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Transforming Ada the College Digital Assistant, into Ada the Digital Human

Beth Derbyshire – Digital and Blended Learning Champion, Bolton College

…but, what is Ada?

“Ada is Bolton College’s digital assistant. Ada is named after Ada Lovelace. Ada can also mean Academic Digital Assistant. Ada is a virtual digital assistant that supports students and staff with everyday questions around campus life and campus services.” – Aftab Hussain, ILT Manager and developer of Ada at Bolton College.

What does Ada do?

Ask Ada Oct 21During the 1950s Norbert Wiener stated that external agents could be introduced to support individuals as they navigated and used these services. Campus digital assistants such as Ada can be classed as one of these external agents. 

At the moment, Ada answers open-ended questions in a text format for all staff and students at Bolton College. This can be found currently on the college’s internal homepage. Since April 2017, Ada has answered hundreds of thousands of questions from staff and students.

Personally, I have found it useful for finding information such as who the first aiders in the college are, or finding contact details for members of staff. Being new to the college since August 2020 and taking on a secondment as Digital and Blended Learning Champion (part of a DfE funded project to improve digital and blended learning across FE in Greater Manchester); I had to suddenly get to know, and be able to contact all staff across the college. Ada has certainly been helpful for me and I use it most days.

Ada works well for students due to its high usage. Chatbots learn from its users, so the more it’s used, the more is learnt. I asked my student digital champions what they thought of Ada and they have found it really useful.

What is Aftab’s and Dean’s vision for the future?

“Our hope is that every child in the future has access to a digital assistant.”

Want to know more? Beth recently interviewed Dean and Aftab on their experiences with the development of Ada on episode 4 of my podcast, Digital Natives in FE.

You can listen to this episode here:

Beth also gives a tip on how to use the tricks from the social media industry to encourage your students to engage on Microsoft Teams.

…but can Ada be improved?

Yes it can! Dean is now playing around with a visual representation of the Ada experience. Students can use voice and get replies by voice which is inclusive for students who struggle with reading and writing, but will also support students who prefer voice (there is also still the option for text).

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I personally found voice messages really beneficial and easier during the pandemic, reducing my screen-time and being able to do things quicker. At the moment we have this on a large kiosk which will soon be tested out by students in the learning resource centre.

The hope is that this digital human version on Ada will be available on all student and staff devices. The team are also experimenting with having a choice of digital human or avatar. We have also recently looked at programming robots with Ada too, so watch this space..

…and what other programmes could be developed from this?

Ada Goes to School is also used by teachers in the college:

The ILT team give teachers their own chatbot to use and embed inside their Moodle pages.

This can reduce the workload of the teacher by answering common questions asked by learners in their classes.

FirstPass is a formative assessment tool currently under development and testing:

FirstPass will be the first of its kind to analyse and give feedback to students from open-ended questioned posed by the teacher. This saves teachers time as FirstPass will be able to give feedback on how the learner can improve their answer before it goes to the teacher saving time for both the teacher and the students.

This sounds like a fantastic project that many teachers have been on the look out for a while now. Testing is taking place over the next few months and will be rolled out in 2022 at Bolton College.

Beth Derbyshire – Digital and Blended Learning Champion, Bolton College


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