Watson for i: Watson Education Can Bolster Employee Training and Skill Tracking

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Although designed primarily with educational institutions in mind, IBM Watson Education provides useful elements that can help improve job training efforts for corporate employees.

Although it's another of the Watson solutions that is relatively obscured by not being tied directly to IBM Watson's online product pages, IBM Watson Education is part of the Watson family of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings that has potential for use beyond K-12 and college-level learning environments. In fact, it includes tools that could help organize and improve job training and experience tracking for all employees in enterprise environments.

Tackling a Key Educational Problem

Whether it's in the corporate world or simply a typical grade-school environment, there's always been a universal problem facing teachers and others trying to impart information to students. The stumbling block is that students are only human, and as such they all have different interests, aptitudes, and difficulties in learning any particular kind of knowledge. Traditionally - for example, in high schools - teachers often react to this challenge by subdividing their classes into categories like "gifted" and "slow" learners. From there, the teachers try to formulate learning experiences that help each group progress. This works after a fashion with some students progressing and others failing, but it's imperfect because even within the class categories assigned to them, students remain individualistic. What works for some doesn't work for all.

While not yet widely adopted in the year or so it's been available so far, Watson Education now gives anyone in the teaching role a boost in helping personalize education for every student.

Watson Education's Components

Watson Education is made up of two main offerings, IBM Watson Enlight for Educators and IBM Watson Element for Educators. The whole system works by assimilating information about students from a variety of sources.

Enlight helps teachers analyze students and their strengths and weaknesses in a learning environment. A "Know Me" portion provides personalized profiles for each student that can show, for example, what specific concepts the student has mastered and which need more work. In addition, a "Guide Me" element of the Watson AI makes suggestions to the teacher for ways to provide more support to each student. Finally, a "Help Me" feature outlines personalized content and suggested remedial activities for each student, based on the student's profile.

Enlight embodies five major segments. The Watson Education Library, once established for a particular environment, displays textbooks, lesson plans, test questions, and similar content that conforms with state (or other) standards. The similarly named but separate IBM Watson Education Library segment provides more teaching materials and a set of tools that help analyze classroom resources in terms of content type, suitability for each student, academic standards, and other factors. Classroom Insights tracks individual student activities and progress to give teachers information about the academic, behavioral, and historical performance of each class. The Student Mastery segment tracks how each student is doing in understanding basic concepts well enough to cope successfully with additional learning that assumes competence in those basic concepts. The IBM Watson Education Analytics segment gathers data on each student with regard to interests, behaviors, social characteristics, demographics, and other data to formulate a profile of each student's capabilities and deficits.

IBM Watson Element for Educators takes a more holistic view of entire classes of students and is further enhanced by being an IBM MobileFirst for iOS application, meaning teachers can share data about students on iPad mobile devices. Optimally designed for typical school environments where multiple instructors are teaching the same students, the Spotlight segment lets each teacher update their peers about successes and difficulties being faced by individual students. It also provides a profile of each student that covers interests, experiences, capabilities, academic record, and other data that lets teachers access the same information about each student. A Learning Activities segment helps teachers collaborate on coming up with the best combination of activities to help each student learn in a way most appropriate for the student. The Learning Progress segment tracks student progress on individual objectives set for them by teachers and helps educators see at a glance where problems may be developing. Other features IBM mentions for Element are that it uses a variety of data sources, issues alerts, and notifications about student progress so that more prompt intervention is possible. Teachers can also compare how students are doing on assignments across classes and consult a daily personal calendar.

In a more general sense, Watson Education also lets educators add data from other systems to analyze additional environmental factors such as attendance, enrollment, dropout rates, and other data that can affect classes or individual students. Using cognitive tutoring, Watson eventually develops the ability to interact with students directly in natural language and helps guide them to correct some of their own educational deficiencies. However, Watson will probably never replace the human element in teaching.

Watson Education's Value in the Corporate World

OK, this may all be well and good, one might say, but how do Watson Education's capabilities apply outside of the standard educational system?

The most obvious way Watson Education can have an impact in the business world is in training employees to either do new work-related tasks or do better at tasks they're already supposed to be doing. There are plenty of scary predictions about how AI in general will destroy such and such a percentage of all jobs in the next 20 years or so. Those overlook the fact that humans on the whole are an adaptable bunch and that AI can just as easily help train the next generation to do more creative work while AI handles the currently time-consuming tasks that get in the way of that, such as recordkeeping and gathering research materials.

We can envision instead situations where a business decides it needs to retool for strategic reasons, whether that involves actually bringing in new equipment or simply adopting new business procedures that are more efficient. Watson Education, even used on a temporary basis, can help streamline a training program for the enterprise while providing a personalized learning environment for employees that can be more efficient than standardized "business seminar" approaches. The enterprise can get daily feedback on employee training progress, alter training strategies to work better, and maximize learning in the time available.

A forward-looking company that is actively interested in developing a growth path for its employees can use the student profiling tools (in a way that's similar to Watson Talent) to track employee interests, skills, and new training they've received both inside and outside the enterprise. That way, an HR department might, for example, determine when candidates for new positions might be found readily to hand internally, without outside recruiting. In addition, training for nearly qualified internal candidates could be arranged, possibly in less time than finding an outside candidate.

In a more general way, enterprises conducting research of various kinds can use Watson analytical capabilities to access technical information, simplify processes that require processing of large amounts of data, and facilitate innovation by providing better resources and intellectual tools.

It also opens possibilities of greater future collaboration between industry and universities to cooperate on teaching up-to-the-minute skills that enterprises need and to collaborate on placement of graduates in jobs for which they've been groomed.

As the impact of computer technology grows in the coming years, companies and those who seek to work for them need to find ways to reinvent themselves. For a new generation of workers who have been raised on technology, IBM Watson Education should be a useful fit for training workforces of the near future.

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at

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