The next chapter of early childhood education may be coming courtesy of Sesame Workshop and the letters I-B-M.
Sesame Workshop, which has made the beloved children's education show "Sesame Street" for decades, and IBM's Watson — of "Jeopardy!" fame — announced Wednesday that they are teaming up to research new education tools. The firms will work together for three years to develop products for the classroom and the home, which combine the artificial intelligence prowess of Watson with Sesame Workshop's deep knowledge of how to teach to the preschool set.
The hope is that Watson, which can learn and adapt based on its user, will be able to adjust its teaching based on a child's skill level and learning style. Sesame Workshop has worked for years to provide a mix of learning styles in its flagship show, but is looking to do more.
"The show reaches all kids in the same way at the same time, but we know that the best learning is individualized learning; the show was never able to do that," said Jeffrey Dunn, chief executive of Sesame Workshop. "With Watson, we have the ultimate ability to customize the educational opportunity that kids can get."
With Watson's power, Dunn said, teachers and parents could conceivably get products that can learn over time with their child, staying just a step ahead to continue challenging them and adapt to the way they learn. So, if Johnny likes to learn through songs, while Suzie does better with puzzles, Watson may be able to adapt accordingly.
The two firms haven't yet finalized plans for any products, but offered up a few examples of what could be coming down the pipeline. For example, Watson could design an interactive reading app that adjusts based on a child's skill level and interests, said Stan Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs.
Or perhaps the technology could be used to make a really smart toy that can sense when a child has learned certain vocabulary words and can add more-difficult words into the mix as needed. Chalapathy Neti, IBM's vice president of education innovation for Watson, said that the artificial intelligence could even recognize physical objects in a room, and help a kid associate a written vocabulary word — "block" or "doll," for example -- with its corresponding physical object.
So much of the learning we do happens in the earliest years of our lives, Neti said. "Think about how children learn language. They start making up words but seeing them as a collection of different letters," he said. "We can start associating those sets with real objects and teach them which letters relate to those objects."
Litow, who was once the deputy chancellor for New York Public Schools, said that he also hopes Watson's technology can help teachers by providing learning tools that students actually want to use — and, most importantly, that produce high-quality education that works for them.
"Most of the research says it’s not just access that matters, but it's quality," he said. He and Neti said that they expect to start trials with teachers, academics and others to start testing products. All products, they said, will be designed to protect the privacy of the children playing with them while also providing an individualized experience.
"The best teachers are the ones that recognize that the individual level of each student," said Steve Youngwood, the chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop. "We all had that teacher that really knew us; this could aid a teacher to better know the various learning styles of their kids."
Dunn and Youngwood of Sesame Workshop said that they hope this partnership will lead to tech that can level the playing field for young children, by providing more tools that really work to help individuals succeed.
"There's still a limit on out teacher-child ratio," Youngwood said. "The question is how we can really personalize learning, scale that, and give more tools to teachers and caregivers to reach more kids in this country and around the world."
Neti, of IBM, said that he expects they will be involved in early pilots by the end of this year — with the potential for some commercialization by the 2017 school year.