them wherever they go. Responding to student feedback has been a priority, he said.   

“As our program expands, we will continue to provide more and more services through Amazon Alexa, text or chatbot – empowering our students to be more efficient with their time so they can gain the most from their college experience,” Hakanson said. 

Ask SLU Goes Public 

In addition to new ways to interact with Alexa, Ask SLU is now available through the Alexa Skills store and the Alexa Companion app, making the skill accessible through any Alexa-enabled device. 

With this move, students living off campus can enjoy the same benefits of the new technology as their classmates. It also makes the knowledge base in the Ask SLU skill available to their parents and families. They only need to use their Amazon Alexa app to enable the Ask Saint Louis University skill. 

Mateo Catano, a junior majoring in aviation management, regularly uses his Echo Dot to set alarms and reminders, listen to the news, call for food delivery, find out when the library closes, ask recipe questions while cooking and even to play games with his friends. 

“It’s pretty cool to have this technology on campus,” said Catano, who also serves as a peer educator and is a former resident advisor. “In 2019, as technology is becoming even more advanced, I pride myself to be at a university that was the first to have Echo Dots in every dorm room. 

“And, with the new advances, it’s even cooler. Even my parents at home in Boston could ask a question about what's happening at SLU and get an answer. In fact, they've already downloaded the Ask SLU skill to their own Echo Dot at home.”

Protecting Student Privacy 

As the University expands its use of voice and AI technologies, protecting student privacy remains an imperative of the Alexa at SLU program.   

Each of SLU’s Echo Dots is managed centrally by Alexa for Business as a shared device. The devices are not tied to any individual student’s account. University administrators can’t access any voice recordings or utterances made to an individual device, and no personally identifiable information is recorded or stored. 

Leading the Way 

The launch of Alexa at SLU last year garnered national attention and the University has heard from several other schools that are interested in creating similar programs. SLU is in the early stages of forming a consortium of like-minded institutions to share experiences and accelerate the development of new features and functionality. 

In addition, SLU will be a presenter at the upcoming Amazon  AWS re:Invent event in December. Kyle Collins, the University’s assistant vice president for technology transformation, will discuss how the University’s unique approach to innovation and focus on student engagement drove the project.

 “Amazon Web Services is excited to continue our work with SLU as they develop new and unique experiences that connect students to all aspects of campus life,” said Andrew Ko, director of education at AWS. “We are pleased to see SLU formalize a group of like-minded institutions to collaborate on solutions that leverage new technologies and advance innovation across higher education.” 

For more information about the Alexa at SLU program, visit slu.edu/alexa

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Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place. For more information, visit slu.edu.