Boosting skills among the working population is a sure-fire way to maximise economic inclusion and attract inward investment. To help adult learners find the right training courses, SOLAS worked with SureSkills to build an innovative virtual assistant based on IBM Watson Assistant.

Established in 2013, SOLAS is an agency of the Irish Government's Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Working with Regional Skills managers and partners in Education and Training Boards (ETBs) throughout Ireland, SOLAS manages Further Education and Training (FET) programmes designed to help learners succeed in the labour market and thrive in society.

Paddy Seery, Director IT and Digital at SOLAS, says: "To maximise opportunities and help everyone in Ireland reach their full potential in society, it's vital that we make courses from the ETBs and other providers easily accessible to the widest possible audience. We could see that learners were often struggling with the same kinds of barriers on our website, and we were intrigued about the possibilities offered by virtual assistants."

To help the ETBs showcase a broad variety of lifelong education options, SOLAS developed the fetchcourses.ie website. Whenever users encountered a problem in their journey on the website or had a question that did not seem to be answered by the onsite content, they would typically email SOLAS or one of the ETBs for assistance. SOLAS had noticed that a number of incoming support queries were common to multiple users — for example, those relating to forgotten passwords or duplicate accounts across different devices. In many cases, the same relatively simple fix would apply, so responding to these requests was tying up skilled IT personnel in low-value work.

Paddy Seery says: "Our primary motivation was to resolve these common queries more rapidly and effectively, but we also wanted to discover if there were issues that we didn't know about. Anecdotally, many users won't bother to report an issue if they can't get immediate feedback."

Having seen a demo of chatbot technology, SOLAS believed that it could be the ideal solution to its challenge of answering large numbers of queries without the luxury of a dedicated support team. By setting up an AI-powered virtual assistant capable of answering the most common queries and routing more complex ones to the appropriate human support, SOLAS expected to give learners a better onsite experience and help them achieve their further education goals.

Created online virtual assistant, driving

50%

reduction in incoming queries

Frees up skilled IT staff, saving potentially

hundreds

of hours annually

Bringing AI into the mix

Working in partnership with Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), the national body representing the 16 ETBs, SOLAS set out to build a virtual assistant for fetchcourses.ie.

"Our plan was that SOLAS would handle the creation of technical questions and ETBI would handle course-related questions," says Paddy Seery. "We requested quotes from several providers for a one-year pilot project, and we chose to work with IBM and SureSkills."

Regina McNulty, Senior Software Developer at SOLAS, adds: "We looked in particular at experience; the reference chatbots that IBM and SureSkills showed us seemed technically better than those of the competition. The virtual assistants created with IBM Watson Assistant seemed better able to engage with the user, rather than just looking for a keyword and immediately redirecting the user to a webpage."

SOLAS and ETBI collated a list of around 30 of the most common questions, preparing ten variants of each one to reflect the different ways in which a question might be posed. SOLAS then worked with AI specialist Ludex (http://www.ludex.io/) to prepare appropriate answers to each common question, having first undertaken a training course in plain English to ensure that the answers would be understood by the widest possible audience.

"To build Dave, our fetchcourses.ie virtual assistant, we added the Q and As to Watson and then worked with Ludex to iteratively train, test, adjust, and retrain the system," says Regina McNulty. "We also looked at aspects such as the impact of the GDPR on data provided by learners."

Man wearing suit sitting in a wheelchair and working on laptop

SureSkills and Ludex provided the skills and experience around IBM Watson Assistant to help SOLAS train its virtual assistant. Following go-live, SureSkills is now gathering usage data and performing analysis to measure the impact of the solution.

"Working with SureSkills and Ludex really helped us to achieve a successful outcome from our Watson Assistant project," says Paddy Seery. "We didn't have the experience or resources to handle this purely as an internal project, but with the ongoing skills transfer from SureSkills we are working towards being able to handle changes in-house."

He adds: "We're looking forward to understanding from SureSkills whether there are any questions that we're not currently answering. In some cases, we're expecting to identify opportunities to optimise the language and navigation structure of the website itself."

Based on its experience in this pilot project, the SOLAS team would advise other organisations with similar goals to make sure they invest appropriately in preparation. Regina McNulty comments: "With the benefit of hindsight, we would have done more upfront in terms of getting all of the questions and answers lined up before starting on the technical elements of the solution. But although the project took longer than anticipated for that reason, we're happy to have gone out with a high-quality solution that is genuinely able to help learners get the information they're looking for."

Easing website journeys

With Dave powered by IBM Watson Assistant providing intuitive help 24/7 to users of fetchcourses.ie, SOLAS has seen a clear reduction in support requests.

"Our team member responsible for incoming support queries has seen a 50 percent drop in volume," says Regina McNulty. "They also note that the issues coming in are now the less straightforward ones — which suggests that IBM Watson is doing a good job of dealing with the simpler requests from users. The requests reaching us now are related to more complex issues that really require specialist support."

In addition to smoothing the journey for website users, the new virtual assistant therefore reduces the strain on technical resources at SOLAS, keeping skilled IT staff free to focus on work that adds more value.

"The solution already seems to be having a positive impact in terms of making things easier for our technical staff and eliminating repetitive work for skilled people," says Paddy Seery. "Strategically, that's exactly what we wanted to achieve: helping learners get the information they need while freeing up internal resources to focus on new projects."

By making it easier for adult learners to find and apply for further education and training courses, the virtual assistant supports SOLAS' mission to maximise economic inclusion in the Irish population. As the population becomes more skilled, this should create new opportunities and attract inward investment, making the Irish economy stronger for the benefit of all citizens.

"Our pilot project is proving tremendously useful in showing us the kinds of results we can achieve with a virtual assistant," says Paddy Seery. "We expect to go out to tender for a multi-year solution, and we've identified the potential to extend the technology to other SOLAS websites for apprenticeships and for construction skills. Ultimately, this is a great success story for using technology to punch above our weight and deliver better service to our users."

About SOLAS

Established in 2013, SOLAS is an agency of the Irish Government's Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Working with Regional Skills managers and partners in Education and Training Boards (ETBs) throughout Ireland, SOLAS manages Further Education and Training (FET) programmes designed to help learners succeed in the labour market and thrive in society.

About SureSkills

SureSkills is a world leader in delivering sophisticated technology, knowledge and learning solutions. In the domain of IT services, SureSkills designs, builds and maintains solutions for its customers that enable them to tackle their most critical business initiatives. The company’s aim is to develop a long-term relationship with its clients that builds mutual trust and drives value with sustainable IT efficiencies and innovation.


Solution component

IBM Watson Assistant 

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