Ada is representative of a new breed of conversational services that are about to enter the education sector. Their introduction will not only augment and enhance the capabilities of many online services that are found in schools, colleges and universities such as learning management systems, library management systems and information management systems; but they will deliver considerable value to the students, teachers and support teams who will come to rely on them. Conversational services such as Bolton College's Ada have various facets. These are listed below:
- they act as Oracles - enabling students, teachers and support teams to gather information and insights from around the campus;
- they act as bridges that connect multiple services around the campus together - enabling improved access to information and services for everyone on the campus; and
- they act as agents or digital assistants - providing timely advice, guidance, insights and assistance to everyone on the campus. As digital assistants they undertake numerous jobs and tasks on behalf of individuals and teams to support the student body.
In a recent development Bolton College's ILT Team is pleased to announce that Ada, the College's digital assistant for students, teachers and support teams, has acquired the ability to convert speech-to-text and text-to-speech. This means that students are able to talk to Ada and ask for assistance across a broad range of domains that relate to the College and their studies. Likewise, Ada can now provide a verbal response to student enquiries.
Initial use suggests that the speech-to-text service has a high accuracy rate. The reliability of the speech to text service will help support the adoption of the service by new students as they start the new academic year in September. The following video shows a short demo of the speech-to-text and text-to-speech service.
The next stage of the Ada project will provide colleagues with the opportunity to explore the development of an Android, iOS and a Windows mobile app for the Ada service; an app that will focus on a new user interface that centres on text-to-speech and speech-to-text.
In other news Bolton College's Ada service continues to learn and improve. At the present moment in time the service is learning to respond to questions centered on the College's online employability course - a course that will be accessed by over 2,500 students from this September. The course takes advantage of Bolton College's adaptive learning environment which delivers personalised, contextualised and adaptive learning and assessment materials to the student.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank colleagues and students who have been involved in developing the service. Their knowledge, insight and imagination has been inspirational.
Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown stated that the next wave of ubiquitous computing would be at its best when it got out of the way.  Conversational services are a wonderful example of how calm technology enables the myriad of services that are used by students and teachers to recede into the background. Conversational services are set to improve how thoughts, impulses, desires, ideas and aspirations are shared between students, teachers and support teams. When conversational services become mainstream within the education sector many of the technologies and mediums of exchange that we have taken for granted for years will come to appear rather archaic. Conversational services and the machine learning agents that underpin them will become the hub for all services that are offered by schools, colleges and universities. If a student wishes to message a teacher they will ask their digital assistant to compile and send the message for them. If a student wishes to undertake research for an assignment they can ask their digital assistant for support to research appropriate resources. If a student wishes to submit an assignment they will ask the digital assistant to pass it on to the appropriate teacher. If a student wishes to progress onto further studies they will be able to ask the digital assistant for information, advice and guidance. As the capabilities of these digital assistants advance we could envisage a scenario where the student no longer needs to research, compile and author work that has been requested by his or her teacher. For instance, in the finance sector, technology is already used to automatically compile complex research reports to support the work of investment managers. What would happen if this technology was applied to the education sector - what impact would it have on teaching, learning and assessment? What are the governance arrangements for this technology? What ethical considerations come into play? Perhaps it's not so calm after all.
1. The Coming Age of Calm Technology by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown.