Monthly Newsletter

The national centre for AI in tertiary education: September newsletter

Update on the centre’s work 


 Establishing the Early Adopters Group. The Centre has established an Early Adopters Group, following an open call for members to join up. The Early Adopters Group will advise the Centre on key aspects of its work and provide focus to the Centre’s strategies. We look forward to working closely with the Early Adopters Group, and to benefiting from their wisdom and experience.  


Setting up the Centre’s blog page. The Centre has set up its own blog page (national centre for AI ( and we have published our first two blogs. Our first blog explores, at a fundamental level, how AI can add value to the education sector. The second blog – and the first from our AI in Education: Here and Now series – looks at  how the OU are enhancing accessibility with the help of artificial intelligence.  

The purpose of the AI in Education: Here and Now series is to highlight how colleges and universities are already benefiting from AI, with the aim of enabling the sector to learn from each others’ experiences. If you are interested in contributing to the Here and Now series, please get in touch with  


Exploring the value of AI for assessment. On 27th September, the Centre held its third meet-up event, at which we explored the value of AI for assessment. Attendees heard about how Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Speech Recognition Software are being used to assess the learning of languages, to provide feedback on extended answer questions, and to support learners’ speaking and communication skills. At the meet-up, we also discussed barriers to developing and implementing AI for assessment solutions. These included: difficulties finding software engineers with the right skillsets, bottlenecks around the supply of data for training systems and expertise needed to classify data-sets, and the joint challenges of ensuring a) that NLP and Speech Recognition Systems are sufficiently accurate and b) that they can be transparent about how confident they are in their outputs.  

Our next meet-up event will be held on 20th October at 3.30-5.00pm, and will focus on the use of AI for adaptive learning. The event is open to all those with any interest in this particular application of AI (from those who are just beginning to consider the merit of AI for adaptive learning to those who are already experts in this area – we also encourage those who are skeptical about this use of AI to attend if they are keen to have a productive debate).  

 Please do join us if the event is of interest to you. national centre for AI in tertiary education community meetup: artificial intelligence and adaptive learning | Jisc   


AI in the news 


 In this Times Higher Education article, Geoffery Hinton, an authority on AI, gives a provocative call for a more human-centric approach to the development of advanced technologies. 

This Financial Times article explores how AI is being used to support the catch-up effort in schools. 

Given the Centre’s soon-to-be launched chatbot pilots, this article presenting the benefits of chatbots is particularly timely.  

This article in the Guardian demonstrates AI’s potential artistic prowess, exploring how AI has been used to co-create and deliver a new play at the Old Vic.  


The Government recently released its AI Strategy, which aims to make Britain a global AI superpower. The strategy is geared towards utilising AI to enhance growth and productivity, stimulating new inventions and advancements of AI, and establishing effective governance for AI that both promotes innovation and fosters public trust.  An important read for anyone interested in AI and its role in society. 


Thought for the month 

In this thought for the month, Aftab Hussain, Bolton College’s Information and Learning Technology (ILT) Manager, describes the inspiration for Bolton College’s renowned digital assistant, Ada, and provides insights into what it took to ensure Ada was a success. 

 If you would like to write a ‘thought for the month’ piece (which could be on any topic that provides insight or provocation around the use of AI in education), please do get in touch with 


 Over the last three decades web-based services such as learning management systems, student information systems, library management systems and more have proven incredibly useful and their ability to support students and teachers has been amplified significantly with the advent of the smartphone app and social learning eco-systems. However, as more and more campus services were digitised and distributed to students, teachers and campus support teams, the volume of data that these services collected, digested and produced grew exponentially. This problem was noted during the 1950s by Norbert Wiener who stated that whilst communication mechanisms do become more efficient, they are subject to increasing levels of entropy. Wiener went onto say 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. 

The advent of Bolton College’s campus digital assistant developed from a thought experiment between Dean Baggaley, Bolton College’s Lead Systems Developer and myself. We asked ourselves what life on the campus would be like if students, teachers and campus support teams had access to an oracle that could respond to day-to-day questions about college services, their studies or work. This thought experiment led us to consider the advent of a campus digital assistant which was capable of supporting every element of the student-life-cycle and the day-to-day problems or tasks that are faced by everyone on the campus. 

In the early days of 2017, the College achieved a series of milestones which led to the organic development of Ada. During this process, we posed ourselves a series of questions and challenges: 

o Could Ada respond to a question from a student? 

o Could Ada identify who asked the question? 

o Could Ada respond contextually to student questions, about their timetables for instance? 

o Could Ada respond with multi-media responses? 

o Could Ada support teaching and learning? 

o Could Ada be voice enabled? 

o Could Ada support workflows around the campus and so much more? 

Community involvement was an important element in the early stages of the Ada service. Curriculum teams and business support teams were approached initially to volunteer twenty frequently asked questions that Ada could address on their behalf. In the case of the College’s Student Services Team, they listed questions such as where is the exams office, how do I apply for student finance, and when is the UCAS deadline date? 

Opinion was also sought from students and staff across the campus regarding Ada’s name and assumed gender. Zoe Rothwell, a member of the College’s Learning Resource Centre Team made a valuable insight in the early days of the Ada service when she highlighted the need to assign a persona to Ada. This persona would steer how Ada responded to student questions about campus services, their studies and time at the College; particularly concerning student well-being. College students and work placement pupils from local secondary schools participated in the curation of questions and answers for the Ada service. They also tested Ada, highlighting and correcting errors and they flagged gaps in Ada’s knowledge about the College and campus services. 

Whilst these broader discussions and projects got underway, technical work continued apace to develop the capabilities of the Ada service. From the very beginning it was important to develop an architecture which was dynamic, scalable, affordable and sustainable; and the work opened up Ada to multi-modal environments; such as the web, mobile, voice and kiosk. 

Good data governance is integral to the ongoing success of a campus digital service. If campus data is reliable and accurate it can be presented with confidence to a student who asks for the telephone number for the exams office, the date and time of her next exam or the result of that exam during results day. If the assistant presents students with incorrect or out-of-date information, it’s unlikely that they will return to the service. 

Colleagues at Bolton College are mindful about keeping thousands of question and answer pairs up-to-date and challenges are on-going about curating additional material for the College’s Q&A library. To address this issue, the ILT Team developed a crowdsourcing platform called Ada Goes to School which enables multiple individuals around the campus to curate Q&A pairs for Ada. The crowdsourcing nature of the platform also has the capacity to help teachers across the UK to curate Q&A pairs for subject specialist chatbots. The collaborative and participate nature of these services will be a hallmark for future education AI services. 

The University of Bolton Group, which Bolton College is part of, continues to make significant investment in the development of the Ada service and Bill Webster, the College’s Principal, continues to be a key champion of Ada. 

The advent of campus digital assistants like Ada marks an exciting period for the education sector. If they are developed with care, they have the potential to transform the design, delivery and management of numerous services that are found in a campus setting. It is still too early to ascertain the wider impact that digital assistants will have on teaching, learning and assessment; or on retention, achievement, progression or student and staff well-being. 

That said, Bolton College has seen first-hand how Ada adds significant value to students as they start and progress with their studies. There is no doubt that the introduction of the digital assistant in our campuses will be transformative; especially when they are offered to every student and teacher in schools, colleges and universities across the UK. Once they are commonplace, it will be hard to imagine being a student or a teacher without them. 


Through the monthly newsletter, we are keen to update members on the Centre’s work, and to enthuse and inform them about the applications of AI in education and wider society. If you have any ideas on how these newsletters can be made even more interesting and useful, please email

By Tom Moule

Product Lead at The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education

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