Virtual assistant

WASD implements a new virtual assistant in its classrooms

As technology continues to advance and becomes more integrated into the lives of its users, researchers and developers are taking the next step by bringing voice-activated assistants to academia.

And this technology has arrived in the classrooms of the Waynesboro area school district.

“This company was actually started to figure out how to bring AI (artificial intelligence) and voice technology into classrooms in a private and secure way,” said Levi Belnap, Chief Strategy Officer of Merlyn Mind.

Merlyn was born out of questions about how to teach with AI and give teachers a hand.

“So much energy is put into the classroom to manage all the tools, all the technologies and all the apps, all about the human connection of teaching and we looked at how AI and voice control could simplifying it all so that the teacher could now say with a single voice command ‘Hey Merlyn, start my lesson’ or ‘Hey Meryln, skip to the quiz we’re going to do today,’” Belnap said.

Symphony Classroom, by Merlyn Mind, acts as an AI hub for teachers to connect to all their devices.

“We don’t consider it a smart speaker, it certainly has very powerful speakers, but it acts as an interface in the classroom to allow a teacher to connect to the screen in the room, to his laptop, all the content on their computer so they can now jump through all this stuff with voice commands,” Belnap said.

Additionally, a remote control is paired with the unit to allow teachers to use an air mouse, navigate things with touch and remote controls.

Merlyn Mind staff and Waynesboro Area School District staff first met at the Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo & Conference in February at Hershey Lodge.

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“It was clear that this was a very good fit, a forward-looking neighborhood that was completely committed to both its teachers, its students as well as the families and the community and us who were looking for who these forward-looking neighborhoods are. thinkers who are really looking to torch the future of the rest of the United States,” said Gus Schmedlen, President and Chief Revenue Officer. “That was just the biggest highlight I’ve come across since my time here at Merlyn Mind. “

To gauge potential interest from teachers in the district, WASD recently held a demonstration and information session on the units and had a fairly good response.

According to WASD’s Chief Technology Officer, Nic Erickson, of the four sessions, 35 teachers attended and said they would like to use a symphony classroom in their classroom. After the sessions, requests for 20 more units came from teachers who were unable to attend the sessions, which brought the units to all six buildings in the district.

“In total we have 55 teachers who want to use it. I’m in talks right now with maybe even trying one at the moment. Alma Beneficial House as well,” Erickson said, referring to the school district’s home used to teach life skills to students with special needs. “I could easily get at least 50 more units placed in the district, no problem.

Symphony Classroom units are shown here being installed at Fairview Elementary School by Pierson Computing Connection of Mechanicsburg.

Eliza Resetar, a first-grade teacher, had the unit installed in her classroom.

“As a first-grade teacher, I’m open to any new opportunity that comes my way,” she said. “When the district told us we could pilot Merlyn Symphony Classroom, I jumped at the chance.”

She said the new equipment has allowed her to interact more with her students.

“Having a way to access my laptop from anywhere in the classroom provided a way to break down the teacher-student barrier and not be stuck in one place in the room,” said she declared. “I can now stand in the middle of my class and change a slide, switch to a new tab, or play/pause media to talk about what they learned.

One of his favorite features is telling Merlyn to set a timer.

“It’s a huge plus because I would have to step away from a student I’m working with one-on-one to go and set the timer,” she said. Now I can quickly say, ‘Hey Merlyn, set a timer for 5 minutes’ and follow up with any one-to-one help my student might need.”

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Since announcing the product in 2021, Merlyn Mind has been working with schools across the country and overseas in pilot programs.

“We’re actively working with our great partners like Waynesboro to tell them, ‘What else do you want it to do, what’s not working perfectly for your teachers, what What else could it help them do in their daily workflows to save time? and make them more effective as teachers?” Belnap said.

WASD first-grade teacher Angie Cales, who has 20 years of teaching experience, shared her thoughts on using new technology in her classroom.

“Teachers have more and more on their plate, and anything that can save time and maximize efficiency is worth trying,” Cales said. “Merlyn really serves two audiences: the teacher and the learners. Merlyn can help me switch between my laptop, document camera, Apple TV and the Promethean board. He can also switch between open tabs in Chrome and can Start and pause a YouTube instructional video, all with voice command.

“My learners love asking Merlyn what the outside temperature is to find out whether or not they should wear coats at recess or to ask what the largest ocean on Earth is,” she said. “Merlyn’s voice command features save teachers valuable time while teaching and those minutes add up.”

Zachary Rutta of Meryln Mind hosts a demonstration session for teachers at Waynesboro Area Senior High School.

According to Schmedlen, the unit should be in more than 500 classrooms by the end of June, and across the Commonwealth with facilities in five different school districts.

Installation of the Waynesboro units was completed in late April. The purchase of the units was funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. For more information, visit www.merlyn.org.