Bots on the Campus


Bolton College's research into the potential uses and applications of cognitive services on the campus is proving to be very fruitful. The College's ILT Team is currently exploring the use of cognitive services across a number of domains. These research projects have enabled the College to develop products and services that are used in situ by our students and teachers. Here is a short summary of what is underway at Bolton College and how these services will develop in the near future.

image of bots

Adaptive teaching, learning and assessment: The College has developed a solution through its proprietary algorithms and software application layer that support teachers with the assembly and distribution of adaptive teaching, learning and assessment materials via Moodle, the College's learning management system. This service has been supporting students and teachers for three years. On a traditional learning management system teachers do not possess the tools to deliver teaching, learning and assessment materials that are personalised and contextualised to each student. The solution which has been developed by Bolton College addresses this shortfall. Click here for further information on the adaptive learning solution and how it will develop over the coming years.

An Online Teaching Assistant: The College's Ada service is embedded across all the tutorials that make up the online employability course. Students are able to ask Ada questions regarding the topics and themes that are covered in these online tutorials. The Ada service was also used to transform the way assessment is conducted online with the use of open ended questions. This enables teachers to undertake real time assessment and students can respond with short form answers to the questions that are posed to them. This service is in its second year of operation. The following video offers a simple demonstration of the Ask Ada service in an online tutorial. In this instance, the student starts an activity and asks Ada for help and support during the course of the task.

As the service develops the responses that are offered by the cognitive assistant could be tailoured to suit the academic needs of the student who seeks support within the context of an online tutorial. The responses could be based on the current academic performance of the student. A student who is performing well could ask the cognitive assistant for a definition for a term that is used within the tutorial. Rather than offering the definition to the student, the service could ask the student to suggest an answer. The conversation would then take its natural course to support the student within the tutorial. When Bolton College's ILT Team examined this element of the service we discovered that it was technically possible and we demonstrated that this was the case. However, the Instructional Designers within the team would have soon encountered a combinatorial explosion; a common issue within an adaptive learning environment. Click here for further information on how machine learning could offer differentiated and contextualised learning to students.

Online assessment and feedback: One of the most compelling reasons for using cognitive services on a campus is the potential for supporting teachers as they assess students online. The following video demonstrates the natural language processing capability of the Ada service at Bolton College within the context of assessing students online. In this instance the Ada service enables teachers to pose questions that require students to answer in short form. From an instructional design perspective it enables teachers to use a medium that takes them beyond the traditional multi-choice question or drag-and-drop format that can be found in most online tutorials.

The ILT Team is currently undertaking research to enhance the assessment capabilities of the service by taking advantage of the natural language understanding and natural language classification services within the IBM Watson platform. When the research programme is completed the cognitive service will have the capacity to comprehend short form answers that are submitted by the student, grade them and have the ability to offer appropriate and contextualised feedback to the student. In the first instance, the service will be used to read, comprehend, grade and offer feedback to students as they evaluate their work placement programmes; and to do so at scale. Over time, the use of IBM's natural language classification service will enable the assessment of work placement evaluations to be more accurate as more and more training data is fed into the assessment model. The ILT Team hopes to have the service operational for the summer term. I will post an article on the service nearer to the time.

Supporting students with general enquiries about the College and the campus; and with specific enquiries about their studies: Bolton College's Ask Ada service is in its second academic year of operation. The following video demonstrates some of the current and future capabilities of the service.

The user interface that is presented to a student on his or her home page purports to simplicity and ease of use; masking the complex array of services that underpin the service. For example, the College's proprietary software application layer enables Ada to recognise and acknowledge the student before presenting the required information back to the student; in addition to using natural language processing, text-to-speech and speech-to-text services.

Offering individuals the opportunity to access the services of a cognitive assistant via a desktop voice enabled speaker and touch screen: Bolton College's Ada service is currently available to students via the student home page. However, if the service is to become ambient across the campus the service needs to be accessible to students, teachers, support teams and visitors to the campus on other devices. These artifacts could be kiosks or desktop devices. The following video demonstrates an early prototype which hints at the potential for such devices on the campus.

The desire to enable access to a personal ambient cognitive assistant on the campus will come closer when students have the opportunity to access their cognitive assistant via a voice enabled smartphone app. The ILT Team looks forward to this project.

Supporting teachers with general enquiries and tasks to support their students: As the Ada service matures it will expand into other domains. The potential to use cognitive services to enable teachers to have a greater capacity to support their students is an exciting one. The following video showcases how a teacher could make use of a cognitive assistant. When these services are combined with those that support teaching, learning and assessment; they offer teachers with a rich set of tools and services to support their work.

I hope that these examples demonstrate that there is a place for intelligent bots or cognitive services on the campus. In many cases they will redefine the shape of traditional services that are accessed by students, teachers and support teams; and in all cases they will add value to everyone who engages with them. The examples that are showcased here represent a small proportion of potential use cases. The potential to support students and teachers through the use of cognitive services is limited only by our imagination. I would like to say a big thank you to all the members of Bolton College's ILT Team whose only desire is to deliver service excellence to all our students, teachers and support teams across the campus. Looking forward to sharing more news soon.