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Meet Marcel, the library chatbot supporting hard-to-reach learners

Work-based, distance and vocational learners often find it challenging to access library staff expertise and resources. Gower College Swansea’s library-specific chatbot aims to level up the playing field, bringing their resources out to the learners.

Winner of the Tes FE Award for their apprenticeship programme in 2021, Gower College Swansea is one of the largest providers of apprenticeships in Wales. They work with thousands of students to deliver the needs of local and major employers and are renowned for successfully getting female apprentices, many from deprived areas, into industries typically dominated by men.

Their apprentices (also known as work-based learners) undertake most of the learning in the workplace, which means few opportunities to come onto campus. The college also has a large number of students who live outside the city, often based miles outside the area, stretching up towards the valleys and into England. Physically coming onto campus is difficult and means they experience limited access to library staff expertise and resources.

Taking the library out to the learners

In 2020, Gower College Swansea applied for Ufi’s VocTech Seed fund grant and received funding for a library chatbot that would support learning for this group of students and increase widening participation within the library.

Digital solutions manager, Kate Pearce wrote the bid and describes the rationale behind it:

“We wanted to offer work based, distance and vocational learners, timely, relevant and up-to-date support for the completion of their course and assignments. It’s important these learners make use of the wealth of knowledge that library staff have. The chatbot will give them access to a person and timely advice and expertise.”

Mark Ludlam

The funding enabled learning resources manager, Mark Ludlam to work with a developer at Emotion Robotics to develop the chatbot, Marcel - named after the artist and trained librarian, Marcel Duchamp.

Mark says:

“We've got expertise within the college to develop the chatbot ourselves, but time and workload is a massive limiting factor. That money allowed us to make sure that this project didn’t go on the back burner.

“We're hoping it will impact all learners at the college but the focus for this particular project is very much on vocational and work-based learners. Wherever we’ve trialled the chatbot we've been using these learners as a test.”

‘What’s a flange spring?’

Engaging the learners to participate in user acceptance testing, Mark developed the chatbot to understand ‘normal’ conversational language and slang terms that are used in an educational scenario:

“The chatbot uses natural language so unless you tell the chatbot that this is the language that we use, it won't pick it up. I used a UX function to record students narrating their way through the chatbot and their reactions as well. They asked Marcel questions about the service, another about a particular resource, and then some random questions as well… because students will ask random questions.

“We anticipated questions that students would use but it’s impossible to cover it all. We tested it with plumbers, and they went straight into ‘have you got anything on a flange spring?’ I laughed and thought, ‘Come on, give me a break’. If you ask Marcel ‘what books have you got on plumbing’ then no problem. But flange springs? That’s a little way down the line, Marcel is still learning.”

Gower College Swansea aims to be a bilingual College, with the Welsh language and culture central to the college ethos. At the moment Marcel only works in English, but there are firm plans to develop a Welsh version as soon as possible.

Getting beyond the search

Library collections systems can be notoriously difficult to navigate and students often have trouble getting beyond the search. Gower College Swansea could see a lot of the collections were chronically underused by students and breaking down the search barrier was essential.

The college hoped to be able to interrogate the datasets of all the library’s content and point students towards online resources. To do this the college needed the application programming interface (API) from each online publisher. It allows the chatbot and the publishers platform to talk to each other and will show students what resources are available to them in a search, without having to log into the publisher's platform first.

Mark explains:

“Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks was not being able to get an API from our library management system, Heritage. Instead, we've had to manually interrogate our own catalogue and anticipate the subject questions students would ask, create a URL for it, then use bitly to shorten it and put that URL somewhere that the learner can access.

“Because this has taken up an enormous amount of time, we want to give the questions database that we’ve created to the FE community so that others don't have to go through the same process as we as we did. The answers are going to be different, but the questions are largely going to be the same.”

Llwyddiannus! Success!

Having more luck with Planet e-stream, the college’s video content software host, Kate says:

“Planet e-stream have given us their API and just breaking that down that barrier will help access resources.

“This means that if you search for a video and there aren’t any videos on your chosen topic, you can see the results of your search before getting past the additional barrier of having to login. You haven’t wasted your time and it’s more user friendly. It’s made our resources more accessible, particularly for hard-to-reach learners, such as vocational, distance and work-based learners.

“We want to feedback to the publishers that hold some of these online collections that it’s quicker to search without needing to login. They could help break down the barrier to students accessing those datasets. They may not know that it's needed but even to start those conversations about access to APIs would be a good outcome from this project. Planet e-stream are a great example for us to show other suppliers or publishers.”

Going live

As part of the successful funding bid, Ufi put Gower College Swansea in touch with Cardiff University, who helped with marketing the benefits of the chatbot to staff at the college. By the end of 2021, the college were ready to go live. Mark continues:

“We’ve just gone out to vocational and work-based learning tutors to show them how to use the chatbot and really sell it to them so they can show the students how to use it. We’re starting to see lots of questions coming in using different language and slang but hopefully we’ll be able to anticipate them, respond accordingly and get the chatbot to learn.

“Even now I'm beginning to see that whenever we make decisions or changes, somebody in the team says, ‘we’ll have to tell the chatbot that as well’.”

The future of the library

The capability of a chatbot to answer any number of queries, without delay and at any time of the day ay or night undoubtedly enhances a service to learners and can help with improving student engagement and satisfaction. Kate also considers the impact on library staff at Gower College Swansea:

“We all accept that the teacher is an important part of the learning process. The chatbot will release knowledgeable and really well-qualified staff to do things that have a greater impact on the student's learning journey. It exposes an underused resource to a much wider student cohort.”

So will Marcel be extended across the breadth of the campus, beyond the library?

Kate says:

“The senior management team are considering whether to adopt this chatbot for wider college communication. It could signpost additional support materials to other parts of the college. Ada at Bolton College has already been proved to help with student support, welfare and wellbeing.”

Partnering with Gower College Swansea throughout the project, Jisc continues to support the FE learning resource services community of practice, which is dedicated to sharing good practice and developing e-resource strategies in further education. Interested in sharing their chatbot journey within the sector, Mark continues:

“When we told the group about this chatbot it received very wide interest. There’s also an AI group within FE so I hope we’ll be useful contributors to that and at future conferences as well.

“AI is already with us and if libraries want to remain relevant it's important that they jump on board with the chatbot. From a library perspective the chatbot is a bit of a disruptor. It goes straight into what it is that you're looking for and cuts to the chase.

“Gen Z students now are far more likely to use a text service than they are to ring up or see a person, so this definitely suits this generation of students.

“Ultimately the purpose of this was to bring the library resources to those hard-to-reach learners but it’ll end up having a positive impact on all learners.”

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