Watson Beat Jeopardy. But Can It Beat Teacher Burnout and Fix Education?

Watson Beat Jeopardy. But Can It Beat Teacher Burnout and Fix Education?


It could be a whole category on Jeopardy: “Technology For Teachers” that's worth, oh, say, millions.

Contestants, here's the clue. “Technology that started as a game show contestant, but now wants a job in schools.”

And the answer?

Last weekend, at the American Federation of Teachers’ annual conference in Washington, DC, teachers heard from the IBM researchers who created “Watson,” the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer that made mincemeat out of its human contestants in 2011. The technology giant has previously announced its plans to make Watson a teacher’s assistant by 2016, echoing a promise made last October by IBM's education team at EDUCAUSE.

This all transpired at a conference where the overall theme was “Your Voice Matters.”

Stanley Litow, IBM’s Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs, gave a lengthy talk at the AFT meeting describing how Watson has been improving with the help of some human teachers--and when the technology will be ready to head to school. Litow also did his level best to reiterate that IBM aims to “incorporate educators and teachers in the design of what Watson could do,” a declaration that triggered applause from the audience of union members.

Even so, conference goers buzzed with questions about what this “Watson for Teachers” might mean for the classroom, teachers and students. Here are just a few.

What Exactly is ‘Watson for Teachers’?

When Watson was crushing competitors on Jeopardy, it seemed like an all-knowing supercomputer that could literally answer any question rooted in findable facts. (Keep in mind, it can’t answer those more personal questions like “Why am I sad?” and “How can I get Mary Jo to write a story about me?” Sorry, folks.)

But despite several worried tweets from teachers at TEACH 2015, Litow noted that IBM doesn’t intend to make Watson a “sage on the stage,” or a replacement for teachers. Instead, IBM is working to leverage Watson’s talents to help teachers become expert lesson planners and curriculum whizzes.

“How did it win the game show Jeopardy? It took all the information you could possibly find, converting it into natural language,” Litow said during his presentation at TEACH. “So, we want to use that in the classroom.

According to Litow, “instead of a regular search engine,” that spits out a list of resources, Watson will collect relevant materials and then display them as a “knowledge map with interrelated concepts.”

Say, for example, a teacher is working on a unit about food chains. Watson could pull together sample lessons plans, videos, standards, and assessment questions and portray those as a web of interrelated elements. The individual elements may come from the Web but teachers could also let Watson search through materials that they’ve compiled. Those materials might be private to an individual (or group of) teachers -- or they could be shared with the community at large.

Watson’s no one-trick machine, either, Litow asserted. As a teacher uses the system, the tool--dare we say it--adapts to the user, picking up on what kind of materials they prefer or relevant trends in say, its own search history, and so on.

What’s Watson’s cost?

So far, IBM is consistently saying that “Watson” will be totally free. (“Watson” is still a placeholder name while IBM executives mull the technology’s official moniker.)

Once Watson is regularly serving customers, IBM has suggested that it will spin out the group. The newly freed group might well reconstitute itself as a nonprofit. The goal will remain the same: to provide the technology, free of charge, to all teachers.

“It's the next iteration of technology that most of us would never have access to, in terms of giving to us a really wonderful... ongoing virtual resource center at our fingertips,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Teacher Reaction: Nervous with Patches of Excitement

IBM plans to pilot Watson with 3rd grade teachers this fall. In a marketing video produced by IBM, a couple of teachers expressed favor for the product, including Mississippi science teacher Namrata Dixit, who said that a tool like this could come in handy "when it's 4 o'clock in the morning and you need a lesson.”

Even those plans raised questions for teachers, however. What about other grade levels, they asked? Could educators trust that a tool that had only been piloted with third grade would work for a Kindergarten, seventh, or twelfth grade teacher?

And will the pilot provide an adequate measure of the breadth of accessible materials, teachers queried. What about materials for special education and English language learning? Would Watson be able to handle those? “I would like to able to address all the instructional needs of my students,” said Donalee Dixon, another Boston educator. IBM reps pointed to the future: Addressing all students’ needs, they said, is Watson’s eventual goal, provided that teachers respond “positively” to the initial pilot program.

Who Owns What?

Questions also arose about material ownership and vetting accuracy and thoroughness of information. “If I’m putting lessons on the system, are you gaining ownership over my intellectual property?” asked Debbie, a teacher from New York.

Juliet, a high school teacher, wondered who was vetting the materials that Watson might recommend: “Things we put online can go everywhere… and not all materials are that good. I’m worried about where Watson gets stuff from.”

IBM Researcher Mayank Sharma quickly responded that teachers will do much of that vetting. “It’s a very human-intensive product,” he added.

It’s intensive, alright. Several of the educators questioned whether or not this would be possible on a consistent basis. “Will Watson be updated to include [new materials and standards], too?” asked Donna Lashus, a teacher from Boston Public Schools.

Both Dixon and Lashus, who have taught in Boston for years, agreed that what IBM can’t afford to lose is the integration of teacher voice in the design process--whether that means piloting in other grade levels or not.

“This could be good for class, good for PD… but will it survive?” Dixon posed. “It they allow ongoing teacher input, I think it could.”

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