Articles and Resources

Here is a selection of articles and resources that I have authored and compiled on the theme of Information Learning Technology.

Conversations with a Chatbot


This article presents three conversations yet to be had at Bolton College. The dialogues are not unique to Bolton College. Indeed, they occur daily in any school, college or university that you care to name. However, the only thing that is different is that the dialogue is with Ada, Bolton College's cognitive assistant for students, teachers and support teams.

Online Conversational Tutorials


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.

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.

Cognitive Computing and the Education Sector


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.

Ada Finds Her Voice


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.

The Student Report Card - Redefined


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.

Ada in the Classroom


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.

From Oracle to Agent


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.

Ada goes live at Bolton College


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.

Digital Assistants in the Education Sector


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.

Getting Personal with Machine Learning


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.

Learning Support Agents


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.

Bolton College's Adaptive Learning Environment


This short article details the four constituent parts that make up Bolton College's Adaptive Learning Environment.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

How will Adaptive Learning Environments Evolve?


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 Adaptive Learning Landscape


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 commonplace 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.

Adaptive Learning - Opportunities and Challenges


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.

Adaptive Learning Image

Learning Analytics - Opportunities and Challenges


As the use of learning analytics broadens within the education sector I thought it would be useful to describe some of its use cases within the following contexts: predictive analytics, student profiling, learner support, student services, performance management, external facing websites, teaching and instructional design, value propositions and codes of practice. The opportunities and challenges for each use case are also highlighted. For the purpose of this article, I have decided to take a neutral position when describing the use of learning analytics across these contexts.

If you are new to analytics the following video from Educause is a useful starting point. The video describes the use of analytics within the higher education sector but many of its messages are also applicable to schools and colleges regardless of their size.

It defines analytics as the use of data, statistical analysis, explanatory and predictive models to gain insights and act on complex issues. These insights can deliver greater clarity into complex issues such as student retention and completion; enhancing the quality of teaching, learning and assessment; improving business operations; and managing the many services that are used by the student body. One of the most interesting elements that is highlighted in the video is the use predictive analytics and this is described in more detail below.

Learning Analytics at Bolton College


The use of analytics to deliver continuous business performance has been in existence for over a century but it is only in the last fifteen years that educational data mining and learning analytics has gained traction within the education sector; particularly amongst further education colleges and universities. The rise of learning analytics has come about for two main reasons; firstly, the desire to improve business performance and services to students in an increasingly competitive environment and secondly, because of technological developments within the education sector such as the use of open systems architecture, online analytical processing and data warehousing.

In this article I refer to educational data mining as the set of tools used by educationalists to determine key relationships between different datasets, the ability to identify key groups or traits within the dataset and the ability to establish past and future trends in the wider dataset. I refer to learning analytics as the information or systematic analysis of the results derived from educational data mining that are subsequently used to support managers, teachers and support teams to improve the outcomes for all learners within a school, college or university through the use of informed interventions.

Segmented Services


Schools, colleges and universities have always held a large volume of data on their students such as their contact details, qualifications held, current programmes of study, learning support needs, intended destinations and much more. Typically, these datasets have been used in isolation to support discrete functions and activities to support learners as they progress through their studies. The growing maturity of web based services over the last fifteen or more years has enabled educational establishments to use these datasets to deliver a number of targeted online services to each student such as links to courses being studied, library, email and online storage accounts and access to assessment records.

Social Learning


Schools, colleges and universities are increasingly recognising the limitations of traditional networks and communication channels to enable improvements across a wide range of institutional parameters such as performance management, productivity, student support, teaching, learning, attainment and progression. The use of social learning platforms promises to transform how educational institutions deliver services to students and how teachers and managers work collaboratively to design, develop, deliver and manage educational services to the communities that they serve. As ever, the use of emerging networked services such as social learning platforms alone will not deliver enhanced educational services. Improvements in the management of educational services and improvements in teaching, learning and attainment will only come about with the support of change management programmes that are supported by educational leaders and practitioners.

Let's Create, Share and Play


An increasing number of schools are incorporating computer games design and production into their education portfolios. The skills that students acquire whilst designing and producing computer games are many and varied; skills that can support the study of other mainstream subjects at the school and skills that can be used as a basis for making vocational and further education choices when graduating from school. The work of Youth Digital, Gamestar Mechanic and the ChicagoQuest Schools provide compelling cases for using computer gaming within an education setting.

Cloud Services


Cloud computing has transformed the delivery of web based services across the education sector and it has the potential to improve the quality of education services for all students. It is set to fundamentally change how every school, college and university will manage their technology and their ICT service delivery models. Improvements in cloud based services are enabling educational establishments to offer a richer and broader range of web based services to their students. The cloud based platforms that enable students to access day-to-day applications will change the business model for many education institutions and will throw into question how they finance and manage their ICT services and more importantly how they perceive the role, function, and purpose of their ICT paradigms. Overall trends show that schools, colleges and universities are gradually moving away from managing and hosting their own stand-alone services. To that end, we will see a growing momentum towards cloud based services that will enable an overall improvement in the way students access web based services.

Technological Dependence


Cloud computing has transformed the delivery of web based services across the education sector and it has the potential to improve the quality of education services for all students. It is set to fundamentally change how every school, college and university will manage their technology and their ICT service delivery models. Improvements in cloud based services are enabling educational establishments to offer a richer and broader range of web based services to their students. The cloud based platforms that enable students to access day-to-day applications will change the business model for many education institutions and will throw into question how they finance and manage their ICT services and more importantly how they perceive the role, function, and purpose of their ICT paradigms. Overall trends show that schools, colleges and universities are gradually moving away from managing and hosting their own stand-alone services. To that end, we will see a growing momentum towards cloud based services that will enable an overall improvement in the way students access web based services.

The Future of the eBook


The advent of the first illustrated textbook by John Amos Comenius in the mid 17th century introduced concepts and ideas about pedagogy that still resonate today. He proposed that students could acquire ideas from objects rather than words, he firmly believed that education should be a pleasure rather than a task and the manner of teaching and learning should reflect this and that education should be universal. Three centuries later, Instructional Designers and the content development teams behind many of the successful eBook titles still support and aspire to the principles set out by Comenius. The objects that Comenius refers to have morphed into interactive content, videos, 3D models, digital media, games, questions and quizzes. The use of these new media objects provides teachers and students with engaging, inspiring and enjoyable content; content that can be easily updated to reflect the changing needs and demands of the curriculum being studied. As access to more affordable networked devices spreads across the education sector we will also see a parallel growth in content distribution channels, and the eBook will form one of these channels. The use of eBooks is not yet universal; but their use will become commonplace within a ubiquitous computing environment.

Calm Technology


Schools rightly place a considerable amount of emphasis on end user devices and upon the services that can be accessed over these networked devices; but all too often they tend to unwittingly neglect many of the unforeseen consequences of introducing networked devices and services into the classroom and into the wider school setting. The introduction of pervasive technology in schools impacts irrecoverably on every child, teacher, school administrator and parent; and as we gaze upon the dawn of the ubiquitous computing world we have yet to imagine how it will mould and shape the educational lives of billions across the globe.

Ambient Schools


A school with a ubiquitous computing model will address the educational needs and requirements of its students in a fundamentally different manner from a school which has a lower ratio of computing devices to pupils. The pervasiveness of new technology will mean that educational institutions will come to be shaped by ubiquitous computing. As schools begin to organise and make sense of recent technological developments they will be better placed to utilise these technological advances to take forward organisational change and to further improve the educational services that they offer to their communities.

Mirrored Classrooms


The manner by which schools are becoming subjectified through an increasing presence of networked devices and services in their classrooms is a concern to many school leaders. While many view the integration of technology into the contemporary school setting as a positive move, there is a degree of uncertainty and hence a level of anxiety about the role that technology will come to play in the future. The simulacra within an education setting does not simulate or duplicate pre-existing practices, norms and rituals of the classroom; rather it presents something new, something altogether alien to school administrators and teachers, something that redefines our perception of schooling.

Lessons from the Past


Schools have tended to welcome the introduction of new technology with open arms. At first these resources were expensive and their use was limited to a narrow subject field. Over time the cost of networked devices and services became more affordable and schools also allocated a greater proportion of their budgets towards the procurement, use, maintenance and refresh of these new technologies. Within a short period of time the age of ubiquitous computing has arrived and many schools now provide access to networked devices and services that are second to none. Perhaps it is rather harsh to state that many schools introduced new technologies into their campuses with little thought about how these new technologies will come to shape their very existence. For technology is having a profound effect on the role of teachers, the relationship between teacher and student, what students are taught, who will teach them, how students are taught, how they are examined; and most importantly, the introduction of the Internet and networked devices and services in schools, is prompting us to reconsider the role and function of schools at the dawn of the 21st century.

Technology and the Self


Technology has become an indissoluble part of the modern education setting and it continues to enrich the lives of countless students and teachers across the globe. Technology is no longer marginalised and it has become a vital component in the delivery of education services for schools, large and small. As we continue to connect with the technology around us we are witnessing a growing reciprocal relationship between ourselves and the expanding number of networked devices and services that we all use and take for granted in our everyday lives. If technology is playing such a vital role in shaping who we are, what does it mean for schools when it comes to adopting and using technology?

Creative Skillset


If you are seeking to extend the opportunities that your students have to access the creative industries such as TV, film, radio, interactive media, animation, computer games, facilities, photo imaging, publishing, advertising and fashion and textiles, there is no better source of information and support than Creative Skillset, the UK's Creative Industries' Sector Skills Council.

A new digital identity for schools


A worker's skill set has always determined his or her ability to access the labour market. In many ways, the skill set or the vocation of that particular individual defined or gave identity to that person. In today's world, students who graduate from mainstream education will need to demonstrate their ability to operate and function in new and emerging industries; many of which require higher order technical competencies. These students will define themselves or give identity to themselves through their education and by the many jobs that they will hold during the course of their lives. Their identities will evolve as they become active participants within their respective industries. We are also discovering that mainstream definitions of digital literacy no longer suffice, they have all too often become outdated by the rapid and accelerating pace of technological change. This has been highlighted in recent reports which state that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the high-tech sector that remain unfilled.

What are the driving forces underpinning the adoption of technologies in our schools?


Social, cultural and economic processes are increasingly underpinning the adoption of new technologies in our schools. As schools become active agents in a hyper connected world we discover that they are profoundly affected by their cultural setting, by their place and position of authority within their respective networks, by peer pressure, by political institutions, the marketing strategies of global technology giants and by the fads and fashions of the day.