Dec 11

IBM’s Watson moves from Jeopardy! to the classroom

Since IBM’s Watson’s Jeopardy! debut in 2011, the artificial intelligence platform has been keeping busy, helping humans in fields such as healthcare and business. Now, Watson is working in education — powering a searchable database of open educational math resources for teachers in grades K-5. To tell us more about this project, called Teacher Advisor With Watson 1.0, we contacted Maura O. Banta, director of Global Citizenship Initiatives in Education at IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs in Armonk, New York:

Q: Tell us about Watson — when and why was it created and some of its past projects.

A: Watson first came to the public’s attention when it participated as a contestant on the television game show Jeopardy!  Since then, IBM has used this powerful technology to help address some of the biggest challenges faced by industry clients and the social sector.

Watson is an artificial intelligence platform that can understand, reason and learn. It can analyze large amounts of data or content, and, with the help of subject matter experts and technologists, ultimately turn that analysis into insights that are relevant for end-users.

In our case, this means having Watson deliver targeted resource recommendations to educators within Teacher Advisor (for specific math concepts, topics, skills and techniques).

Watson can understand the meaning behind K-5 math teachers’ search queries, and use its cognitive capabilities (specifically, the Watson Discovery Service API) to quickly recommend high-quality and relevant resources to meet real teacher needs.

One interesting fact about Watson is that it understands what we call Natural Language, which makes it possible for people to ask questions the way they normally would when interacting with it. Another interesting thing to note is that with the help of further training from subject matter experts, Watson will improve its ability to make recommendations or deliver other insights related to the elementary math domain, for the benefit of teachers.

Q: Tell us more about Teacher Advisor With Watson 1.0 — what sparked its creation, how was it developed and what are its goals?

A: The philanthropic Teacher Advisor With Watson project has its roots back in 2014. That’s when the IBM Foundation convened a group of top education leaders at Roosevelt House in New York City to explore how we could put Watson technology to the best possible use in the education field — with the ultimate goal of achieving the greatest possible impact on student achievement.

At Roosevelt House, the consensus was that the best place to focus would be on supporting teachers: to leverage Watson to help them both improve their own instructional knowledge and know-how and efficiently find resources to meet the needs of students.

We initially focused on 3rd-grade math (we’re now K-5), because this is the beginning of, and foundation for, more advanced math concepts. We engaged with teachers “on the ground,” as well as educational nonprofits such as UnboundEd, to get started curating and designing a 100% free tool that would integrate teacher professional development with a robust Open Educational Resources library.

Our goal has always been to support teachers as they grow and develop in their craft, and provide easy access to lesson plans, student-facing activities and other classroom resources that can make a difference in student achievement. Teacher Advisor cuts out the guesswork and provides tightly curated, reliable, pre-vetted materials that teachers can quickly access to help meet their students’ diverse needs.

Teacher Advisor is IBM’s first free, philanthropic Watson-enhanced education offering — and we’re very proud of that!

Q: Based on your research, what do K-5 teachers need and want in such a system?

A: A 2012 RAND Corporation study noted that in terms of math instruction, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor. That said, one key takeaway from the Roosevelt House meeting was that while there were plenty of tools for students and back-office functions, there was no free tool available that was specifically focused on helping teachers with their time-intensive work.

Teachers are often left on their own to face the demands of the profession, with limited time and resources, and without the ongoing training, support and consistent access to quality resources that they need. Supporting teachers in the incredibly important work they do was the obvious choice for us and our partners in terms of where to focus — and Teacher Advisor is our contribution.

What we’ve heard from teachers and other members of the education community since we officially launched 1.0 on September 13, 2017, is that Teacher Advisor is providing real value, and that they appreciate the teacher-centric approach we’ve taken in designing this powerful, user-friendly tool.

Teacher Advisor is particularly well-suited for providing supplementary lesson-plan materials; enabling remediation, differentiation or re-teaching; and helping teachers boost their content knowledge.

Q: How do teachers access this database?

A: It’s very easy to sign up for a Teacher Advisor account — it’s 100% free and takes only about 30 seconds to get access to everything we offer. Teachers and others can sign up directly and need to provide only limited information about themselves and their focus area.

Finally, Teacher Advisor is confidential and nonjudgmental: While superintendents and principals can access the tool, they cannot see how their teams are using it.

Q: Describe some of the resources available. Where, in general, have they come from?

A: The resources available through Teacher Advisor are unique for a few reasons. First, they are all standards-aligned and pre-vetted by a team of elementary education experts.

Second, the resources range from full lesson plans and student-facing activities, to teaching strategy videos and comprehensive standards information.

Third, we specifically designed the tool and the user experience to ensure that teachers never feel that they’re getting a single resource and that’s it — instead, we have linked resources to standards information, strategy ideas and related resources from other content providers.

Our content partners include EngageNY, AFT’s Share My Lesson, Student Achievement Partners, Achieve, Illustrative Mathematics and three state departments of instruction or education (Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina).

Across K-5, we offer more than 1,000 lesson plans, 4,000 student-facing activities, 300 tasks and 100 instructional strategy videos and pedagogy documents. Also, we regularly add content as part of our quarterly Teacher Advisor tool updates.

Q: Through your testing, what has been the feedback from users? How will this feedback refine the process?

A: Engaging directly with our teacher-users has been a top priority since Day One. In addition to meeting with teachers at national and regional education conferences, we regularly follow up with teachers who leave in-tool feedback comments, and also convene focus groups and webinars to speak directly with educators.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive and has in a very real way helped us determine what features to add. For example, teachers told us that they wanted a resources library, so we added the “My Library” section. Similarly, we added the ability for teachers to quickly and easily leave feedback for specific resources, if they so choose, to help the larger Teacher Advisor community.

Ultimately, teacher feedback will be used to further train Watson, which will lead to even more targeted in-tool search results.

Q: What’s next for the database? Will it be expanded to more grades and/or more academic subjects?

A: While our current focus remains on K-5 mathematics, we will continue to listen to our Advisory Board and teachers who are using the tool to determine what the next steps are in terms of adding content, grades and/or subject areas.

One possible addition is resources that help meet the needs of students with learning disabilities, as well as resources for English language learners — but this is still to be determined.

Q: How can teachers get more information?

A: The best way for teachers to learn more is by signing up for a free account ( ). After signing up, if teachers have questions or ideas for new features, we’d love to hear from them.