WWDC 2017

IBM, Sesame Workshops reveal AI & Apple iPad child literacy plan

IBM and Sesame Workshops introduce a Watson-based iPad solution to improve child literacy.

Apple, iPad, IBM, Sesame, Watson, Artificial intelligence, machine intelligence

WWDC 2017

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Machine intelligence has big implications for education, IBM claims as Apple revealed its AI plans at WWDC 2017. IBM Watson and Sesame Workshop this week introduced an intelligent play and learning platform on IBM Cloud.

Taught by machines

The system combines Sesame’s educational software with IBM’s Watson and apps running on Apple iPads to accelerate child literacy.

I spoke with Harriet Green, general manager of Watson IoT, Watson Customer Engagement and Education to get a sense of what’s at stake.

The Intelligent Play platform is Watson-powered cognitive vocabulary learning app designed to enhance early childhood education experiences. It’s being tested at Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools.

The idea is that children can use their Apple iPads and educational apps to learn words, with the Watson intelligence making sure the lessons each child is offered match their skills – it’s a good example of personalized education.

How does it work?

“The app uses adaptive assessments to determine a child’s current vocabulary knowledge, and then delivers learning experiences that focus on specific words that the child needs to learn,” Green explained.

“By merging Sesame’s deep industry expertise with Watson’s cognitive technology, the app is able to curate and present highly personalized experiences for the youngest learners, continuously assessing the child's word understanding, and refining content based on their interactions with the app.”


Watson is able to adapt the content in real-time based on each child’s performance, and continuously learn how to best present that content to suit his or her unique learning style.

The app also deepens teachers’ understanding of how students are learning. IBM and Sesame Workshop decided to tackle vocabulary first because it is a basis for literacy.

The cognitive vocabulary app is one of the first of many cognitive apps, games, and educational toys that will be built over time on this new platform, as a result of the two companies’ collaboration announced last year. There’s more information on this here.

The use of this cognitive technology is only the beginning of a project Green believes will be “transformative in early childhood learning”.

“With the ability to dynamically create more individualized lesson plans for students, the platform will be able to address each child’s strengths and identify areas they need more help with."

Does it work?

Green revealed promising results in the first phase pilot with Gwinnett County Public Schools.

“We found that the app is helping students acquire new vocabulary like “camouflage” and “arachnid”, and incorporate the words into everyday conversations,” Green said. “Teachers also saw that their students were highly engaged with the videos featuring Sesame Street characters, listening more closely and asking more questions.”

In part, this success is because Watson works with Sesame Workshops, a company with extensive experience in the childhood education sector, but Watson supplements these existing core skills.

“While most literacy apps rely on levels to incrementally increase or decrease the difficulty of play, Watson’s cognitive abilities enable apps on the learning platform to dynamically assess a child’s proficiency and appropriately adjust, all within that same level," Green said. Teachers have a dashboard that shows every child's progress through the list of words to provide a snapshot of where their class is at.

Where to next?

Machine intelligence is indisputably here.

In various forms it is already being widely used in the world around us, from bot-based customer services to network infrastructure and management to Apple’s new Safari tools that track the behavior of web trackers in order to protect your privacy – such implementations are merely the tip of an iceberg even climate denial will not melt.

“We’re already seeing augmented intelligence impact all areas of life, and all industries, from manufacturing to marketing to healthcare,” said Green.

Data is important. As more and more devices become connected the data they create will grow to staggering volumes (it already has).

To make sense of this information and to turn it into useful insights, “artificial intelligence will become the key,” she said.

Security matters

Security is essential in a connected age. The IoT means huge stacks of data will be available to machine intelligence analysis, insight and review.

In the case of the Watson based educational system, Green assured me: “This app and associated data are protected by IBM's well-regarded security services - the same services that protect most of the world's most critical information such as financial and health data.

" Security is “paramount”, she said.

There’s an ongoing argument concerning encryption and digital privacy, which is a “critical issue in the digital age,” said Green.

“Consumers should expect that their data is protected by the world's best security systems and that their own data is not used to advertise products or services to them," she said.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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