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National centre for AI in tertiary education launches chatbot pilot 

New #AI chatbot to support students throughout the UK as @Jisc and @BoltonCollege join forces in trial with four FE providers

Jisc and Bolton College have teamed up to develop a chatbot that could help students throughout the UK.  

Designed to cut staff workload by answering questions about the campus, timetabling and support services, for example, the chatbot is a quick, always-on route to information for learners.

A trial that will run until Easter 2022 is now underway with Ayrshire, Blackpool and The Fylde, Sandwell, and Yeovil colleges. 

The first pilot to emerge from Jisc’s National Centre for Artificial Intelligence in Tertiary Education, the technology is based on Ada – a chatbot created by Bolton College where it has been supporting students since April 2017. 

Ada’s existing question set will be shared with the four pilot participants and, in collaboration with staff and students, they will add to and adapt the queries and answers to suit their own needs.

Ada is Bolton College’s campus digital assistant. Since launching in April 2017, Ada has responded to a broad range of questions from students.

For instance, Ada can respond to day-to-day questions about the college and campus services. Students can ask Ada about their studies with questions such as ‘what is my timetable?’, or ‘when is my next exam?’. She can also respond to subject topic questions.

The service also supports other business-critical workflows and business processes at the college. For instance, on GCSE results day, students simply ask Ada for their grades.

The Ada service was referenced by the Department for Education’s EdTech Strategy in 2019. Bolton College was also awarded the Beacon Award by the Association of Colleges in the same year.  

While the chatbot has been developed by and for the further education (FE) sector, it could be adapted for universities, too. 

A decision on how or whether to continue developing the chatbot for potential use by all UK colleges and higher education providers will be made at the end of the pilot, after a period of evaluation.

Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director of further education and skills, Jisc, and founding member of BFELG

Jisc’s MD of FE and skills, Robin Ghurbhurun, said:

“This is an exciting project for the tertiary education sector, where the use of AI and machine learning is still in its infancy. Our hope is that this project will demonstrate the potential of emerging Industry 4.0 technologies to help solve key sector challenges. 

“Staff workload is an ongoing challenge and chatbots could really make a difference – freeing up teachers and other staff to concentrate on face-to face support.”

Bill Webster, principal of Bolton College, said:   

“Bolton College is delighted to partner with Jisc on the chatbot pilot. Working collaboratively has allowed us to innovate, utilising cutting-edge technology to enrich the college experience of our students.

“Since the launch of the Ada service, we’ve been passionate in our belief that every student in the further education sector should have access to a campus digital assistant that supports their studies and training. The joint chatbot pilot is an important milestone in that longer term journey.”

Set up in April 2021, the National Centre for AI is led by Jisc and supported by innovation-focused universities and colleges throughout the UK. The centre will identify and develop the best and most appropriate AI solutions for tertiary education, support the ethical design and deployment of solutions, and test how they improve learner experiences. Its main aim is to ensure AI is used in ways that augment teachers’ skills and support human-led education by developing the sector’s skills and confidence in using AI tools. The aim is to deliver AI solutions at 60 colleges and 30 universities within five years.  

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