Back to school with Alexa: The ultimate guide

It's back to school time. If you have an Alexa device, we have some helpful tips and skills that will help you get ready for school. We not only cover educational resources, but the essentials, like how to order pizza.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Video: Your future e-ink tablet might soon double as a sketchpad

Updated for 2018 back to school.

There's no doubt Amazon's Alexa has taken the home by storm. But what about dorm room living and getting ready for school? If you're sharing a room with another student, cramming for exams, or living away from mom and dad for the first time, Alexa can help. It can also help if you're studying from home. No matter where you learn, Alexa is standing by to help out.

Also: Back-to-school gift guide 2018 CNET

If you don't have an Alexa device, we've got you covered there, as well. Check out our guide on how to pick the best Alexa device for your needs. If you want to add some smarthome features, we've even got you covered there, as well with our guide on getting started with Alexa and smart home tech for under $100.

While Alexa has some native capabilities that are useful for students, many more helpful capabilities can be found in the Skills section of the Alexa app. These are add-on capabilities you can enable. Once you do, Alexa will respond to them as if they were part of her original programming.

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It used to be that you had to go into the Alexa app or web interface to enable the skills. Now, however, all you need to do is say, "Alexa, enable..." followed by the name of the skill. To demonstrate this, I'll show you how to enable the single most important skill for student life: ordering pizza.

Ordering pizza

First, start by saying, "Alexa, enable Dominos." You can do the same with Pizza Hut by saying, "Alexa, enable Pizza Hut." Can you already feel the damage to your digestive system? Sure. I knew you could.

To set things up, you'll want to say, "Alexa, open Dominos" and "Alexa, open Pizza Hut." After that, it's a mere matter of placing an order and reordering. As you use these two apps, be aware that Pizza Hut has far better wings than Dominos. But Dominos has Stuffed Cheesy Bread with spinach and feta. I'm telling you, this is what we call a full-service article.

I promise I'll get to some educational resources, but what you really need if you're living in a dorm room is to be prepared for what life throws at you now that you're on your own.

Settle a board game argument

You may not realize it now, but right after ordering pizza, the next most important thing to be able to do is win an argument about a board game. It's 2 am, you and your neighbors are all gathered in the little cove in the middle of the dorm avoiding homework, and somebody makes some outlandish claim about how many people can play Monopoly or who goes first in Scrabble.

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There's no need for an argument. Instead, tell Alexa to enable board games, and then ask away. For example, you might say, "Alexa, ask board games how many people can play Monopoly." You'll have your answer. There will be no more fighting, and you can go on to take Board Walk and Park Place. My strategy was always to get the utilities and the railroads. Don't try for hotels; they're strategically overrated. Just put houses on as many properties as you can and build from there.

Travel tips for getting back home

If you need to travel home by air during the holidays, Alexa can help you out. If you want to know how long you're going to have to wait in a security line, enable "security lines" and ask: "Alexa, ask security line what the wait time is at SFO terminal 2?" If you want to know the overall status at an airport, enable "airport status" and ask something like "Alexa, ask airport status to check SFO."

Speaking of travel, if you need a ride to the airport, Alexa can help. Enable the Uber or Lyft skill, then set your dorm as the default pickup location, and when it's time to go home (don't forget to bring all your laundry), you can say, "Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride" or "Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride."

Music and audio books

Of course, music is one of the things Alexa does really well. You can set up Alexa to talk to Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, SiriusXM, and Amazon Music. You can also play tunes from your own Amazon My Music Library, or turn the can into a Bluetooth speaker.

Beyond tunes, you can have your Alexa read to you from Audible, and even from some audio-enabled Kindle books.

Help with spelling and word tricks

When writing papers, it can be helpful to get word definitions, spelling, and synonyms. Ask "Alexa, define hippocampus" to get a definition. Ask "Alexa, what is the spelling of enlighten" to get the spelling of a word. Ask "Alexa, what is the synonym of education" to get words that mean roughly the same thing.

If you want an antonym or a rhyme, you'll need to enable the skill "word box," and then say, "Alexa, ask word box for an antonym for excited." Word Box is a bit limited, but somewhat helpful.

Better list management

When Alexa first came out, its list synchronization was pretty anemic. But with the addition of skills, you can link to list managers like AnyList (my family's personal favorite), Cozi, and Picniic. You can also link to to-do list apps like Todoist and Any.do.

One challenge we have with our shared Alexa is that sometimes the list managers don't work with the right account. So don't forget to say "Alexa, switch to David's account" (or your name) to add list items to the right account.

Math made easy

I use Alexa a lot when doing calculations. I prefer not to pull up my calculator for simple math calculations, so asking Alexa to add, subtract, multiply, and divide comes in handy.

Alexa has a wide variety of calculator skills, including a scientific calculator, a distance calculator, a significant figures calculator, an area calculator, a time difference calculator, and ... I kid you not ... a halibut calculator, which converts dollars into pounds of halibut. Hey, fish and game majors will find this valuable.

How to search skills

This is a good time to show you how to find the Alexa Skills search engine. My favorite way is point my browser to alexa.amazon.com, and hit the Skills button on the left.


Choose the education category.

When you first enter the Skills section, you can choose a category. It's a bit unfortunate that Education and Reference are lumped together, because there are a tremendous number of slightly silly reference skills like Mega Millions Numbers and Sneaker Release Dates.

Also: How to become an Alexa developer: A cheat sheet TechRepublic

That said, there are also many helpful skills. Spend the time to dig through, and you'll find translation tools, this day in history skills, and my favorite: Alexa connections to courseware like Curiosity and Great Courses Plus.

There are a great many Alexa Skills. If you're looking for school specific resources, type "college" into the search engine, and you'll see that some colleges have created their own skills. Type in "reference" for many different reference resources. Type in "math" or "science" for science-related skills.

Keeping track of time

One of my biggest challenges in college was the 8 am calculus classes I had. I don't know why they needed to be that cruel, but the math department seemed to revel in scheduling calculus for before any coffee had a chance to settle in.

To plan for that, you can set all manner of timers with Alexa. Last summer, I wrote a great summary of timer tips to help you prepare for that inevitable brutal early class.

If you have a roommate who needs a slight nudge to get up, here's the procedure: "Alexa, set volume to 9. Alexa, play Reveille from Prime Music." It's effective. It won't endear you to your roommate, but it is effective.

Dorm room challenge skills

Speaking of dorms and Alexa, earlier this year, Amazon challenged students to reimagine their dorm rooms using Alexa. The Hack-the-Dorm with Amazon Alexa challenge resulted in three winners.

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For USC students, Dorm Events hooks into the Dorm Events Facebook app and provides updates on what's happening around campus. Course Tracker is a customized calendar that allows you to keep track of what you're studying and when you have exams. Obie Food is specific to Oberlin College, but if you happen go Yeo, you'll know what's available to eat.

Finally, don't think of Alexa as a static service. Many of you have taken programming courses in school. If you want a fun project, consider building your own Alexa skill. Amazon is currently running its Alexa skill challenge. If you publish a skill between now and the end of the month, you might be eligible for a free Echo Dot, $200 in AWS promo credits, and an Alexa Developer Diploma (hat and gown not included).

Also: Top 5: Ways Alexa can help you get work done TechRepublic

If you build any really cool skills, please be sure to let me know in the comments below.

I'll give you one final bit of advice: While I've done my fair share of exam cramming, I found that if I waited until the last minute, sometimes new projects I hadn't expected to arrive landed from other courses. Spread your work out over time. Trust me. Learn from my mistakes. Also, don't just live off of pizza. Again, trust me. Learn from my mistakes.

Go forth. Learn. Make us all proud. Go Bears!

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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