Prepare for virtual assistants in special education

By: | April 11, 2019

The benefits of virtual assistants for individuals with disabilities have many special educators eyeing these tools for their potential use in the classroom.

The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind uses Google Home mini devices in six classrooms, says Patrick Turnage, FSDB’s assistive technology specialist.

“For a subset of our students, tablet and computer interfaces can be daunting and complicated, both visually and cognitively,” Turnage says. Navigating a computer with a screen reader or magnification can be overwhelming for these students.

Virtual assistants have made it easier for students to quickly access information, Turnage says. “Our students have a sense of confidence now that they didn’t have before,” he says. “It’s benefited them to an extent even beyond what we anticipated.”

Address privacy

Virtual assistants listen for a wake word such as “OK, Google” or “Alexa.” Once activated, the devices record the users verbal commands to execute a function.

Be aware of the privacy implications of using these devices in the classroom, says Susan Bearden, educational consultant and a featured presenter for the Future of Education Technology Conference.

“Its important to remember that these are designed for consumer use, not educational use,” she says.

The U.S. Education Department has not issued guidance on the use of virtual assistants in the classroom; however, EDs FAQ on Photos and Videos under FERPA may be useful in considering how these devices may be viewed under FERPA, Bearden says.

“If districts do decide to use this, they need well thought-out guidelines,” Bearden says. Guidelines may include unplugging the device when its not in use so it doesn’t accidentally activate and guidelines on how devices will be used and what kinds of information should or should not be shared when the device is active.


Read: Voice-activated technology sounds better in education


“One recommendation is to treat the device as you would a third party sitting in the room,” Bearden says. If you wouldnt have a conversation about sensitive information in front of another person, dont say it near the device when its on, she says.

Also be aware of the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act, which protects the privacy of children under 13. In its guidance on voice recording, the Federal Trade Commission clarified that a childs use of his voice as a substitute for typing to perform search or other functions on internet-connected devices does not violate COPPA.

“This depends on how students are using the devices,” Bearden says. “To be on the safe side, my recommendation is to get parental consent regardless of students ages.”

At FSDB, teachers keep devices on mute when not in use and supervise all student queries, Turnage says. The devices are linked to a generic Google school account, so theyre not attached to individual teachers or students, he adds. Students also receive internet safety and digital citizenship training on privacy.

Share ideas for instructional use

Consider conducting a pilot of virtual assistants with a core group of teachers who are interested, Turnage says. Provide examples of how to use the devices in their content areas. “That was enough for our teachers to immediately start thinking about ways they could use it in their classrooms that we hadnt even considered.”

Here are examples:

  • Look up the spelling and definition of words.
  • Ask for synonyms and antonyms.
  • Complete basic math functions.
  • Convert measurements.
  • Set timers and reminders.
  • Play music.
  • Complete Mad Libs and other games in groups.
  • Ask about other places in the world.
  • Program routines based on a unique voice command.

Teach students how to ‘speak to technology

As virtual assistant technology becomes more advanced and ubiquitous, learning how to speak to it will become more important, Turnage says. “I think its a skill that well teach, and students will continue to build. I can see how to talk to these devices being taught along with keyboarding and other skills,” he says. Teach students to take turns when using the device, not to talk over each other, to use the wake word, and to think about their question before saying it, Turnage says.


Interested in edtech? Keep up with the Future of Education Technology Conference®.