Nov 12 2021

New Digital Assistant for Education Supports Teachers in the Classroom

Artificial intelligence from Merlyn Mind is helping teachers with classroom management and so much more.

Teachers in K–12 education face increasingly high rates of burnout, and many have chosen to leave the profession altogether. While there are many reasons for this, the struggle to balance new technologies and multiple teaching modalities amid an ongoing pandemic unquestionably contribute.

Pandemic-inspired technology will continue to permeate classrooms. In many ways, these advancements in educational technology will benefit educators and students by providing new opportunities and expanded experiences. For those facing high stress levels and near burnout, however, the idea of any new technology may be more daunting than it is exciting. Instead of being overwhelmed with more tech products, educators returning to the classroom need the right tools to help them manage challenges.

Digital assistants, powered by artificial intelligence and driven by interoperability, provide a way to bridge the gap between combating burnout and implementing advanced technology. These assistants have the potential to make technology more accessible for teachers while giving them the time and support they need to connect with their students on a social-emotional level. One such technology, Merlyn Mind Symphony Classroom, empowers K–12 educators with voice and remote control responsiveness.

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Touted as the first digital assistant designed specifically for education, this technology opens the door for future problem-solving and educator support.

How Does Interoperability Simplify Educational Technology Overload?

With more and more technology being introduced to the classroom, educators need simple ways to manage the tools at their disposal. Otherwise, tech can be forgotten or unused. Symphony Classroom allows educators to control multiple devices, including the teacher’s own laptop, from anywhere in the classroom. The product’s hub has numerous USB and HDMI ports to support tech integration and control.

RELATED: Susan Bearden pushes schools to implement ed tech interoperability standards.

How Do Digital Assistants Function in K–12 Classrooms?

Digital assistants are software programs that respond to commands (typically, voice commands) to aid users in completing tasks. Amazon’s Alexa is an example of a digital assistant popular with consumers.

In Symphony Classroom, the digital assistant is called Merlyn, an AI agent designed specifically to help teachers. Merlyn can be controlled by voice or by using the hub’s remote and has already pioneered the use of AI in K–12 classrooms for students as young as first grade.

“Even the first graders can use the technology a lot better than their parents or some of the teachers at my school,” says Jennifer Thornton, a first grade teacher at Columbia Elementary in California’s Val Verde Unified School District.

Val Verde USD piloted a beta test of the Merlyn technology and found the classroom management aspects particularly useful. The AI knows how to navigate tabs in a browser, search, play and pause YouTube videos, and set timers.

“You can have it show a visual timer on the screen, and a lot of my kids have issues telling time. So, when I say ‘30 minutes,’ they have no concept of that, but it has the timer that counts down and also has a visual circle where they can see it getting less and less filled. So, it helps them with their time management a lot,” says Darren Crist, a special education teacher at Val Verde USD.

This allows educators to manage their classroom without being tied to their desk, creating a smoother overall teaching experience.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover 3 ways schools can use AI to improve student engagement online.

How Do AI Products Benefit K–12 Teachers and Students?

“As difficult as it may be to believe, middle school students love to get off task,” says Mike Anderson, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Val Verde Middle School. “They love to divert a conversation. So, they ask questions regardless of if it’s time to ask questions or not.”

Using Merlyn in his classroom allows Anderson to answer students’ questions from anywhere in the room — or in the lesson. Instead of having to go to his desk, open a browser, type in the question and find the right response, he can simply say “Hey, Merlyn” and direct the question to the AI.

Merlyn Mind has also addressed privacy concerns that accompany many digital assistants in classrooms. The technology is built specifically to comply with school privacy and security needs, putting IT administrators and teachers in control. The far-field microphones can be muted so the AI only responds to the remote controller.

Because of the power of the remote, students are eager for a chance to use the technology themselves. Crist has created a “keeper of the Merlyn remote” job for students in his class. This has been particularly useful in helping his special needs students learn executive functions and how to speak clearly.

Darren Crist Val Verde USD
I’ve had kids that have difficulty with their speech, and they’ve been working hard because they wanted to be understood by Merlyn.”

Darren Crist Special Education Teacher, Val Verde Unified School District

“I’ve had kids that have difficulty with their speech, and they’ve been working hard because they wanted to be understood by Merlyn,” Crist says.

The incorporation of AI in the classroom also helps prepare students for finding jobs in a tech-focused future.

“These kids, at a very early age, are learning to interact with the AI,” says Phil Harding, Val Verde USD’s technology integration specialist. “Think of the world they’re going to inherit when they’re our age. And so, why would we not be introducing it now?”

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