Bolton is one of the first UK colleges to have introduced a chatbot, which uses artificial intelligence to answer more than 1,000 queries each day from students and staff.

The judges, who included Jisc’s head of FE and skills, Paul McKean, were particularly impressed by how the chatbot has increased learner retention, reduced teacher workload and bureaucracy, increased mental wellbeing and enhanced support for visually impaired students.

Bill Webster, principal of Bolton College, said:

“This is an outstanding achievement for Bolton College and our information learning technology team. 123 colleges from across the country entered the awards, and the final shortlist was very strong, so to be shortlisted then win is a testament to the cutting-edge work being carried out by the team.

The chatbot is credited with helping the college increase student retention in the first 42 days of the academic year by providing positive personalised answers to repeatedly asked questions such as: “What is my next class and in which classroom will that be?”

Bill Webster adds:

“Hundreds of our students have been involved in the development of Ada. Computing students have helped carry out vital development work, which has allowed them to work on the latest AI technology, thereby enhancing their future employment opportunities.

“The plan now is to roll the tech out to our partners in the Group, starting with the University of Bolton. This technology has been getting significant interest from across the sector, and we look forward to supporting its dissemination.”

In addition, the college uses an Alexa Echo, which reads back information to students with additional needs. It’s been a great help to one particular visually impaired student, who no longer needs to take half hourly breaks to relieve the strain on her eyes.  

Grimsby Institute and Preston’s College were runners up in this category of the awards, which are organised annually by the Association of Colleges. Jisc is a sponsor.

Paul McKean said:

“I can’t emphasise enough how well the three finalists have introduced innovative technology throughout their organisations and used it to transform college functions and, more importantly, to improve the student experience in the digital age.”

The winner of this Beacon Award category will be asked to host an open day to demonstrate their work and to share best practice with fellow colleges.

Aftab Hussain, Bolton College’s ILT Manager, said:

“Last year we won a Bolton Business Award so to be recognised again for our work is just amazing. However, this is just the beginning for Ada - we are about to launch an iOS app for the service, and we have published an Android app and an Amazon Alexa app which enables learners to access Ada via their smart speakers. There is so much more Ada is capable of; it is a very exciting time!”

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