I am pleased to announce that Bolton College was awarded the Association of Colleges' Beacon Award for education technology on the 22nd of March 2019. The award was given for the College's work on its campus chatbot and digital assistant, Ada.
Commentary from the Association of Colleges The Beacon assessors felt that Bolton College’s initiative use of chatbot technology was “potentially a game changer for the whole of the FE sector”. Ada is described as the college’s very own answer to Amazon’s Alexa: a digital assistant providing personalised and contextualised one-to-one support for every student on the campus. Powered by artificial intelligence, Ada functions as a virtual support teacher on behalf of teachers and support teams across the campus. The service has so far responded successfully to more than 70,000 questions from learners. It has allowed them to garner information, advice and guidance to support their studies, even out of office hours. Members of Bolton College’s information learning technology team championed the use of this technology, as a growing volume of data led them to conclude that a service which enabled students to garner information in a more intuitive and accessible manner was essential. The AI platform has been taught to support everything from the delivery of GCSE maths and hairdressing courses to the college’s employability curriculum. The team behind the programme said these functions will continue to expand and grow. Bolton College’s chatbot service is already available to all learners at the college. This year, the college will launch iOS and Android apps for the chatbot service. The college is also publishing an Amazon Alexa app which will enable learners to access college services via their smart speakers. The assessors said that “the long-term benefits for the quality of the learner experience and potential organisational efficiencies were highly impressive”.
Bolton College is honoured to be referenced by Damian Hinds, England's Secretary of State for Education, for its work on campus chatbots and digital assistants at this year's BETT Show (4mins 25secs). Ada, Bolton College's digital assistant has been responding to student questions since April 2017.
Bolton College has been announced as a finalist for this year’s Effective use of Technology in Further Education Award from the Association of Colleges. The College has been shortlisted for its work on Ada, the campus chatbot for students, teachers and support teams. The chatbot has been supporting students since it was launched in April 2017. The awards ceremony will be held on Friday 22nd March 2019 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.
Voice First offer schools, colleges and universities an exciting opportunity to deliver their services through ambient devices such as Amazon's Echo smart speakers. When students are able to authenticate to these devices they can illicit information that is personalised and contextualised to them. Imagine a student at home who turns towards her echo device and asks about this morning's schedule of classes; the date, time and location of a forthcoming exam or she may use the service to send a message to one of her tutors.
The ILT Team at Bolton College is exploring the use of a floating web chat window for the College's Ada service. The team envisages that the new interface will sit on top of multiple services such as Moodle, the College's learning management system; the institution's student and staff home pages and the work experience and social action apps that are currently in development.
At a simple level the web chat window will enable students and colleagues to ask Ada questions regarding the web site that they are engaged with. For instance, if a student needs to ask a question about any element of the College's work experience app he or she just needs to open up the web chat window and ask Ada a question. Here is a short demo of the Ada web chat window (there is no sound).
As the Ada service develops students and colleagues will be able to carry out various day-to-day tasks that are associated with other College web based services within the Ada web chat window without opening the website or app associated with that particular task.
If you started your vocation within the education sector some 30 years or more ago you will recall how the the World Wide Web steadily touched and transformed every service that your school, college or university provided. For instance, the language of the World Wide Web enabled the widespread adoption of learning management systems which transformed the design, delivery and management of teaching, learning and assessment across the education sector. Likewise, the language of cognitive services will bring about changes; but these changes are likely to be much more profound; touching and irrevocably reshaping every facet of the education sector. For example, how will teaching, learning and assessment be affected once we introduce another active agent into the setting; especially when teachers and institutions are increasingly managed by algorithms to support the student's journey through their studies?
This article explores three broad questions relating to the use of cognitive services by schools, colleges and universities; namely:
How will institutions design, manage and deliver services to their respective communities if they leveraged the capabilities of machine learning or cognitive platforms?
What additional value can be derived from the use of cognitive services?
What should we be wary of when using cognitive services?
Bolton College's work on learning analytics, adaptive learning, chatbots and cognitive services is showcased in the Next Generation Digital Learning Environments report by Jisc. The report examines the growing role of data and analytics in driving the development of adaptive learning, chatbots and cognitive assistants within the education sector.
Student engagement with Bolton College's Ada service is now well established. The response from students and colleagues on the campus has been overwhelmingly positive. Since its inception the goal of the Ada service has been to develop a platform that enables students to find answers to their day-to-day questions regarding their studies and life on the campus. It is a bold endeavour because it means that the College is attempting to teach Ada how to think like a student, a teacher and as a member of the student support team. For example, there are times when the service needs to respond to student enquiries even before they are asked. It needs to know the types of questions and enquiries that will be posed by students at every stage in the student life cycle. And when providing information, advice, guidance, support and encouragement; the Ada service needs to think and respond as a teacher, librarian, careers advisor, mentor and as a tutor.
I am looking forward to being on the ‘Next Generation Digital Learning Environments: Community Voices’ panel at Digifest on the 6th of March 2018. It will be an opportunity to share Bolton College's use of adaptive learning and how it has used Ada, the conversational service for students, teachers and support teams.
Bolton College's ILT Team is pleased to announce that it has been shortlisted for the 'outstanding use of technology for improving teaching, learning and assessment' in the forthcoming TES FE Awards ceremony which will be held in February 2018. The ILT Team has been shortlisted for its work on Ada, the College's cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams.
Bolton College's ILT Team is pleased to announce that it is working with colleagues to develop a new online system to suppport students when they embark on a work experience programme. The service will leverage learning analytics and Ada, the College's cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams.
The use of IBM's Watson Conversation Service has enabled the teachers, systems developers and learning technologists at Bolton College to offer tailoured and personalised online conversational tutorials to thousands of students across the campus.
The ability to use natural language processing, natural language generation and learning analytics at scale has been warmly welcomed by the College's Information Learning Technology team.
Cognitive services were introduced to Bolton College to fulfill a simple desire to improve business performance and to further enhance the services that are used by its students around the campus. The underlying premise for using cognitive services stems from a problem that is encountered by schools, colleges and universities of all sizes; namely around the availability and the management of very large amounts of data. You would expect that a large volume of data helps educational institutions to better understand complex situations and by de facto enables them to deliver improved services to their students and employees. However, more data often leads to more confusion. We make too many decisions with irrelevant or incorrect information, or with data that represents only part of the picture. The situation is made ever more complex when we come across the oceans of unstructured data were value has yet to be extracted in an education setting. The solution is to use a generation of new tools or cognitive technologies that help us to penetrate complexity and comprehend the world around us. The goal is to transform and simplify the way we get things done (Smart Machines by John Kelly and Steve Hamm - 2013). For Bolton College, it's cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams Ada, is part of the solution.
Cognitive services deliver three major value propositions that make them so compelling for the education sector. The first benefit presents an improved paradigm for engaging and interacting with day-to-day services and systems; were students, teachers and support teams use conversation to access information and services that are pertinent to their needs and requirements. The second benefit enables individuals to discover insights that would have been difficult or virtually impossible to envisage without the use of cognitive services. The third benefit enables students and colleagues to make better decisions. Cognitive services are being tasked with making an increasing number decisions to support students, teachers and support teams and it is happening with more frequency.
The Learning Technology Team at Bolton College was delighted to see Ada, Bolton College's cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams being featured on IBM's Watson blog.
The College’s Learning Technology Team has a proven reputation for the use of learning analytics, machine learning and adaptive learning to support students as they progress with their studies.
Lead Systems Developer, Dean Baggaley stated that the "Watson Conversation service has enabled us to provide a powerful digital assistant to our students, a first for a further or higher education provider in the UK. The service provides a powerful toolset to developers, which gives you the ability to create an amazing interactive experience."
Ada is representative of an emerging suite of cognitive services that are redefining how students, teachers and support teams access day-to-day services at Bolton College. Click here for further information on how cognitive services are adding value to the education sector.
"This pioneering work into supporting learners to develop their maths skills through Artificial Intelligence is truly remarkable. The more a learner uses the system, the more the system literally learns about each individual's needs and supplies relevant material. What is really impressive is the way the College has been able to involve teachers, the technical team and learners to develop this amazing service." Markos Tiris, Executive Director of The Learning Consortium.
How would students enquire, explore, learn and be assessed ... and how would teachers prepare, deliver, assess and administer their courses ... and how would support teams and administrators carry out their work to support the needs of students if they all had access to a personal cognitive assistant or if the software applications that they all used took advantage of cognitive computing? I ask these questions because the answers or solutions that arise from the use of cognitive computing are set to transform the way schools, colleges and universities deliver education services to their local and distributed communities.
Bolton College has successfully completed its application to join IBM's With Watson App program. The With Watson App program is an application verification program designed to provide exclusive brand, business, and technology resources to developers and organisations that are embedding Watson technologies into their services. The With Watson program has enabled Bolton College to verify and validate its Ask Ada service; an online cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams. The Ask Ada service takes advantage of IBM's Watson cognitive platform; which enables the College to use the company's natural language processing technology. Entry to the With Watson App program allows Bolton College to use the With Watson branding as part of the Ask Ada service.
Ada is representative of a new breed of conversational services that are about to enter the education sector. Their introduction will not only augment and enhance the capabilities of many online services that are found in schools, colleges and universities such as learning management systems, library management systems and information management systems; but they will deliver considerable value to the students, teachers and support teams who will come to rely on them. Conversational services such as Bolton College's Ada have various facets. These are listed below:
they act as Oracles - enabling students, teachers and support teams to gather information and insights from around the campus;
they act as bridges that connect multiple services around the campus together - enabling improved access to information and services for everyone on the campus; and
they act as agents or digital assistants - providing timely advice, guidance, insights and assistance to everyone on the campus. As digital assistants they undertake numerous jobs and tasks on behalf of individuals and teams to support the student body.
Members of the IBM Watson Conversation Team visited Bolton College to view Ada - Bolton College's digital assistant for students, teachers and support teams. Students from the College's second year HND Computing programme have been involved in teaching Ada how to respond to questions from fellow students. The project has given them the opportunity to explore natural language processing and the world of digital assistants.
The advent of natural language processing and natural language generation services within the education sector is set to address a number of everyday problems and challenges that are encountered by teachers, support teams and administrators in schools, colleges and universities. In this short article I would like to examine how these services will support the production and distribution of the online student report card.
One of the most interesting aspects about developing a digital assistant for students and teachers has been the potential for the service to support and enhance teaching, learning and assessment. The learning technology team at Bolton College has conducted research to enable the delivery of the following services through Ada:
the ability to deliver personalised, contextualised, differentiated and adaptive learning and assessment materials to each student;
the ability to utilise particular elements of the student dataset to deliver personalised learning to each student. Ada's responses to student questions can be informed by multiple variables such as the academic level of the student, the current performance of the student on the course, student assessment data, the vocational setting of the student, the goals and targets associated with each student and more.
This represents a significant milestone for the ILT team because it means that teachers across Bolton College can offer differentiated and adaptive teaching, learning and assessment materials to the student via Ada as well as Moodle, the College's virtual learning environment.
If we regard schools, colleges and universities as institutions that process information, the management of data represents the first step in many that enables these institutions to deliver education services to their local and wider communities. They start by distilling data into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and wisdom into actions. However, as the volume of data rises within a school, college or university it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers, student support teams and admin teams to convert data into information, knowledge, wisdom and actions which enable them to support the myriad of students in their respective institutions. In this short article I would like to detail the use of oracles and machine learning agents which could help schools, colleges and universities to capitalise on student data.
Bolton College's ILT Team is pleased to announce that Ada, the College's digital assistant for students went live on the 6th of April. Ada has been taught to answer general questions and enquiries about Bolton College and she is able to answer specific questions relating to the student who is making the enquiry.
The service marks a significant milestone in the way students at Bolton College will come to engage with College services.
The College's ILT Team is examining how Ada could support teachers and students in the classroom. As we converse with Ada we are discovering that her place in the classroom presents colleagues at Bolton College with a number of exciting opportunities to enhance teaching, learning and assessment.
The Information Learning Technology (ILT) Team at Bolton College has successfully deployed a number of digital assistants to support the delivery of learning and assessment materials to students. The use of these digital assistants has enabled the personalisation of teaching, learning and assessment at scale. Digital assistants can also be designed and deployed to enhance a range of other services that are used by students and colleagues. One of the projects that the College's ILT Team is currently working on involves the use of a digital assistant called Ada who is being taught how to respond to a wide range of student enquiries across multiple contexts.
The use of machine learning within the education sector provides schools, colleges and universities with multiple opportunities to enhance and transform the heart of their services such as teaching, learning, assessment and student support.
This article seeks to expand on my previous notes on machine learning by providing a number of user case scenarios for each of the machine learning agents that could be employed by institutions on their personal learning environments.
Machine learning offers schools, colleges, universities and the companies who provide digital services to the education sector with an opportunity to improve personalised and contextualised learning to students. In this article I will explore how machine learning can enhance the management of differentiated and adaptive learning; and the management of the student life cycle. I will also examine some of the challenges that arise from the use of machine learning.
The ILT Team at Bolton College can now offer differentiated learning and assessment materials to students according to their learning support needs. In one recent example colleagues in the Careers and Learning Support Teams worked together to produce on an online tutorial which offered advice to students about applying for jobs and preparing for a job interview. The teams wanted to produce content that reflected the learning support need of the student viewing the content.
The use of agents is making personal learning environments smarter as they advance the delivery of personalised and contextualised services to students. In this article I identify a number of these agents and the roles that they play within a personal learning environment.
Within the context of personal learning environments, agents can be described as programs that observe student and teacher behaviour within the learning environment. They carry out data mining activities which enable them to extract meaning and knowledge from the large datasets that are to found in a modern education setting. The agents then direct or combine their activities to satisfy the needs of students, teachers and support teams.
This short article details the four constituent parts that make up Bolton College's Adaptive Learning Environment.
Moodle is Bolton College's Virtual Learning Environment. The research that the College's ILT Team has undertaken has enabled Moodle to deliver adaptive content and assessment activities to each student. The solution means that there is no need to purchase a license for a third party adaptive learning environment. We are planning to undertake additional research which will allow us to explore the delivery of adaptive content and assessment activities in other virtual learning environments.
Adobe Captivate is the eLearning authoring tool which is used to create our adaptive online tutorials. Each tutorial includes a bespoke set of queries that are presented to our Digital Engine. The algorithms within each tutorial use the query results to deliver differentiated and adaptive content and assessment activities to each student.
Student Datasets are made up of the College's core student dataset (Tribal EBS), the College's Learner Journey Management System and the student profile. At the present moment in time the ILT Team's adaptive learning project queries and analyses the data on its current student cohort. As the project progresses colleagues across Bolton College will data mine a much larger historical dataset which will deliver further improvements to our adaptive services.
The Digital Engine reads, mines and applies updates to the wider student dataset. The present choice of name for the Digital Engine is deliberate because it reflects its current ability to behave and act autonomously. At the present moment in time the Digital Engine relies heavily on teachers and instructional designers to shape and inform its behaviour and the decisions that it makes. Over time, the Digital Engine will gradually evolve into a virtual machine which will have the ability to behave in a more autonomous fashion. That is to say that it will define, test and apply changes to its hypotheses in order to deliver improved adaptive tutorials and assessment activities to each student.
Adaptive learning environments are representative of a new breed of digital services that have emerged within the education sector over the last decade. They have come about because they take advantage of data and the technologies that support data management. The growing use of machine learning and natural language processing will further escalate the development and use of adaptive learning environments within the education sector. The use of these new artefacts will bring about many benefits to students, teachers and educational leaders; but it must be noted that the introduction of adaptive learning environments will also pose many challenges to all stakeholders within the sector. This article seeks to explore (through various scenarios) the use of adaptive learning environments, the benefits that can be derived from them and the challenges that arise from their use.
The ILT Team at Bolton College is currently researching how the College's adaptive learning environment could be used to improve the delivery of online tutorials and assessment activities to each of our students.
Bolton College's adaptive learning environment is proving to be very versatile. One recent success has focused on the platform's ability to use target setting information to differentiate content and assessment activities on Moodle, the College's virtual learning environment. When a teacher and a student agree on a learning target, the tutorial (or SCORM package) that is presented to the student on Moodle reflects that new target.
The advent of the adaptive learning environment is a welcomed addition to the distributive learning landscape because it provides teachers with additional tools to deliver personalised and contextualised teaching, learning and assessment activities to each of their students. The use of machine learning in adaptive learning environments is the most significant development in distributive learning because it marks the time when a new agent is introduced into the classroom. That new agent is the adaptive learning environment which quietly queries and analyses vast quantities of data before it autonomously determines the tutorials and assessment activities to present to a given student. Further progress has yet to be made before adaptive learning environments become common place in our schools, colleges and universities; but the progress that is currently being made with analytics, machine learning, content creation, machine marking and natural language bodes well for the future.
The ILT Team at Bolton College has recently updated the College's adaptive learning environment so that content and assessment activities within an online tutorial follow the learning preferences of students.
In this short article I would like to take the opportunity to explore some of the opportunities and challenges facing the education sector with the emergence of the adaptive learning environment.
At the present moment in time adaptive learning environments take advantage of supervised machine learning techniques to deliver content and assessment activities that are personalised and contextualised to meet the needs of each student. In supervised machine learning teachers define the desired set of outcomes that are expected from an adaptive online tutorial and they also provide regular feedback to the adaptive learning environment which enables it to adjust the paths that it takes to reach a teacher's desired outcomes.