Conversations with Ada and Thinking Machines


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.

Ada as a thinking machine

A student's conversation with Ada
Students use the service to support day-to-day enquiries about their timetables, college holidays, exam dates, university applications, college services and more. The service is used primarily as an oracle; enabling students to garner rapid and immediate responses to their questions about their studies and life on the campus.

One of the key features of the Ada service is its ability to provide a personalised response to each student who engages with the service. Ada can therefore answer questions such as: what lessons do I have tomorrow, when is my next exam, what grade did I get for my last assignment or when does my work placement start?

The following video demonstrates how the service is being put to use by students at the College.

The Ada service demonstrated its value during the start of the new academic year in September 2017 when it answered over 900 questions per day from new and existing students on the campus. The most frequent question that was asked by students over the induction period was 'what is my timetable'.

From an operational perspective, Ada's ability to answer questions during out-of-office hours is proving to be invaluable. Students routinely ask Ada questions during evenings, weekends and over the College holidays. If the need arises, colleagues can contact the student to take forward the conversation during normal office hours. The ability to identify individual students and the questions that they have asked has been particularly useful. In some instances it has been the determining factor that has enabled students to apply for an undergraduate course. For support teams, the most valuable aspect of the Ada service has been in its ability to enable colleagues to identify enquiries that were previously unknown to them.

A teacher's conversation with Ada
The Ada service is set to make a similar impact when it supports teachers on the campus. The following video showcases how a teacher could take advantage of the Ada service to support her day-to-day work.

How will the Ada service develop?
At a simple level, the Ada service will respond to a wider range of day-to-day questions from students, teachers and support teams across all the domains that make up the student life cycle. Ada will also assist individuals perform routine tasks such as applying for courses, transferring students from one course to another, handing in coursework for marking or even booking rooms around the campus.

As well as supporting individuals with day-to-day operational tasks, routines and processes; the Ada service will also support teaching, learning and assessment. The service is currently being used by teachers to assess students on Moodle, the College's learning management system' enabling teachers to move away from the traditional multiple choice or drag and drop assessment activities that are typically found on online tutorials.

Natural Language Generation
I mentioned earlier that Ada needs to think like the student, the teacher or the support teams that look after the needs of the students on the campus. How will this be achieved? At Bolton College we are exploring how natural language generation when coupled with natural language processing and natural language understanding can be used to deliver support to the student, the teacher or to the member of the support team. In the case of a student a natural language generation service would examine the data that is held about a given student and the data that is associated with all the services around the campus; process it; make sense of it; before finally presenting insights to the student through the medium of natural language or conversation. For example, a student could be presented with the following notification on her home page. We refer to this as Ada's daily report card to the student.

"Good morning Jane. I hope you are feeling better after your cold. It's good to see you back on the campus. By the way, well done on your distinction grade on your last piece of coursework. There are a couple of assignments due in before you complete your course. You need to get one merit and one distinction grade if you are going to secure your university place. I have reserved two library books that will help you with these assignments. They are awaiting collection. Oh, by the way, don't forget you have a one-to-one with your tutor Mrs Daniels at 2pm this afternoon in Rm. A2.03."

In this example, the Ada service has access to the student's dataset. The information and insights that the service delivers to Jane is contexualised and timely. The Ada service can support Jane across multiple arenas; such as providing encouragement and support, providing guidance about the grades needed in subsequent assignments, it acts as an assistant when reserving books from the library and it reminds Jane about forthcoming appointments. Above all else, the Ada service behaves and conducts itself in a manner that will support Jane's long term goal of securing a place at her chosen university. The underpinning technology to enable this service is already present at Bolton College. When this project gets underway the College will be able to present a daily report card to everyone of its students; and do so in a fraction of a second.

Likewise, the natural language generation service could also be used to support teachers, parents, careers advisors, counsellors, exam officers, the estates office, ancillary staff, managers, College governors and more.

Automatic Marking and Feedback
The use of a natural language classification service will enable Bolton College to programmatically assess student work. The College's ILT Team will initially use the service to support the College's work placement programme; and in particular when students evaluate their work placement. The service will operate as follows: firstly, the service will use custom classifiers which will enable us to understand the intent in each student's work placement evaluation. Secondly, we will score the response and provide appropriate feedback to each student. And thirdly, we will update our classifiers by using the classification results that have been garnared thus far. If the strategy works Bolton College's natural language classification service will improve with time as more students evaluate their work placement programmes. The approach will also enable the College to automatically assess every student's work placement evaluation.

I hope that the services mentioned in this article don't remain scarce for long. When the use of natural language generation and conversational services becomes widespread it will amount to a greater understanding of our students and it will enable institutions to be better informed when supporting them. I welcome the introduction of thinking machines onto the campus.