Aftab Hussain, Strategic ILT Lead, Bolton College

If every teacher had access to a digital assistant what would it mean for the profession?

I ask this question because at this juncture a number of technologies are beginning to be combined to deliver the first generation of digital assistants to teachers.

This is proving to be possible because schools, colleges and universities have large repositories of data, they make use of numerous online services were data is collected and used to support teaching, learning and assessment; robotic process automation is becoming commonplace; there is a growing number of platform providers that offer cognitive services that utilise natural language and machine learning; and end user devices are enabling the use of conversational services.

Once these services are combined teachers will simply converse with their digital assistants to garner insights to support their day-to-day work. The nature of the digital assistant means that the presentation of this information will be contextualised to the teacher who makes the enquiry.

Since the digital assistant is context aware, it can also offer timely information to the teacher in advance of being asked. As these services are connected to all key online services and datasets across the campus they will also have the ability to carry out tasks on behalf of the teacher.

These tasks will include the authoring of student report cards, arranging meetings with students, colleagues or parents; answering emails; compiling and distributing teaching, learning and assessment materials on the institution's adaptive learning environment and even the marking of student work.

Screen or No Screen

How will teachers interact with their digital assistant? When presenting conversational services to teachers campuses have a number of options which are detailed as follows:

  • A campus can opt for a voice only solution which makes use of smart speakers. In this instance, teachers can only interact with the service using voice input and the service presents information using voice output.
  • A campus may use a screen only solution. Teachers will use text input to engage with the service, and the digital assistant will use text and multi-media output. The ability to present visual information allows for more complex information to be presented to teachers.
  • A campus can opt for a solution that utilises voice and screen. Teachers can use voice input to engage with the service and the digital assistant can use voice, text and multi-media output. Teachers may feel that they can present questions to the digital assistant more readily if they make use of their voice. Teachers may also state that they can consume visual information more rapidly than a service that delivers voice only output.

Overtime, digital assistants will also start to act with a greater degree of agency. And as they do, they will begin to work in tandem with individual teachers, course teams and for the institution as a whole.

For example, the digital assistant will alert teachers about the students who are flagging with their studies; the assistant will generate daily report cards for students to guide them with their studies and it will also present a daily report card for teachers, course teams and managers at the institution about a whole manner of topics.

Within the context of an online learning environment, teachers can use the capabilities of their digital assistant to assign personalised and contextualised learning and assessment materials to each of their students.

Digital assistants will also support teachers to manage the growing volume of data that they need to handle to support the academic and pastoral care for each of their students. Once digital assistants have demonstrated their capabilities, teachers will have a greater degree of confidence in using them to support student enquiries.

For example, a teacher may ask her digital assistant about the grades that one of her student's needs to maintain his grade average to secure a place at his chosen university. In this instance, the teacher simply has to converse with the digital assistant to find out the answer. Overtime, teachers will pose a large volume of questions to their digital assistant and across a broad range of contexts.

Teachers will also need to be aware that their students will also have access to a digital assistant. The digital assistant that supports the student body will not behave in a homogeneous manner since it will offer advice and guidance; and learning and assessment that is unique to each and every student on the campus.

Teachers and support teams will also need to be aware that students will increasingly reach out to their digital assistant for information, advice and guidance rather than to themselves.

There is a concern that staff around the campus will not be aware of what advice the digital assistant is presenting to their students. In some cases, students will want a degree of privacy when conversing with the digital assistant, and in other instances, they will be willing for the dialogue to be shared with their teachers and support teams.

However, it is important to remember that the digital assistant's behaviour is determined by staff across the campus; and if the digital assistant behaves in a deterministic fashion, it will behave on behalf of all teachers and support teams at the institution.

Explainable AI

Education institutions who wish to make use of digital assistants for students and teachers are advised to examine how the actions of their digital assistants can be understood and explained.

Within an education setting it is vital that institutions can demonstrate why a student was assigned a particular set of learning and assessment materials, why a student was advised about aiming for a specific target grade or why a student was asked to resubmit a piece of coursework.

Schools, colleges, universities and the companies that offer digital assistants to the education sector will no doubt have to comply to a set of norms regarding the design, use and management of digital assistants. Explainable AI is important because digital assistants on the campus are set to become pervasive.

They will be found in our classrooms, staff rooms, offices, student services, on all student and staff facing websites, in virtual reality environments, in our libraries, in our bedrooms, kitchens and lounges; and they will be present on our smartphones; the most ubiquitous device on our campus.

What is Bolton College doing in this field?

Colleagues at Bolton College are currently developing a staff facing chatbot service which will be used by teachers and support teams across the College.

The service is designed to answer day-to-day questions from colleagues about the College and campus services, specific questions relating to the individual who is asking the question and it is designed to support enquiries about the students under their care.

The latter is of particular interest because it changes how teachers and support teams access and manage the data they need to support students with their academic and pastoral care.

The service can currently respond contextually to various questions such as: show me the students who are out on work placement next week, which one of my students is at risk with their studies, show me the students with a poor attendance record, how is student A doing with her studies, who is ready to start their work placement and more.

We hope the service will enable colleagues to spend less time searching for information in legacy systems. Teachers will simply use conversational language to garner insights on their students. Early feedback suggests that the service will be well received by colleagues when it goes live later in the academic year.

The College aims to offer the digital assistant to its teachers across a number of modalities. Teachers can currently access the service on the institution's Staff Home Page and on their Amazon Echo devices.

In the new year the College will publish apps so that teachers can use the service through their iPhones and Android smartphones.

Aftab Hussain, Strategic ILT Lead, Bolton College

Aftab Hussain Newsroom Strap

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter 1 hour 51 minutes ago

Global citizens and scientists shine hope on how to achieve a thriving net zero future: New international COP26 pro…
View Original Tweet

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page