Concept: Watson, Pixar, and Kahn in the Classroom

A little fear mongering and then real excitement: The most disruptive innovation in all of human history may be underway right now, that machines and their owners are taking control of the future. Some go so far as to say human capital is moot. 

Erik Brynjolfsson, author of Race against the Machine, argues that if we work with machines rather than against them; in teams populated by humans and computers, there is a future for all. You can decide for yourself if his arguments hold up after watching the video at the very end of this post. The territory he explores is important, and will be discussed again in other posts, but here the practicum for such a proposal goes like this: A ‘Dream Team’ linking man and machine to implementing student-centric educational content could be formed with a few phone calls, placed by the right people. Who knows. Maybe Watson, Pixar and Kahn have already talked (not on your life).

Partner number one.  Enter, Watson technology. In the words of IBM:

“Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is a computing system created by IBM scientists that understands the meaning and context of human language, that can analyze data and learn correlations between data. The technology introduces the capability to sift through an equivalent of about 1 million books or roughly 200 million pages of data to provide instant answers to questions posed to it. With the amount of digital information being generated, stored, processed and analyzed each year growing at an exponential rate – and affecting every industry segment – there is a real need for businesses and governments to use business analytic technology like Watson to make sense of large amounts of data to achieve their goals.”

In November 2011, a symposium was convened for Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. Bright technologists got together to talk about human/computer partnerships and what the future might look like. On the table, among many other topics, was education.

If the reader has followed this series, she will be familiar with an emerging goal that cuts across many proposed new educational models. These models seek to create student-centric approaches, in a flipped classroom. In the near future, our best content providers, via online delivery architectures, will teach the lessons. This will free teachers to do one-on-one tutoring and special unit instruction. Each student’s capabilities may soon be addressed with a personalized learning path. The evidence is that many bright minds seem headed in this common direction:

“For fifty years the promise of computers in education has been the ability to provide each student with an individual tutor attentive to his needs,” said Raymond Ravaglia, executive director and co-founder of Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth. “With Watson’s QA capabilities, the promise that every student may some day have his or her personal Socrates is tantalizingly close.”

IBM’s Watson technology, and all those brilliant grad students in our best colleges, should work together to build a technical architecture that allows for individualized learning paths. The content is available. Individual intelligences can be mapped and supported. Many say it is going to happen with or without the support of the current leadership.

Partner number two. We live in an entertainment culture. Philosopher Theodore Adorno called it the culture industry. In our culture industry we have giants who can make fish speak, dinosaurs come alive, and help us see into worlds only the most visionary among us can imagine. Enter Pixar, the magicians who brought us The Incredibles, Monster’s Inc, Despicable Me, Ratatouille, Cars, Brave, so many more titles. Most recently they created Monster University. The trailer is included below.

Pixar has the ability to stimulate, amaze, and communicate ideas in ways that no other company on the planet can do. Hollywood in general is a world leader in cinema. If they had the incentive, Pixar, along with Watson, could transform educational content forever.

There are millions of pages of text books that could be deconstructed into succinct educational units, each customizable, modular, serialized, available on demand, and best of all, formulated for inclusion on custom learning paths customized to fit the individual needs of students.

Partners two, three, four and ongoing. Small independent teaching organizations like the Kahn Academy have been creating exciting online learning opportunities with a degree of flair and innovation, for years. They’ve gathered impressive data. Organizations like Kahn, and larger content creation organizations such as Apex Learning (blended and virtual opportunities), K12 (possibly the world’s largest), Connections Academy (virtual home schooling), are ready to begin filling the need for special content. Left to their own resources it will be decades before the job is done. We need stunning, high-profile projects to kick-start interest in funding.

The technology is already hear, and constantly improving. We can learn quickly to handle big data. We are the world leader in high-end entertainment delivery, and we have educators, CIS professionals, and dedicated teachers who are ready to compete on the global stage. The mash up looks something like this.

Step One:  The players begin discussions – big sky what if discussions facilitated in part by philanthropy. Disney and IBM could certainly fund this themselves but they won’t. Other players are needed.

Step two: A series of pilots could be created and distributed freely to test the model – algebra would be a perfect example because the curriculum is already well established. Kahn feeds Pixar the content, Pixar gives the lessons voice at Monster University (or anywhere else), the International Educational Data Mining Society is contracted to assist with big data, and our best interactive game designers help with the back end. Consulting with the Harlem Children’s Zone could inform the program in one direction while Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth could take it in another. Sound simple? Of course not, but actually, for these guys? Yes. It’s all doable. Unfortunately, this is America. If it were Brazil the will would be there to get started.

What is required more than the tactics and methodology, is that everyone understand what is at stake. Corporate America empathizes, they even invest here and there, but the truth remains. Millions of children are discarded every year in a system that can’t change fast enough and literally refuses to fix itself. Someone needs to be the seed crystal to force change, but who? Watson, Disney and others could set the bar as high as we want and win our admiration for generations to come.a

Could they afford this side project? Disney, Pixar’s owner, recreated the Wizard of Oz as Oz the Great and Powerful, and grossed $300 million in the process. The effort to change lives would take a fraction of the time.  IBM is making a smarter planet. Kahn is leading the way toward student-centric flipped classrooms. There are others who would give just about anything to be in ivolved with a project of this scope.

Woudl it make great PR? You can’t buy what this could do. For generation upon generation have talked about Fantasia, and millions remember their first ThinkPad™. Let generations to come recall the moment in time when these giants took on learning and piloted an interactive that took learning algebra or statistics an entirely new direction; interactive, totally involving, exciting in ways we could never have previously imagined – Watson, Pixar, and Kahn in the classroom. I can’t imagine a more exciting step in education reform. Make us smarter, IBM. Bring us from suck to unstuck, Pixar.

Read more:

First Academic Case Competition Proposes Novel Ways to Put IBM Watson to Work

University of Rochester Students Offer Game-Changing Ideas, Hone Analytics and Cognitive Computing Skills

The Watson case competition supports Simon School’s commitment to incorporating analytics and evidence-based reasoning across all areas of business ranging from marketing to economics and brand development to entrepreneurship. The initiative is part of IBM’s ongoing collaboration with educational institutions to strengthen science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

Monsters University – A Message From the Dean (Trailer for Pixar’s Monster U):

A free world-class education for anyone anywhere, the Kahn Academy. 

TED talk – Erik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machines:

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