St. Louis University Puts Amazon Echo Dots in All Student Rooms
Students arriving at St. Louis University for the fall semester will be greeted by Alexa. The University has placed Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers into “every residence hall room or student apartment on campus.” A webpage dedicated to the program summarizes the program by saying:
“A custom SLU skill deployed on each device provides instant answers to more than 100 questions specific to the University, from ‘What time does the library close tonight?’ to ‘Where is the registrar’s office?’ Alexa will also be able to provide information about Billiken games, campus events, student organizations, and service and mission opportunities, among many other aspects of student life.”
The roll out of the SLU Alexa skill (pronounced “Sloo”) is accompanied by a clever video which tracks the experience of an entering first-year student through graduation with an Echo Dot providing information throughout numerous college scenarios. N-Powered, which also has deployed an Amazon Alexa based student solution for Northeastern University, implemented the SLU solution.
The First University Deployment of Alexa for Business
St. Louis University claims to be the first deployment of Alexa for Business at a University. Alexa for Business is an Amazon solution that enables private organizations to manage smart speakers through a centralized system. Skills such as SLU do not need to be published in the Alexa skill store or accessible by the general public. The features can be restricted to designated devices.
Student Privacy is Highlighted
An interesting note is that student privacy appears to be key focus for the program. “This system is not tied to individual accounts and does not maintain any personal information for any of our users, so all use currently is anonymous. Additionally, neither Alexa nor the Alexa for Business management system maintains recordings of any questions that are asked.” These devices are not registered to the users, but rather to the University. So, it appears to that typical Alexa customization such as linking to a music streaming service is not allowed. Only the iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio station Alexa skills are offered for music listening.
This is the obvious trade-off: privacy and ownership versus features. The SLU program offers student privacy, centralized management and free device use. Those elements come at the cost of limitations on personalization and many of the conveniences that smart speakers normally afford users. For example, this means users won’t be able to have account linked access to their calendars and productivity tools or other paid services that are specific to an individual. In this way, the SLU deployment is like Alexa for Hospitality that was recently introduced for hotels.
Students will need to bring their own devices to access these types of services. Program details suggest a new WiFi network designed for personal devices is scheduled to roll out in Fall 2018. That will enable students to use their own Amazon Echo, Google Home or other devices from their campus residences.
The Economics of Alexa for Business at SLU
FAQ documentation about the program says that the free Echo Dots and new Alexa skill did not impact tuition or residential fees. However, students that damage an Echo Dot will be charged for replacement. It is not clear whether St. Louis University is paying full price for Alexa for Business or receiving a special discount. Alexa for Business fees start at $7 per month for shared devices or $3 per month per user.
The University is expected to deploy 2,300 devices. If we assume these are shared devices given that they are going into dorm rooms, then the monthly cost will be $16,100 and $193,200 annually. The list price of Echo Dots is $49 which works out to $112,700 for device acquisition. St. Louis University may be getting bulk discounts on some of the charges, but keep in mind these figures do not include the cost of implementation, device management or other services the University may choose to add.
Compared to other technology projects, $300-$500 thousand dollars is not a particularly high price tag, but it is consequential. Universities increasingly must compete for new students and it looks like smart speakers are the latest feature they are hoping will provide a differentiated student experience.