Innovations for Educators: IBM’s Teacher Advisor


Jan 19, 2018

Welcome to the first entry in our “Innovations for Educators” series, spotlighting interesting technologies that have the potential to amplify and complement the work done by educators.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us. From self-driving cars to voice and facial recognition technologies to computers that can compose music, AI stands to offer unprecedented convenience in our personal lives. At the same time, AI is also transforming the world of work. From helping lawyers scan hundreds of documents and predicting which are the most useful to a case, to helping doctors analyze massive amounts of data to develop treatment plans for patients, AI can perform in seconds tasks that would normally take hours of human effort.

Can teachers expect to benefit from AI’s timesaving capabilities in their classrooms? Although some fear that computers will replace teachers, AI’s capabilities arguably limit it from performing many of the intensely human aspects of teaching. As a result, teaching is hardly at risk of being automated away. AI does have the potential, however, to complement teachers in new ways that could radically free up their time to, well, teach.

Take IBM’s Teacher Advisor. Teacher Advisor is a free online resource that helps elementary school teachers plan math lessons. It houses a library of K-5 math open education resources (OERs)—including activities, lesson plans, and supporting materials—from organizations such as EngageNY, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, CPALMS, and UnboundEd. Teacher Advisor then uses IBM’s acclaimed Watson technology—a powerful computer system that can understand human language and is best known for its victory on Jeopardy—to analyze the massive quantities of information in the library and provide optimized search results.

How can Watson help teachers? The AI technology in Teacher Advisor allows teachers to search for resources and create lesson plans in a fraction of the time it would take them to do it alone. When a teacher conducts a search on a specific topic or keyword–such as division or place value–Teacher Advisor searches all relevant materials and provides the most pertinent lesson along with teaching strategies and supporting materials. Teachers can then use the lessons as they are, customize them, or just use individual activities within a lesson. And according to IBM, since Teacher Advisor uses AI, it will continue to learn and improve with use from teachers and other education experts.

While Teacher Advisor and other products leveraging AI have the potential to transform the lesson planning process, tools like this will need to prove their practical worth to teachers in order to gain widespread adoption. Arguably co-designing the tool with teachers will be a crucial next step. IBM has taken steps to ensure Teacher Advisor proves useful by working closely with groups such as the American Federation of Teachers and acquiring input from more than 1,000 teachers. The team is also continuing to seek teacher input, often reaching out by email to learn more about how teachers are using Teacher Advisor and what additional features they would like to see in the program. They’ve also added new features, such as the Student Preparedness tab, which provides teachers with prerequisite lessons to fill in students’ learning gaps.

Regardless of Teacher Advisor’s classroom success, AI holds the potential to shift teachers’ time in the not-too-distant future. Many in edtech celebrate the potential of adaptive learning platforms to change how students learn. But we should also celebrate AI’s potential to introduce crucial conveniences into teachers’ jam-packed lives. Hopefully, technologies like these can not only help teachers prepare better lessons, but also streamline the lesson planning process, in turn freeing up time for other important activities, such as working with students who need additional support. 

Are you a teacher who has used IBM’s Teacher Advisor or similar products? If so, we would love to hear your experience in the comments below.

As a research assistant on the K-12 team, Luis supports research efforts around the changing roles of teachers in blended learning environments and teacher professional development.