Artificial Intelligence

Pearson to Add Watson Smarts to Online Courseware

IBM and Pearson will be working together to apply the cognitive abilities of IBM's Watson in providing tutoring to students using Pearson's courseware. The announcement came during the annual Educause conference, which took place last week in Anaheim, CA.

The idea is that students will be able to pose questions within their learning programs and Watson's natural language capabilities will translate those and supply answers. The data collected through that process will be accessible to the instructors, enabling them to understand what course areas are confusing to students and receive flags regarding students who need additional help.

According to the companies, Watson has already "read" the Pearson courseware content "and is ready to spot patterns and generate insights." Watson will evaluate student responses to provide "hints, feedback, explanations" and help uncover misconceptions.

Earlier this year Pearson issued a report examining the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to help students master subjects, a use for AI it referred to as "AIEd." In that the researchers suggested that AI could best be used "to offer learners educational experiences that are more personalised, flexible, inclusive and engaging." However, the report emphasized, "We do not see a future in which AIEd replaces teachers. What we do see is a future in which the extraordinary expertise of teachers is better leveraged and augmented through the thoughtful deployment of well-designed AIEd."

In an Educause session on the use of cognitive computing and cognitive neuroscience to transform learning, IBM researcher Satya Nitta recounted an experiment done last year at Georgia Tech in which a computer science course on artificial intelligence used Watson to act as a teaching assistant, "Jill Watson," and answer questions without telling the students. The goal, said Nitta, was "to see if people would notice the difference between human and computer tutors." The person answering the questions, he explained, "was not in fact a human, but a virtual tutor."

As explained in a university article on the project, the research team fed all of the questions into Watson that had ever been asked in the course's online discussion forum using a set of Watson application programming interfaces. "The world is full of online classes, and they're plagued with low retention rates," said Ashok Goel, the professor leading that course. "One of the main reasons many students drop out is because they don't receive enough teaching support. We created Jill as a way to provide faster answers and feedback."

Initially, Jill delivered "odd and irrelevant answers" to student questions, the research team acknowledged. But eventually, questions were being answered with "97 percent certainty."

When the students did find out the real identity of their ever-patient teaching assistant, the response was "uniformly positive," according to the university.

The Pearson project will attempt to replicate that work. "Teachers are the most important factor in delivering a great education. The partnership will support teachers by providing better digital tools and enabling personalized learning for their students," said Tim Bozik, a Pearson president, in a statement.

"The idea of having a built-in resource to help tackle the challenging questions college students get stuck on is amazing," added Harriet Green, an IBM general manager focused on education. "Our goal is for college students to feel empowered, improve study performance and assist educators with breakthrough academic content."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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