TECH
10/06/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

‘Thinking Computer' That Won On Jeopardy Could Help Teachers

A computer program named Watson became famous after it won on Jeopardy in 2011, and it might soon be used to help classroom teachers.

The “Watson Master Teacher” concept is still in development, but it’s already drawing attention from national education leaders. The creators say they do not intend to create a robot with all the answers. This isn’t about replacing people with machines. The software would suggest possible answers to questions posed by teachers by quickly pulling together education research, videos of master teachers and online connections to teachers with similar interests.

“I can definitely see collaboration being increased because teachers want that sounding board as they are planning,” said Rashid Davis, founding principal of P-TECH, a Brooklyn high school that has partnered with IBM for other projects. “They want to make sure they are doing the right thing.”

Davis was among those invited to a demonstration last week of an early version of the IBM technology at The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City. A panel discussion at the forum included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and James Shelton, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

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The panel members agreed on a lot. As unlikely as it seems in the current climate on debates about how to best use technology and data in the classroom, they shared a common view of the promise in what could be an on-call mentor for educators seeking trusted advice. It is being crafted by IBM with early input from classroom-level educators. They also agreed there are significant hurdles to making this work, including finding agreement on what vetted materials to include in the program.

Teachers are being included now so they can help shape it, leaders said. Educators were at the event to give their take on what they would like to see, or not, in a virtual advisor. The free tool will provide personalized suggestions to help educators meet the needs of students they serve. It will draw from vetted education research and get better at offering solutions the more it is used by a teacher. The cloud-based program will be available online 24 hours a day.

“This isn’t about the one right answer,” said Stan Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation. “The question is: it the right answer for the person who is asking the question?”

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Some have dubbed it the “Watson Master Teacher,” with the Watson name as a nod to the name of a founder of IBM, but the program for teachers is not yet named. A pilot is expected to launch in a few schools next year. The IBM team developing it will be headquartered at 51 Astor Place, a new office building in New York City, but schools selected to try it are not expected to be limited to the city. The first version is expected to be released sometime in 2016.

Gaining a wide base of private and public support will be necessary to make this type of project work. Nationally, efforts to use test score data to evaluate teachers received strong pushback. Using education data has also been slow to catch on in some districts because of privacy concerns.

Several educators said the proposed system would be helpful because it would provide feedback to teachers from someone who isn’t evaluating their performance. Weingarten said earning trust will include reassurances that teachers won’t be tracked on what questions they ask and that the information provided is high-quality.

“We have to have you create trust that this is an instrument that is going to be of value to people,” Weingarten said.

The creators of IBM’s Watson technology say they believe they will be able to navigate those concerns. No personal information from students will be used in it, for instance. And Watson is already being used in a hospital, where privacy is also crucial.

But a lot of work remains to get the system ready for use by teachers.

For instance, the system will need more vetted education research materials and videos of expert teachers. The creators already have about 200 videos and are working with partners to upload more. They also need assistance in helping to select research texts to include, which could be a big challenge.

The creators of Watson are asking teachers for help. That request was a first for Rebecca McLelland-Crawley, who works in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey. The team from IBM asked her for a list of what she’s read to improve her teaching.

Until this year, no one ever asked about her background reading. So, for the first time in 17 years McLelland-Crawley shared it. She told her students it was being “fed” to a computer named Watson who would use it to help other teachers.

She said her students were surprised to learn that no one had asked their teacher for her reading list before now.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report.

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