Can Alexa simplify student life? Northeastern gave 60 students Amazon Echo Dots to find out.

Can Alexa simplify student life? Northeastern gave 60 students Amazon Echo Dots to find out. Photo by iStock.

“Who is my academic advisor?”

“When is my next class?”

“What is the status of my financial aid?”

College students have questions, but finding the answers in a timely manner can be tough. One website has information on scholarships. A different office handles medical forms. Getting someone on the phone can take a long time. The mental energy used to solve these daily problems is sucked away from studying, planning, and working.

Now, a Northeastern spin-off called n-Powered has designed a way to improve students’ experience by alleviating their cognitive load, in the form of an Amazon Echo Dot application for incoming freshmen. Equipped with an Echo Skill called Husky Helper, Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa can answer common student questions, pulling from a variety of disparate data sources across the university.

N-Powered conducted a pilot study of Husky Helper with 60 Northeastern students during the 2017-2018 school year. The feedback, compiled in a video n-Powered provided, was overwhelmingly positive. 

“I used Husky Helper to figure out who my academic advisor was, which was really helpful, because my advisor changed three times throughout the semester,” said Northeastern student Elizabeth Hilli, a freshman studying criminal justice and psychology.

Added Northeastern student Sophia Anderson, a freshman studying political science and business administration: “I’ve used it for a variety of reasons including setting a timer for when I go do my laundry and playing music.”

Somen Saha and Joel Evans, co-founders of n-Powered, designed the Husky Helper pilot by visiting the Northeastern call center and calculating the top 20 questions asked by students over the past three years. These included inquiries about financial aid, account holds, advisors, and balance of meal cards. Saha and Evans created the platform to house all the answers across departments in one cohesive place.

Students can ask Alexa questions while brushing their teeth, lying in bed, or folding laundry in their dorm room, getting instant answers to nagging questions.  

“This makes space for creative and reflective thought that ultimately lends to learning and innovation,” said Madeleine Estabrook, vice president for student affairs.

The problem of information being spread across multiple departments is prevalent across higher education. N-Powered has streamlined the many data sources so universities can serve students better with a complete 360-degree view of their information.

Protecting students’ privacy was a top concern for the architects of the system, Saha said. Each student signed a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act document to allow access to their student records. The system is “obfuscated end-to-end,” meaning all data is stored with encryption that is “near impossible to break.” Even if someone did crack the data, it would be gibberish without the encryption key, Saha said. Students can also opt out of using the Skill altogether, or pick and choose which of their data is accessible.

Planning is underway to make Husky Helper available to students this fall. Estabrook said it will help reduce the mental effort that’s used in working memory by giving students immediate information.

“The goal is for students to get quick answers so they can spend their time being creative and innovative and entrepreneurial,” she said.

*A previous version of this story contained a quotation that was misattributed.