Engage, discover and resolve


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. Let us examine each of these benefits in more detail.

Engagement – At Bolton College cognitive services improve the way students, teachers and support teams interact with College systems. For our teachers and support teams cognitive services improve their ability to deliver support to individual students across the campus - and to do so at scale. As our cognitive assistant Ada acquires more knowledge about Bolton College, the service will start to offer valuable insights to support students, teachers, support teams and College administrators; and it will do so in a natural, timely and intuitive way. The design and development of Ada, Bolton College's cognitive assistant, is firmly based on how the service can enhance the capabilities of students, teachers, support teams and administrators around the campus. The hope is that the symbiosis between Ada and student will bring about improved outcomes for our students; and the symbiosis between Ada and teacher will enhance the capabilities of our teachers to support all our students.

Conversational services ease access to information. Let us examine how a teacher queries his or timetable to find out when and where classes will be held over a particular semester. At present the majority of teachers will have to click or tap on multiple icons or menu items before finding their teaching timetable. In some instances teachers may have to go through a secondary authentication process before being presented with the desired timetable. The advent of cognitive services enable the teacher to converse with his or her cognitive assistant to access information; and they do so in a fraction of the time. Teachers can also ask their cognitive assistant complex questions such as 'what lesson do I have tomorrow morning', 'could you tell me the room number for this afternoon's class', 'when are my students presenting their projects for unit 1' or 'remind me to bring along the test papers for my Friday morning lesson'. Likewise, students can ask their cognitive assistant similar questions such as 'what's the room number for my next class', 'when am I presenting my project for unit 1', 'am I due to have a test paper this Friday' or 'remind me to submit my assignment for unit 2 by 5pm this Friday'.

The following video from 2016 describes how conversational services are redefining the way we interact with the digital world; and it examines how these services will come to replace many of the interfaces that we interact with when using applications on our computers, tablets and mobiles.

As conversational services become mainstream within the education sector students will use them when searching for information on a learning management system, when posting assignments for the teacher's attention or when booking appointments with support teams. Teachers and support teams will use conversational services to help them support the students in their care.

Discovery – As the volume of data continues to grow in the education sector we soon realise that we need to utilise solutions that take us well beyond the traditional suite of services such as business intelligence tools, spreadsheets, databases and graphical dashboards to enable us to find insights, connections and understanding to better support students, teachers and support teams. The majority of schools, colleges and universities have established data-oriented cultures were they have automated many of their day-to-day and cyclical business processes. A growing proportion are beginning to take advantage of predictive algorithms and a smaller number are using machine learning techniques in an endeavour to increase their knowledge and insight to improve student outcomes.

When coupled with conversational services - discovery on the part of the student or a member of staff at the school, college or university will feel much more natural and intuitive. For example, a student who is about to complete a programme of study, will simply ask the cognitive assistant for the list of potential courses that he or she could progress onto. In the case of a course team, they could ask their cognitive assistant for a likely breakdown of anticipated grades for their cohort of students. Comparisons and analysis of previous academic years could also be undertaken by the cognitive assistant to support the course team.

Resolve – At a very simple level algorithms can be written to make decisions for an infinite number of scenarios and settings to support students, teachers and support teams. At Bolton College we use algorithms that act on behalf of the teacher when deciding what learning and assessment materials to present to individual students in an online tutorial. We use algorithms to determine the services that are to be presented to each student when he or she logs on to Bolton College's student home page. The decisions that are made by cognitive systems are evidence based and they are designed to evolve as the environment that they are observing and interacting with changes. The decisions and actions taken by the cognitive service on behalf of the school, college or university will alter and adapt as additional information, behaviour and outcomes are observed for each student at the institution. The decision making capabilities of these micro services enables teachers and support teams to support students at scale; and to do so with ease.

Institutions are advised to be open and transparent about how they use the decision making capabilities of their cognitive services. Colleagues need to be reminded that they are still accountable for the decisions taken by their cognitive services. The scenarios that play out could be complex. For example, a student who misses out on a university place may ask why she was not advised about pursuing a higher grade profile. Another student may ask why his application for a course was rejected by the institution. A governor at the institution may ask why students from a particular ethnic group have a lower pass rate than other ethnic groups. In these instances the scenarios that come about are as a result of the behaviour of various cognitive services and interplay between these cognitive services.

Let us explore a scenario were all three value propositions come together. In the UK teachers are asked to meet value added scores for individual students and courses - in its crudest sense, it is a measure of academic progress from the point at which a student joins and leaves a course. Teachers can ask their cognitive assistant if the course team is going to meet its value added target. The cognitive assistant may predict that the course team will fall short of its target. Members of the team then ask their cognitive assistant about what could be done to meet the value added target. The service indicates that if a certain number of students raise their grade profile over the two remaining units the course team will meet its value added target for this academic year. The cognitive assistant provides the names of the students, the units that they are studying and the grades that each of these students will need to achieve. The course team then formulates and implements the support structure needed to meet the end of year value added score for the course. In this particular scenario, a complex situation has been simplified and clarified. Teachers on the course team rapidly identify the issue and they are provided with a resolution pathway; and they are able to focus their time and energy on supporting the students in their care.

If cognitive services help students discover and be more engaged with their studies and if it helps them progress onto further study, training or employment then the use of cognitive services should be warmly welcomed by schools, colleges and universities. As cognitive services develop and improve students, teachers and support teams will access services or retrieve information in a manner altogether different to what they are currently used to. Teachers will start to converse with networked devices either through text or voice. Imagine a weekly course team meeting where teachers sit alongside a voice enabled screen. As the meeting progresses they regularly turn towards the networked device to seek information, clarification and insight on all matters relating to their course.