University promotes innovation with “Ask Park”.

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Back to Article

University promotes innovation with “Ask Park”.

Park University branded echo dot

Park University branded echo dot

Dayana Plaisime

Park University branded echo dot

Dayana Plaisime

Dayana Plaisime

Park University branded echo dot

Dayana Plaisime, Editor

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Imagine having the ability to just ask questions such as, “what assignments are due today?” or “what are the activities on campus for this week?” or “what’s been recently published on the Stylus?” and have the answers available at your command. Now imagine this being a reality.

Park University is launching a new program for Amazon Alexa called “Ask Park”. Alexa is a personal voice assistant that enables users to voice-control products and services offered by a variety of brands.  With the “Ask Park” skill, students can vocally communicate with Alexa to ask questions concerning their education as well as linking their Park ID to the application to access their course schedule information, grades, and other features offered through the app.

The creation of the app was inspired when Jared Flaherty, director of LMS Support, and James Nelson, associate vice president of Information Technology Services at Park University’s Parkville Campus, attended a conference called Instructurecon last July in Keystone, Co. Instructurecon is an annual Canvas conference and last year the big reveal was the Alexa skill for the Canvas Platform.

Since the beginning of his presidency at Park University, Greg Gunderson, Ph.D., put emphasis on innovation. When Flaherty and Nelson saw how Canvas was using voice computing technology, it led to the thought of bringing the voice computing technology to Park to help facilitate  interactions between students and faculty members more efficiently, easily, and faster. The pilot for the “Ask Alexa” skill was created earlier this year. The pilot was essentially a proof of concept just to see if the skill was obtainable and the difficulty level of creating such skill which led to the full feature of “Ask Park”.

Alexa will make it easier for students to have access to information rather than having to pick up a computer or cellular device, log in to MyPark or Canvas then have to search for the information themselves, which is often tricky or difficult to find. With the “Ask Park” skill through Alexa students can just voice their commands and Alexa does the work to provide them the information needed in a quick and timely fashion without the use of extra devices. You don’t have to know where to go to access the information.

“Our goal is to take interaction you have to do today that are timely or lengthy or difficult, using MyPark isn’t always the easiest thing in the world to use to find what you need,” said Nelson. “If we could take those formalities and make it voice enabled through Alexa, you don’t even need to be near a computer, you just need to ask Alexa.”

In the future, the vision is for students to be able to register for classes through Alexa. Not only will Alexa be able to tell you your course requirements, it will also be able to enroll you in sections available in those courses, so you don’t have to go through the process of meeti

ng with an advisor if you don’t want to.

“We help make it easier for students to continue their education through Alexa because they can go on and ask, “What’s my degree audit?” and they can essentially go through that process without having to schedule an appointment with a counselor and go through a bunch of paperwork,” said Amy Mcintosh, director of marketing at Park University. “They can be prepared so when they do sit down with their success coach to enroll they already know what they want to take, so when they do meet with their advisors it’s more about advising than ‘How do I enroll?’.”

The development of the Park feature for Alexa was not a difficult one. There was time dedicated for the development earlier this year and since then it has been growing immensely. The complexity for the feature comes from individual needs.

“Some of the easy asked questions don’t take very long to develop. We can do that in a matter of seconds,” said Nelson, “whereas some of the more complex things like course needs are a lot more complex, so they can take weeks and months to develop.” Any questions that Alexa does not have a response to, the LMS and the Information Technology Services receives a report saying this many student or faculty members asked about this, so that they can work on adding the answer to that question in the future.

The “Ask Park” skill only requires students to have access to Amazon, an Alexa or Echo device. Student can download the free Alexa app for their phone or other devices. Students can even use the Amazon shopping app by clicking a button and talking to Alexa “Ask Park” and the shopping app will direct the to the answer.

“You can use the Echo device or the app,” said Nelson. “You just need internet connection. It’s very easy to set up. The “Ask Park” skill is available to everyone, you do not have to be a Park University student to utilize the app. Park student have the ability to link their students account and Canvas to the app to check their grades, class schedule, GPA and much more.

“There’s nothing in my mind that I would say we can’t do,” said Nelson. “It’s just a matter of what does it take to do it.” Both Nelson and Flaherty have been working with the student technology fee committee, a part of student government, to ask questions. They are looking at polling students and faculty members to find out what their expectations of Alexa are and look at what they are asking of Alexa, so they can build in those capabilities. They hope the app will increase student engagement on campus through communication. Student will have the capability to ask Alexa of events on campus, or recently published Stylus articles.  An email address will be created to make it easier for students to ask questions and send suggestions but for now students can send suggestions through the helpdesk.

“We want to know what everybody wants it to be able to do, so we can do that,” said Nelson. “We want to hear from students what they really want and that’s what we want to prioritize.”

Alexa will help draw prospective students and help improve retention rate by making accessing information easier, according to Nelson. Prospective students will have the ability to work with Alexa to find out all the information needed about financial aid, paying their tuition with or without help from a financial aid counselor.

“The goal is definitely to improve retention,” said Nelson, “to help new and prospective students to get the information they need, to then wanting to enroll.”

A canvas skill is available for Alexa where students can engage with learning management through Alexa by voice commands. The only difference between the “Ask Park” skill and the Canvas skill is that “Ask Park” is developed and branded by Park University and the Canvas skill is produced by the company which runs Canvas — LMS. Both skills work specifically for Park University. The Canvas feature allows students to do more such as checking for missing assignments, assignments that are due that day. Both are the same devices, the “Ask Park” skills share features like Canvas.

“We are looking to incorporate some of the Canvas features to the Park one,” said Flaherty.

Park University is the only school in the Midwest to use the Alexa Voice system. Other schools using the Alexa voice computing system include Arizona State University and MIT who uses it for their engineering students. Park University is the first university of its size to use the Alexa app nationwide.

“… in the Midwest there are no other schools our size doing this, even the schools that are doing it aren’t using it in the same way that we are looking to use it,” said Mcintosh. “They are using it in smaller directives while we are using it as an entire university system which is a little bit different.”

Alexa will help bridge the communication gap on campus and nationwide by making things easier. “Alexa is an amazing opportunity to connect with students one-on-one,” said Mcintosh.”


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