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Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson Team Up for Personalized Learning

A new app is intended to "level the learning field" by giving teachers additional insight into their students' progress.

Photo: IBMSesame Workshop and IBM Watson recently completed a pilot in Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools of the industry’s first cognitive, tablet-based, vocabulary-learning app. The app, built on the companies' new platform for personalized learning and vocabulary development, is intended to "level the learning field" by giving teachers additional insight into their students' progress. We asked Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Todd Rose, who is also an adviser to the ongoing project and development of the platform, about the Sesame-IBM partnership and innovation, the connection to his research and work at HGSE, and what the future holds for the business of personalized learning.

There's a lot of products, platforms, and apps out there for kids to use and learn from. What is it about Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson’s that sets it apart? 

Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson are really making a longer term bet here with their new platform and the approach behind it. You see a lot of folks throwing the word "personalization" around, where it simply means that there is not a universal experience in place — one person can have a different experience with the product than another. But that does not make it truly personalized — and it does not make it smart.

Whereas through the computing power of IBM Watson and through the children’s interaction with the Sesame content, the platform they’ve developed will actually learn with the child, and be able to create a scaffolding for his or her learning that we have not seen before. This team has really emphasized the need to not just make a product, but to make it right — to care deeply about user experience, to have a deeper understanding of the research behind personalized learning and student interaction with vocabulary, and to facilitate better social interactions for children.

This is at the heart of what Sesame Workshop has done as an organization and it was interesting to be part of the creative tension creating a product that could make a difference and improve readiness in students even before they reach pre-K.

What is also beneficial about their approach is that down the line, eventually these apps, software, and experiences will be platform agnostic — meaning it doesn’t matter what kind of device you have access too, you can still use the platform and engage with it. Access and costs can be a challenge when rolling out these new types of innovations, but by showing what children can get out of it, it becomes less about the cost and more about the value and potential it holds for addressing long-term issues in early learning and education.

Are there any risks with introducing these types of technologies and innovations as a means to personalization?

I see two big risks to personalization at scale in our society, and I am excited about the potential this collaboration between Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson has to address them.

The first is really what I believe is a narrow, and unfortunately widely held, view of personalization. It’s not just different user experiences; it’s not just self-selecting into one of five categories of different types of learners and leaving it at that. We need more data, more cognitive architecture, and intelligent subsystems that can truly create a smart system that learns the details of how children are learning and interacting with content, what patterns there are, and can respond accordingly — that is what Watson brings to the table.

We need greater emphasis on the social nature of learning — and that has been the promise of Sesame’s brand from the beginning. I hope that we can begin to breakdown that narrow view of what personalization is and how we encounter it through this partnership.

The second are risks and fears behind data and privacy. Users need to feel comfortable that information about their child and their use of the program will not be sold or used for something else. And to a certain extent, that their child’s use of the platform will not be viewed as an assessment, or “test” of their abilities. 

How does your work on personalized learning dovetail with the efforts of Sesame and IBM?

Through my research and work here at HGSE, I’ve come to see three big challenges when it comes to personalized learning: scale, fairness, and

We need to scale personalized learning beyond those who are privileged — that access is very important. We need to be fair about how we are reaching people and who we are reaching. And we need an informed citizenry that decides where we go with personalization and are active participants in its development and implementation.

In my role as an adviser on this project, working with Sesame Workshop and IBM Watson on how they can continue to address these challenges is an important piece of the future of personalized learning and its continued role in and out of classrooms, across our lives.

Photo: IBM