‘Alexa, open Canvas’

Amy Morris, Scene Editor

Envision being able to log into Canvas without having to lift a finger. Imagine having all of CWU’s events and clubs listed to you with just one command. Well, this will soon be a reality with a special Alexa device.

A group of five computer science seniors have been working on this project. While creating this special Alexa device may seem like a challenge, the computer science students did it in 10 weeks. According to Emily Bodenhamer, one of the students working on the project, the purpose of having a special Alexa device is to make it easier for first year students to navigate campus and their classes. While the initial budget for the project was $500, the students only used around $50-60 total.

While the device is finalized for the student’s project, it will still take around 2-5 years for CWU to implement them. The students are now handing off the Alexa device to the business department for further testing and implementation, according to Riley Kral, one of the students on this project. The Alexa device will first be implemented in Dugmore Hall but the final goal is to have Alexa devices placed in all dorm rooms.

When a computer science student becomes a senior, they have to do a Capstone project, which is a big project requiring work for two quarters. The Alexa project was first introduced by Andreas Bowman, the vice president of operations. He wanted CWU to be more voice accessible. 

“I mean, you are paying so much in tuition, you want [administration] to do something good with it,” Bodenhamer said.

The students were assigned the Alexa project the last two weeks of the fall 2019 quarter. At that time, they were just getting a basic idea of what Amazon products they were going to use. The students officially started working on the project in the beginning of winter quarter. That is when they started doing all the coding and talking about all the design aspects.

The first step in creating the special Alexa device was doing the front end and the back end development. The front end is just where you ask Alexa questions and the back end means Alexa will process the question to be able to answer it. Bodenhamer said they wanted to start with the easier things first, so the next thing they did was implement web scraping.

When putting the information in the database the first things that were inputted were building hours and clubs. Those were the easiest to do, according to Bodenhamer.

Bodenhamer said after they got the easy stuff out of the way, they went into implementing Canvas and the calendar system the school uses. The calendar system has any CWU event you can think of, such as Monday Movie Madness and PolyFest.

Implementing Canvas into Alexa took the longest. Bodenhamer said they had to make a website in order for the students to have their Canvas information saved in a database. Alexa is already connected to the database, so when students use the website, they send all the information to the database.

What Alexa will do is connect to the database and search for the student’s information. So students will say their CWU ID and their PIN. Alexa will go to the database and find the student’s ID and PIN. Then Alexa will take that information and use it to get into the student’s Canvas account and give information on their assignments and classes.

For students who may not know what to ask Alexa, on the website there is also a list of possible questions students can ask.

Bodenhamer believes moving towards becoming more technologically advanced and having voice-enabled devices will make it easier for students to use Canvas.

Tyler Huson, one of the students on the team, thinks there is a bit of a misconception with voice-enabled devices. Huson said a lot of people believe the devices are recording at all times but that is not exactly the case. They are listening at all times and waiting for the right words to start recording, Huson said.

Krall, who worked on the Amazon web services backend, said they wanted to create a tool that made it easier for students to figure out information about the school.

To test the Alexa device, they went into Dugmore Hall and asked students to participate in the testing, according to Krall. Students asked questions to the device to make sure it worked properly. They were able to connect to their own student accounts which was the authentication testing.

 “We are very content with this product,” Krall said. “We are actually very happy with how it came out. It kind of proves what we can implement for the school.”