A Digital Assistant for every student and teacher


If every student in our schools, colleges and universities had access to a lifelong digital assistant how would they engage with education services? And if every teacher and campus administrator had access to a digital assistant what would it mean for the design, delivery and management of education services? Let's examine what campus services would look like if every student and teacher had access to a digital assistant.

Digital Assistant for every student and teacher

The development of Ada, Bolton College's digital assistant has enabled colleagues to question many of the long-held assumptions that underpin digital and off-line services that are provided by a modern campus. These questions also arise in other campuses who are on a similar journey to us. Let's put this into some context with a few examples that highlight the many roles of a typical campus digital assistant:

  • The campus digital assistant responds to all routine, day-to-day enquiries on the campus from students, employees and visitors.
  • The digital assistant supports teachers to distribute personalised, contextualised and adaptive learning and assessment materials to each student at the institution.
  • The digital assistant supports teachers with the marking of student of work, offering of feedback to students and signing of students on their work.
  • The digital assistant nudges students, teachers and support teams as it offers personalised and contextualised information, advice and guidance to individuals across the institution.
  • The digital assistant supports teachers as it produces student report cards on their behalf. These report cards are presented to students on a weekly basis; highlighting the progress made on their courses and offering personalised and contextualised information, advice and guidance when necessary.
  • The digital assistant answers phone calls from parents who wish to report their child as being absent from class because of a cold. The digital assistant takes the details of the caller, the student, the date, the classes missed and the reason for absence. Having taken these details, the digital assistant places these details into the class register for the teacher's attention. Likewise, the digital assistant can makes call on behalf of the school, college or university to students or to parents.
  • The digital assistant develops growing domain knowledge across numerous curriculum areas such as Maths, English, Physics, Business and more. Campuses may specialise in developing discrete knowledge domains. If students or teachers pose questions to their local digital assistant, it may relay the queries onto other digital assistants before responding.
  • The digital assistant becomes a composite of numerous intelligent agents that support discrete services and workflows around the campus. In doing so, it touches every point of contact or interaction within the institution.

These examples represent a small selection of use cases for campus digital assistants. Nevertheless, they do offer a tantalising glimpse about the shape and form of emerging EdTech services.

How will core services on the campus be shaped by the presence of a digital assistant?
In the following section I hope to describe how traditional services such as learning management platforms, information systems, campus apps or websites will be shaped by the presence of a campus digital assistant; especially as the digital assistant becomes the primary gateway to access campus services.

Learning Management Platforms
Students will increasingly ask their digital assistant for the latest assignment deadlines or for the latest resources that have been posted by their teachers. In doing so, students will engage less directly with the institution's learning management system. As students engage with interactive online learning and assessment materials, the digital assistant will present them with content that is adapted, personalised and contextualised to each one of them. The advent of conversational services will mean that students can engage with learning materials in an altogether different way. For example, the digital assistant within an online tutorial can pose open ended questions to each student, and the digital assistant has the ability to read, offer feedback and sign-off the responses offered by each student within the tutorial. Students will also converse with their digital assistant within virtual reality environments; dispensing with the handheld controls that are traditionally used within these environments. One of the most notable aspects is the large volume of data that is collected, analysed and re-purposed through the learning management system. Each piece of data informs the current and future behaviour of the campus digital assistant. Each piece of data informs and guides students and teachers as they interact with teaching, learning and assessment materials within their institution's learning management system. And each piece of information informs the behaviour of students and teachers across the wider campus; especially through the use of nudges.

Information Systems
Every service in a modern campus setting generates an enormous volume of data. The generation and collection of this data enables the advent of many new digital services. Increasingly these services will behave with a degree of cognition. When these services or intelligent agents are combined they give birth to the digital assistant. The advent of the digital assistant transforms the way students, teachers and support teams engage with information systems or with the data that is held about them. For example, in numerous instances teachers can dispense altogether with the traditional graphical user interface that they previously used to access campus information to support their students. They can simply converse with their digital assistant through text or voice to garner the information that they require to support their day-to-day activities on the campus.

Please note that the major assumption that underlies the advent of a digital assistant on the campus is good data governance. If a campus does not manage its data well; and if it does not digitise its services, and if does not take advantage of robotic process automation it does not have the foundations required to build a mature digital assistant.

Campus apps or websites
If you examine a typical website or app for a school, college or a university you are faced with an abundance of text, images, videos, banners, social media feeds, buttons and menus. How would campus websites or apps be shaped if a digital assistant was introduced to them? In the first instance, the digital assistant could simply sit on top of the website or the app. The look and feel of the website or app would remain unchanged. Whenever the student or teacher wanted to engage with the digital assistant they would click or press a button to initiate dialogue with it. In the second instance, the campus website or app is replaced with a smartspeaker or an ear bud. There is no visual interface. The use of a voice only interface has its merits but please note that students and teachers will want to engage with multi-media to support their studies or work. In the third instance, students and teachers are presented with a blank screen. They converse with their campus digital assistant and it returns text and multi-media output back to them. The traditional interfaces of the web and apps are dispensed with - students and teachers simply converse with their digital assistant to access and engage with campus services.

Digital assistants are part of a larger eco-system of AIED services on the campus
The behaviour of campus digital assistants are informed by the environment in which they operate in. The environment is comprised of all the data that students, teachers and support teams generate as they engage with one another; and all the campus services that they use to mediate these discussions and activities. Their behaviour is also informed by robotic and intelligent process automation (RPA and IPA). This is important because of the large number of processes and activities that need to be supported by a campus digital assistant. The assistant would be unable to operate as a true digital assistant without RPA and IPA. We only have to examine the various points on a student life cycle to realise that the number of processes and activities that are required to assist students, teachers and support teams is large.

Let's explore a near future scenario were the digital assistant engages with another discrete service to fulfill a need for students and teachers. A teacher has posted a new question using Bolton College's AutoMark service. As the students open up the question, their digital assistant advises each one of them with personalised and contextualised information, advice and guidance about the grade that they need to achieve to maintain or improve their grade average on their course. The digital assistant is able to behave in this manner because it is aware of the current academic performance of the student, their target grade, their progression pathway after the course, it has access to anonymised historical records of all previous students on the course, it takes advantage of recommendation engines and so on and so forth. In addition to this, the College's AutoMark service will automatically assess, grade and offer feedback on behalf of the teacher who posted the question. This information will then be used to further inform the behaviour of the campus digital assistant.

Digital assistants will invariably influence and shape the design of education software and online services. In fact, they are likely to part of every digital service that is used by students, teachers and support teams. Indeed, every service will have a cognitive layer. Once they are common place, it will be hard to imagine being a student or a teacher without them.

The advent of the digital assistant on our campuses marks an exciting period for education technology. If they are developed with care, they have the potential to transform the design, delivery and management of numerous services that are found in a campus setting. It is still early to ascertain the impact that digital assistants will have on teaching, learning and assessment; retention, achievement and progression or student and staff well-being. But there is no doubt that the introduction of the digital assistant on our campuses will be transformative; especially when they are offered to every student and teacher in our schools, colleges and universities.