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Solas opens access to further education and training with IBM Watson


SOLAS helps adult learners get rapid answers through AI

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

Frees up skilled IT staff, saving potentially



reduction in incoming queries

of hours annually

"Our team member responsible for incoming support queries has seen a 50 percent drop in volume. 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."
Regina McNulty
Senior Software Developer, SOLAS
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."

"Working with SureSkills and Ludex really helped us to achieve a successful outcome from our Watson Assistant project. 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."
Paddy Seery
Director IT and Digital, SOLAS

This article originally appeared on the IBM website, the full Case Study can be accessed here: 

Read the full Case Study here. 


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