STUDENTS at Bolton College are never without support ­— no matter what the day or time it is thanks to virtual member of staff Ada.

Described as the college's answer to Amazon's Alexa, Bolton College has harnessed Artificial Intelligence to create chatbox Ada, to function as a virtual support teacher on behalf of college lecturers and support teams.

Now the college's innovative use of technology to support its students has been awarded an "Oscar" of the further education sector by winning an Association of Colleges’ Beacon Award for the "Most Effective Use of Technology in Further Education" ­— with beacon assessors describing Ada as “potentially a game changer for the whole of the FE sector.”

Senior managers and staff from the College’s Information Learning Technology (ILT) Team travelled down to London for the awards, which were presented by Dave Gorman - comedian, author and TV presenter.

The chatbot is named after Ada Lovelace, regarded as one of the first computer programmers.

The service has so far responded successfully to more than 80,000 questions from students and can support everything from the delivery of GCSE maths and hairdressing courses, to the college’s employability curriculum.

Bill Webster, Principal of Bolton College, said: "This is an outstanding achievement for Bolton College and our Information Learning Technology Team. 123 colleges from across the country entered the awards, and the final shortlist was very strong, so to be shortlisted then win is a testament to the cutting-edge work being carried out by the team.

"Hundreds of our students have been involved in the development of Ada. Computing students have helped carry out vital development work, which has allowed them to work on the latest AI technology, thereby enhancing their future employment opportunities.

"The plan now is to roll the tech out to our partners in the group, starting with the University of Bolton. This technology has been getting significant interest from across the sector, and we look forward to supporting its dissemination.”

Aftab Hussain, Bolton College’s ILT Manager, said: "Last year we won a Bolton Business Award so to be recognised again for our work is just amazing. However, this is just the beginning for Ada - we are about to launch an iOS app for the service and we have published an Android app and an Amazon Alexa app which enables learners to access Ada via their smart speakers. There is so much more Ada is capable of; it is a very exciting time!”"

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Each year the standard of entries is extremely high and this year is no exception. This makes choosing the winner so difficult, especially with so many worthy entrants.

“Colleges are inspirational places to learn because education and training is delivered by expert teaching staff in industry-standard facilities. Bolton College should be proud of their award.”