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Can Artificial Intelligence Help Teachers Find the Right Lesson Plans?

Here's a new resource for elementary teachers looking for math resources and lesson plans—an online repository that uses Watson artificial intelligence technology. 

 advisor2.pngCreated by the IBM Foundation, Teacher Advisor with Watson—which is free for all teachers—spans kindergarten through 5th grade. It launched today, but has been tested by over 1,000 teachers across the country.

"You can type in anything and pretty much find what you're looking for," said Sheena Lee, an elementary English-as-a-second-language teacher in Boston, who tested the pilot version of Teacher Advisor. "It's already been vetted, which is huge. ... When you're looking at the grand scheme of time teachers have to plan, it's not as much time as teachers would like." 

Teachers can type in what they're teaching—for example, equivalent fractions—and select their grade level. Watson will recommend a targeted lesson, based on its knowledge of what other teachers have used and searched for, but will also include other lessons—all coming from vetted sources like EngageNY, the American Federation of Teachers' site Share My Lesson, and Achieve. 

The software also shows the accompanying Common Core State Standards, activities, and teaching strategies. And for every lesson, Watson identifies the prerequisites for the previous grade. Watson can even annotate videos to pinpoint the relevant parts—for example, with a 17-minute video, Watson would know that the 12-minute mark is relevant for the subject, and would have that part queued up and ready to go. 

Typically, Lee said, when teachers need a resource or lesson to supplement the school-provided curriculum, "you do some sort of search online and keep your fingers crossed."


See also: Choosing Online Curriculum: Tips From Educators


Watson won Jeopardy! in 2011, and since then has been advancing throughout industries—for example, Watson can help doctors diagnose diseases. (It's worth noting that there has also been plenty of criticism of Watson, with one influential investor calling it a "joke.") 

"Education is usually the last one in on any innovations," said Stanley Litow, the president emeritus of the IBM International Foundation, who drove the creation of Teacher Advisor. But he thought Watson could do significant good in the field, so he gathered education leaders and asked what one challenge they would use Watson to help solve.

People brought up issues like reinventing student testing or helping specific student populations, like those with special needs, but Litow said the theme of teacher quality and professional development came up "again and again." 

"In the education community ... hardly ever do you get everyone on the same page on anything," he said. "There's so much dissension on so many topics, but we feel like this is something that brings people together."

The IBM Foundation formed an advisory group of educators, which decided that Watson should start with elementary math lessons and resources, Litow said. He noted that it is easier to train the software to identify math search terms than those in English/language arts. 

Teacher Advisor took over two years to develop, and will always be free and provided directly to teachers, Litow said. It's funded through philanthropic support. Watson will get smarter at predicting educators' needs as more people use the software, he said.

 "The majority of teachers use Teacher Advisor because they need in-the-minute resources," he said, adding that he hears teachers say, "My problem is not that I don't have a place to go for finding stuff, my issue is that I'm overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I see, there's no vetting process, I don't want to spend the time to sift through all the different resources for quality control." 


See also: The Search for Common-Core Curricula: Where Are Teachers Finding Materials?


So far, the product has support from AFT President Randi Weingarten and former Education Secretaries Arne Duncan and John B. King, Jr. 

If this product is successful, Litow said the advisory group will discuss whether to next use it for higher grades in math or in other subject areas.

"We really feel like it's important to develop this solution in a collaborative way," he said.

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