Thursday, February 17, 2011

What IBM Watson means for learning, education, and instructional design

During the NFL Playoffs, I started to see IBM's commercial for Watson. I was interested for two reasons...first, it didn't seem like appropriate placement for the commercial (my sister used to be a media buyer so I peripherally know too much about commercial placement) and secondly, I was having a hard time caring if a computer could answer trivia questions faster than a human.

OF COURSE we've gotten to the point that a computer can beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy. Isn't that what we've been working towards, since the beginning of computers? Haven't we been trying to get computers to handle sifting through large amounts of data and finding the correct answers at a much faster speed that we humans could do? Haven't we been trying to alleviate our burden of determining complex logic algorithms that lead to a "correct" answer? For questions that have a correct, single solution or, even for questions that clearly have a best answer, we have finally developed a computer that can more quickly and accurately come to that answer than most, if not all, of our brains can handle.

Yay us!

Now what?

The irony in IBM Watson being such a revelation is the juxtaposition with educational trends, specifically an increased emphasis on standardized assessment and testing. Just today in my Twitter stream, I'm seeing tweet after tweet about the US government's multi-billion dollar funding of "Race to the Top" and the emphasis on making our educational system more competitive with other countries on standardized tests. Guess what, everyone? We have actually built computers to do the work that standardized tests test for, better than we are able to do it.

So, what do we value? Do we want to continue to beat our heads against our own technological innovations and try in vain to measure ourselves against systems that will always be more efficient at performing the tasks that they are designed specifically to do? Or should we be thinking about what we, human beings, can do that no computer can? What makes us human? What makes us different from a machine?

We are emotional, creative, intuitive...we can solve complex problems with no clear right answer. We are social and thoughtful and we strive to create meaning where it doesn't currently exist. We are complex and complicated and messy and funny. Yes, we can be logical and systematic and we can memorize and recall our address where we lived in when we were 6 years old (6521 Ralston Rd, btw), but we can't always remember where we put our car keys.

I hope we never create technology that is so perfect in its humanity that we lose our own. For now, we've developed a technology that does something important: answers certain types of questions, faster and more reliably than we can. So let's stop focusing on trying to train our brains to work like IBM's Watson and instead focus on training our brains to handle the types of thinking and work that Watson can't. Let's stop focusing on standardized testing as the measure of educational success and let's focus on how we can get students to solve complex problems. Let's make sure they understand history...not so they can recall dates and names on demand, but so they can understand how the decisions of the past have led us to where we are and we can learn from the lessons of our collective history.

Let's reward risk-taking and innovation and bravery and determination. Let's instill lessons of compassion and responsibility and community and resilience. Let's facilitate communication and empathy and love. Yes, I said it: love. Let's start educating people, young and old, as people...not training them like computers or like cogs in the system. Let's think about education as a way of making us more human, not more like computers.

That, in the end, is what will save us in the Robot Revolution. In the meantime, I call Watson for my team in Trivial Pursuit.


  1. Koreen: Bravo on this post. In Illinois, teacher education programs are now trying to deal with students trying to pass the "basic skills" test. The pass score was raised, in part, as part of the "race to the top" application. The overall pass rate has gone from 80%+ to below 30% and minority students are passing at a rate (under 5%) that almost excludes them from becoming a teacher. The test has now become even more "high stakes" despite, as your post suggests, no correlation to the life of teaching. On the more reasoned side of standardized testing, DePaul U's decision to make ACT or SAT optional for applicants (see Chronicle article today) speaks to the limits of testing and how overvalued and misused it has become.

  2. Dave, thanks for your comment. Its really interesting to me, the values that we reward in the workplace in comparison to the values that we test and assess for in K12 and even higher education. While I, as a mom, want my kids to memorize their multiplication tables (which I think falls into the "basic skills"), I think an inordinate amount of time, especially in middle and high school, is still spent teaching "content." As a former secondary English teacher, I absolutely think skills like writing, research...even grammar!...are critical to success after kids graduate. So why is it so difficult to teach kids these basic skills? What is it about our system of education that still results in those kinds of fail rates that you mentioned? And more importantly...are the skills we're testing for REALLY the skills that predict or help ensure student success once they are graduate?

    I have lots of questions and opinions on the focus of education, but one thing is for sure. As new technologies emerge, new skills for us to master will emerge too. We need to determine our values in what skills are needed to prepare someone for success. We focus so much of K12 education on skill drills that we aren't spending enough time on teaching collaborative problem solving.

    We should assess kids on the things we value as a society. I'm not sure what our current testing focus is telling kids about what is important, but I sure don't think it represents the things that they'll be rewarded for outside of the classroom.

  3. The technology was good enough to beat Ken and Brad - but given the frequency of wrong answers that Watson didn't buzz in on tells that there is still a long ways to go in getting this technology to be able to provide reliable and accurate information.

  4. @New Buffalo: Agree that the technology is new and not there yet...but the point is, its getting there. Are our educational systems also changing to reflect our technological advances? I'd argue the gap is widening and widening...