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Should parents let kids turn to smart speakers for homework help?


The nightly negotiations between kids and parents over homework are frequently fraught because of the drama brought on by parental pressures, tired kids and high expectations. So it’s hard to fault anyone for seeking relief. Some parents hire tutors or homework coaches, but others are turning to a tireless assistant that sits on kitchen counters offering friendly, knowledgeable answers to seemingly any question — the family smart speaker.

Amazon, Apple and Google all offer voice-enabled smart speakers that can work as digital assistants and smart home hubs. According to the marketing firm ComScore, 18.7 million U.S. homes have a smart speaker, and more widespread growth is projected. These devices perform many tasks, including reporting the weather, helping find a restaurant and turning on the coffeepot. Smart speakers are beginning to make an appearance in classrooms, too. A session at the ISTE conference for educators in June was dedicated to ways to use Amazon’s smart speaker, Alexa, in the classroom.

Once parents and teachers began modeling daily use of their smart speakers, perhaps it became inevitable that kids would begin asking the devices for help with their homework. But while it may seem like the same thing as asking a person, the two are very different. Imagine an 8-year-old sitting with a math worksheet at the kitchen counter asking the speaker for multiplication facts. While a speaker would just spit out answers nonstop, most parents have the judgment to remind the child that maybe this is something they should have memorized by now.

Allowing a child to seek help from a smart speaker might make for a more pleasant evening, but it could also undermine the foundation of their education. Here are questions to help guide parents in deciding whether to let kids use smart speakers as a homework assistant.

What is the purpose of homework?

Ideally, homework reinforces the learning that takes place at school. According to the National PTA, the best homework assignments do not involve learning new material at home. That means homework is often practice, rote memorization or drill.

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While tedious, such activities form the foundation of a child’s ability to perform higher-order skills, such as applying complex math concepts. Evidence is also mounting that knowledge is a crucial prerequisite for reading comprehension. Kids need this foundation because, in the edu-speak of Bloom’s Taxonomy, knowledge is the necessary precondition for putting skills and abilities into practice.

Before allowing a smart speaker to act as a homework helper, determine the purpose of the assignment. If it requires practicing a skill learned at school or memorizing important facts, using a smart speaker could hinder their long-term education.

How do kids learn best?

Think about the struggle to learn to tie a shoe — it takes focus, practice, failure and a lot of determination. The best learning occurs through something education researcher Robert A. Bjork describes as “desirable difficulties,” or situations that require us to work for the knowledge. Studying in different rooms, creating your own study questions and taking breaks between study sessions are all proven techniques for learning material. Each forces the brain to stop, apply the new information and dwell on it subconsciously. When a child has quick and easy access to information, such as with a smart speaker, the desirable difficulties evaporate, because acquiring the answer is quick and easy. Information so easily acquired is also easily lost, and lost information during tonight’s homework equals missed knowledge over time.

What is the source of the information?

Some kids struggle with understanding that their smart speaker is not the source of the information it shares. Even though it has a human voice, it doesn’t know anything, it just relays information from websites such as Wikipedia or Yelp. I have seen intelligent students struggle with this concept. Sometimes students will ask me how to cite information from a smart speaker. I remind them that, just as we don’t cite our computers but instead cite the original source the computer shows us, we do not cite a smart speaker.

When parents hear kids asking a smart speaker for information, they should challenge them to identify the source. Is it reliable, or academically acceptable? Many schools do not allow students to use Wikipedia or Spark Notes. If that is true for your school, it is even more crucial for students to know their smart speaker’s source of information. Failing to check sources means running the risk of violating the school’s academic standards.

When can it help?

The home smart speaker can be a useful homework tool in some situations, if used correctly. The timer function is quick and easy, and can help tired, squirmy kids to stay focused and get their homework finished. Or you can use it to play white noise or background music while studying.

It can also be useful for checking homework, by verifying answers once students have completed the assignment. The extra reinforcement of doing the work, asking the speaker, and then listening to the answer would benefit any child.

And it’s fine to use a smart speaker for an occasional information grab, because asking it a question isn’t as simple as it might seem. The devices have programmed windows of understanding, which means it matters how questions are phrased, and choosing the right key words is helpful. This can encourage a child to think in different ways about the information they are seeking, which is excellent for learning.

Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, tutor, teacher, librarian and a mom to four. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student.

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