Say hello to your child’s new tutor

Some parents are turning to smart speakers to help with their children’s homework, but there are issues to consider

NEW YORK • Nobody seems to have learnt the lesson.

Which is why the nightly drama played out by kids and parents over homework continues to be fraught because of parental expectations and tired children.

So it is hard to fault anyone for seeking relief. Some parents hire tutors, but others are turning to a tireless assistant that sits on the kitchen counter, offering answers to seemingly any question – the family smart speaker.

Amazon, Apple and Google offer voice-enabled smart speakers that can work as digital assistants and smart home hubs.

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 some issues to mull over.

What is the purpose of homework?

Ideally, homework reinforces the learning that takes place in school.

Before allowing a smart speaker to act as a homework helper, determine the purpose of the assignment.

If it requires practising a skill learnt at school or memorising vital 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 Bjork calls “desirable difficulties”, or situations that require people to work for their knowledge.

When a child has quick and easy access to information, such as with a smart speaker, the desirable difficulties evaporate.

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 does not actually know anything, it just relays information from websites such as Wikipedia or Yelp.

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 in America do not allow students to use Wikipedia or Spark Notes. If that is true for your children’s school, it is even more crucial for them to know the 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 smart speaker can be a useful homework tool in some situations. 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 is fine to use a smart speaker for an occasional information grab because asking it a question is not 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 he is seeking, which is excellent for learning.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline 'Say hello to your child’s new tutor'. Subscribe