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EDUCAUSE 2014: What IBM’s Watson Could Bring to Higher Education

Cognitive computing-powered tutors could spark a new age of discovery for students.

IBM's Watson, a cognitive computing system that simulates the human thought process, could soon be peering over teacher’s shoulders in classrooms, the company said at EDUCAUSE 2014 on Wednesday.

Several of IBM's top education leaders hosted a panel at the conference laying out Watson's trajectory in higher education. The cognitive computer’s ability to digest large data sets and communicate with humans could open new avenues for teaching, said Michael D. King, vice president, IBM Global Education Industry.

"I think the real impact on learning will start to come in the classroom, if you can imagine intelligent tutors — a system that can truly be interactive with the learner as they're engaging and learning the materials," King said.

Katherine Frase, vice president and chief technology officer of IBM's Public Sector division, said Watson is being used to help researchers process vast amounts of information. For example, IBM recently released the Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud-based analytical arm of the computer system that’s designed to help with scientific and educational research.

Watson’s role in this realm could be crucial because the amount of documented medical knowledge doubles every few years. By 2020, the American Clinical and Climatological Association projects that it will double every 73 days. Teachers face a similar challenge in translating that knowledge into lessons, Frase said.

Watson could lend teachers a hand by expanding its role as a search engine, returning not only the best answer to a question but also the logic for how it reached that conclusion, Frase said.

While IBM's team is developing Watson’s brain, scientists are achieving a better understanding of how the human mind learns, said Satya Nitta, program director of cognitive computing for education at IBM.

"Over the next decade, we'll know a lot more of the fundamental principles of how people learn," Nitta said, adding that this kind of information could translate directly into new techniques for teaching.

Through Watson’s ability to learn along with the learner, Nitta says, "we can fundamentally bring the element of discovery, surprise and exploration back into the classroom, and in the process, deeply engage the learner."

EdTech is providing constant coverage of EDUCAUSE 2014, including video interviews, session information and tons of photos. Keep up-to-date on all of our coverage by visiting our EDUCAUSE 2014 conference page.

Maxuser/ThinkStock
Oct 02 2014

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