Can the IBM Watson Computer Whisper to Teachers? Can We All Have Our Personal Mentor-Advisor? Can We Trust IBM?

You may remember in early 2011 the IBM Watson computer took on former Jeopardy champions and defeated them – a stunning example of a “learning” computer, called “cognitive computing.”

The Roosevelt House at Hunter College hosted the rollout of a new use for Watson, a “teacher advisor.”

Every edition of Education Week is filled with computer applications for students, the Los Angeles School District is spending a billion dollars to buy I-Pads for every kid, schools commonly spend thousands to equip schools with white boards, school boards envision computers replacing teachers, During the credit recovery craze kids who failed classes made them up by sitting at a computer for a few hours answering questions.

Would real, live teachers be replaced by humming, flashing computers?

When I casually suggested that someday soon they’d be stapling a chip into your earlobe a friend, with a sneer, commented, “They haven’t done you yet?”

The still unnamed Watson system, maybe “teacher personal advisor,” is not meant to replace teachers but, according to IBM, to empower teachers, to use the power of Watson to advise and mentor a teacher.

Stan Litow, a former Board of Education Deputy Chancellor, and now with the impressive title of Vice President, Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, and President, IBM International Foundation explained the concept.

Watson is a non-judgmental, on-demand, cloud-based, trusted advisor with the ability to provide vetted lessons, specific to the teacher and his/her students, way beyond a search engine. The Watson system is an “open domain Q & A,” Each time a teacher asks a question Watson learns and customizes the response to the teacher, a type of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As I understood the presentation Watson is both free, available 24/7 and the teacher is anonymous. Schools and school districts will not have to purchase the system, teachers simply log on and begin to use.

The first panel: Michael Cohen, the President of Achieve, Inc., Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, John King, the NYS Commissioner of Education, James Shelton, Deputy Secretary of Educating and Randi Weingarten, AFT President.

Weingarten called the program, potentially, a Siri for teachers, reminded us that Google Maps is far from perfect and explained the success of Share My Lesson, an AFT-sponsored site on which a few hundred thousand teachers have signed up. The other panelists were impressed by the “personalization” of the process, the ability to curate and continue to learn, one goal is to establish communities of teachers who can mentor each other online. John King saw Watson as enabling teachers to speed up the searching process, responding to student errors, offering a range of teaching strategies and translate into student native languages. Michael Cohen reminded us that teachers, not Watson, are the experts.

A teacher panel from New York City, Half Hollow Hills, Newburgh and Plainsboro, New Jersey spent time over the summer with the design team.

Every teacher expressed concerns over new teacher evaluation systems and voiced uneasiness over the use of the Watson data – Litow, again and again emphasized that the system was non-judgmental and was not intended to assess or evaluate teachers in any way, the sole purpose was to assist teacher in planning, to offer a “personal assistant,” guided by the needs of the teacher.

In one of the demonstrations Watson was asked, “What is cloze reading instruction?” and, Watson answered by giving a long quote from David Coleman and made references to PARCC. In the Q & A audience members were sharply critical of the answer, and, emphasized that teacher suspicion would only be exacerbated by these types of responses.

Many of the questions danced around: how do you ameliorate suspicions of any computer-based program? How do you deal with the privacy issues? How do you respond to the presumption that there must be an ulterior motive? After all, IBM is in the business of making money.

The Watson team is setting up their offices in New York City and the actual rollout of the product is probably two years away.

As one questioner pointed out Watson suggestions were not answers – watching a video of a lesson, trying a suggested approach, all fine, there is no guarantee of success; Watson is simply one tool in the tool kit of a teacher. It did not strike me as a “game-changer,” the net is filled with tools, teachers have their favorites. Watson may speed up lesson planning; the “proof” is in the lesson execution.

I suggested to Stan Litow that he speak with Diane Ravitch, and he said he was eager to speak with Diane.

Many of us are ultra-suspicious of the tech companies who see billions of dollars waiting to be snatched away, the lure of a computer standing in front of a classroom, a computer that doesn’t need a pension and a health plan and doesn’t belong to a union, is an attraction to school boards. On the other hand we can’t be Luddites; the world of computing can make us more effective teachers and students more effective learners.

Interactive whiteboards cost a couple of thousand dollars each and I see teachers using them as high priced projectors, is a classroom filled with kids tapping on an I-Pad the type of “teaching and learning” we want to encourage?

I peeked into a classroom in a middle school, it was pretty loud, the kids were arguing with each other and the teacher was facilitating the argument/discussions, the teacher threw up his hands, “Okay, I’ve heard enough, you have fifteen minutes, write down your arguments, remember, each point must be backed up with evidence.”

Watson may have suggested the lesson, provided the sources and kids can use Google to search the web – are we also teaching the kids to write?

What do you think?

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One response to “Can the IBM Watson Computer Whisper to Teachers? Can We All Have Our Personal Mentor-Advisor? Can We Trust IBM?

  1. I worked with Stanley Litow at the NYC Board of Education. I trust him. At IBM he has been in the forefront in leading the way to improving public education. Our schools and teachers under attack everyday by self appointed reformers, with fat checkbooks who are clueless. IBM and Stan Litow should be welcomed in every classroom.

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