The world’s largest education company is leveraging IBM’s Watson platform as it tries to take college tutoring from campus libraries to the virtual world.
Pearson PLC is partnering with Armonk, N.Y.-based International Business Machines Corp. to use the Watson artificial intelligence product as an online tutor for college-course software. The companies recently announced a pilot project that’s already underway in the U.S. and is set to expand through 2017 and 2018.
Both companies declined to disclose terms, costs or revenue projections from the venture.
The project is part of Pearson’s efforts to shift its business into the digital age, as it struggles with slumping textbook sales and lower college enrollments in the U.S. IBM is seeking to drive revenue growth by developing practical applications for Watson, its software that wooed the sector five years ago by beating two human champions on the TV game show Jeopardy! The pilot is part of IBM’s Watson Education initiative, which is aimed at developing solutions for learning from pre-kindergarten to higher education and beyond.
“People learn better when they’re engaged,” Tim Bozik, president of global product at Pearson, said in a phone interview from Las Vegas, where the companies announced the agreement. “We both share a view that this is the kind of partnership that has large-scale potential.”
Technology companies including IBM and Facebook Inc. are increasingly using virtual agents known as bots to grow their businesses by interacting with customers in their natural language. Facebook’s Messenger service for example allows its users to place an order through 1-800-Flowers.com via a bot with artificial intelligence embedded in the platform. MasterCard plans to let its customers manage finances via social platforms in a similar way, through an artificial intelligence-powered chat interface.
As an online tutor, Watson, a similar messenger-based tool, promises to help students any time they need it while providing insight to professors about how students are learning, according to the companies. Students will be able to ask questions of the tutor, which is capable of responding with hints, feedback and explanations.
The partnership will initially be rolled into Pearson’s existing digital course software known as Revel, which integrates content, assessment and engagement as a complement to classroom teaching, Bozik said. Early feedback from students and professors has been positive, he said, and product development will continue with guidance from college, faculty and learners.
“One-on-one tutoring is the Holy Grail of teaching, and all educational approaches should be aimed at replicating this model,” Harriet Green, who heads IBM’s Watson Education effort, said in prepared remarks delivered in Las Vegas last week. “Advanced technologies can help us to understand individual interaction patterns and enable us to tailor educational content accordingly.”