Prepare for Virtual Assistants in Special Education

FSDB Assistive Technology Specialist Patrick Turnage helping blind girl use a Smart Brailler.

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 the Blind (FSDB) uses Google Home mini devices in six classrooms, says Patrick Turnage, FSDB 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 user’s 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.

“It’s 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, ED’s 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 it’s 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.

“One recommendation is to treat the device as you would a third party sitting in the room,” Bearden says. If you wouldn’t have a conversation about sensitive information in front of another person, don’t say it near the device when it’s on, she says.

Also be aware of the Children’s 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 child’s use of his voice as a substitute for typing to perform search or other functions on internet-connected devices does not violate COPPA.