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St. Louis University is getting into the smart speaker and connected living space trend in a big way. The university announced plans to put a total of 2,300 Amazon Echo Dots in all the student dorms and apartments on campus this week. It’s a curious move that may be welcomed by some—and seen as a privacy intrusion by others.
At the university, the Echo Dots will be employed as a resource for students. Each unit will have a St. Louis University-specific skill installed that answers more than 100 questions students may have, mostly about student life. This includes athletic events, information about campus organizations, upcoming speakers and concerts, and service opportunities.
“Every minute we can save our students from having to search for the information they need online is another minute that they can spend focused on what matters most: their education,” St. Louis University vice president and CIO David Hakanson said in the university’s announcement. Other school officials hope that the units will help drive engagement on campus, helping students feel more connected to one another and their alma mater. Of course, it will also be able to do all the other things an Alexa device is capable of: set alarms, act as a reference for general knowledge questions, or offer weather or sports information.
St. Louis University isn’t actually the first college to add Echo Dots as a “perk” for students living in student dorms. Arizona State University also added the diminutive smart speaker to student dorms last year, but only those of engineering students. The goal of this school’s Echo Dot use was to help students with their user interface development skills. St. Louis University may be the first to promise the technology to all students living on campus.
With the device’s always-on functionality, privacy may be a concern for students. The university says that the Echo units will be attached to a central system, rather than each being tied to an individual student’s Amazon account. That means that the devices will not be able to stream content from someone’s personal Spotify account, for example, only from radio stations like iHeartRadio or TuneIn. That also presumably means that students won’t be able to use the devices to order products from Amazon, as they’d need to be tied to a student’s account and credit card to do so. The devices will not keep recordings of asked questions, and will not store information on users—all usage will be anonymous.
Interestingly, the university isn’t allowing an option for students to opt out of this Alexa program. However, if both residents of a dorm room are uncomfortable with the device being on, the university recommends the students unplug the device and set it in a secure location. If students have a personal Echo or Google Home device they’d like to set up in addition to or instead of the University’s Echo Dot, that is an option that should be available at some point this fall, as well.
St. Louis University seems to have taken some adequate precautions to ensure these devices can’t be abused. (However, that also means their capabilities are more limited than your average Echo Dot.) It’ll be interesting to see whether the smart speakers are actually used as intended, or if they end up being a time-waster for students procrastinating on their studies.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.