Teaching Computational Thinking using Amazon Alexa and AWS
In the current environment of digital transformation, there is a lot of talk on how best to educate students for new job profiles. Attempts to increase graduation numbers in software engineering programs are only part of the answer. All students need to improve their digital literacy and collaboration skills.
At Munich University of Applied Sciences, we began teaching future skills through digital hands-on interdisciplinary student projects. In the fall of 2018, a group of 128 computer science and tourism majors developed voice apps for Amazon Alexa. The students worked in mixed teams of 4-6 students and they did an end-to-end development of new ‘Alexa Skills.’ The result was 25 new Alexa voice apps – five different quiz apps, five voice apps related to cooking and drinks, six different game-related voice apps, ranging from an Escape Room to a score-keeper targeted for the Bavarian card game ‘Schafkopf,’ and nine other useful assistants including helping with public transportation, activity suggestions in Munich, vocal coaching, and bag packing. Each team was able to get their idea for a voice app into a working digital product.
Developing voice-based applications is excellent for mixed teams with different levels of technology experience. All team members can contribute, while specifying and structuring the dialogues between human and machine. No programming experience is required to build and analyze engaging conversations. Amazon Alexa and the Alexa Skills Kit are designed so that everyone can define utterances and intents that trigger requests to the voice-based assistant. Students can experience how to create, shape, and tune a digital product. The Speech Synthesis Markup Language is a first step towards ‘programming’ specific sound or prosody effects. Students can get immediate feedback while trying their voice app with Amazon Echo, the Echo mobile app, or the testing tools in the browser. No complicated installation is required.
The more technology-savvy computer science majors benefited from working with AWS. We used AWS Lambda and the Alexa Skills Kit SDK for Java to develop the different back-ends for the Alexa Skills. Using AWS Lambda in a project-based class was beneficial, because AWS Lambda lets students focus on the software engineering and development of the core business logic rather than programming systems or infrastructure-related components.
Developing Alexa Skills using AWS is a great project framework for teaching and training future skills needed for digital transformation. Students from non-technical degree programs (in our case, tourism majors) can actively contribute to a digital project and strengthen their digital collaborative abilities. Tools like github, including the use of github issues and the github agile project board, helped. Students with a technical background benefited from strengthening their collaboration abilities in mixed interdisciplinary teams and from using state-of-the-art cloud technologies.
We conducted a set of two competency tests with a subset of 58 students in weeks 2 and 11 of the semester to see if we were on the right track for teaching future skills. Janet Wing defines computational thinking as an important future skill. Computational thinking implies the ability to abstract relevant concepts from vague descriptions. Structuring dialogues, categorizing varying utterances, and using digital tools can sharpen students’ computational thinking. The competency tests indicate strong evidence that computational thinking improved significantly for all students – most notably for the students from the non-technical degree programs.
Our pilot course proved that the best way to shape future skills was to involve as many students as possible with new technologies in the classroom. The easy-to-use web-based tools were great for the students since the tools helped them to get immediate feedback on their work.
We will continue to work with AWS and Alexa, thanks to the collaboration with Amazon now that we have established at Munich University of Applied Sciences in the Digital Transformation Lab.