While chatbots are designed to answer questions, first of all they need to be asked. This principle has underpinned the process behind building Bolton College’s Ada interface, says Aftab Hussain, strategic ILT lead.
“Over the last two years, we’ve been in touch with most of the teams around the campus because they inform the answers. In our learning technology team, we don’t have the knowledge base to be able to teach Ada about everything in the college, so the only way she is going to know is to be fed information.
“We’ve had children from high schools around the town who have come in on regular work experience teaching Ada. They come in at 9am and by 20 past they are actually teaching Ada – it’s dead easy to do.”
The Ada chatbot service was designed in-house at Bolton College and utilises the IBM Watson natural language recognition software. Staff were inspired by the chatbot set up by Georgia Tech university in the US. “We thought, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’”
Hussain says. “The idea was, ‘Can we use traditional services, stick them on Ada and make them behave in a very different way?’ “Colleges up and down the country are asking what we are doing and we just share everything to raise the awareness of bots and digital assistants,” he adds. But the process has not been entirely straightforward, admits Dean Baggaley, systems development leader at the college.
“There are a lot of technical barriers because if you look at every college campus or every high school, they all have a unique set of systems. What we’ve done with Ada is we’ve centralised all of those systems so it brings the information to the forefront. But with each institution being different, it’s hard to find a ubiquitous solution. “So we need some interactability. The danger is we could have an explosion of bots – one for the library, one for finance, one for the website – but none of the bots would be able to communicate with each other.
“We decided to just have a single bot that is connected to everything and we think that is the way to go.” Last month, the college was recognised at the Tes FE Awards ceremony, receiving the Association of Colleges’ Beacon Award for effective use of technology in further education. Assessors said that “the long-term benefits for the quality of the learner experience and potential organisational efficiencies were highly impressive”, adding that it was “potentially a game-changer for the whole of the FE sector”.