Pearson, IBM Watson and cognitive enhancement technologies in education

An excellent piece reblogged from Ben Williamson’s (Stirling University) site on the coalescing of business, Artificial Intelligence, learning, data and governance – a definite recommend to read. These are some thoughts on what the implications of Ben’s post could mean for school architecture in the long term.

In some ways the implications of what Ben is writing about for students and education are very worrying. However, as well as monitoring and critiquing the development of Artificial Intelligence and new business models (as Ben does so well here), his post perhaps points to a role for re-asserting the value of physical, bricks-and-mortar schools and their design in principally social and sociable terms.

School architecture is often (and increasingly I think) expressed in terms that emphasise its contribution to learning. As one component of why schools are important that’s fine. But when definitions and, importantly, measures of learning are as narrow as they are in England, for example, there is a risk that schools are perceived, funded and built with a functionalist frame of mind: the measure of a good school building is its contribution to (narrowly-defined) learning.

In this sense, architecture becomes a technology of learning maximisation, crowding out schools’ social purpose and makes it harder to discuss what else schools might be about. If or when this added-value-to-learning approach to school architecture is shown to be outwitted by AI (by their own definitions of learning, of course), or schools are deemed to be unnecessarily expensive bits of real estate when Pearson et al can do it all remotely, then the (narrow) school design→increased learning argument will be challenged.

It’s easy to be alarmist with this stuff (another reason why the post is so good, it’s a very measured argument) but I think this is a debate worth having: What are schools for again? Is it principally learning? Rather than learning the kind of things that are algorithmically promoted or most amenable to forming the basis of a reliable performance measure, what do we want that learning to be about, with whom and how?

code acts in education

Ben Williamson

ibm-watsonImage: Atomic Taco

The world’s largest edu-business, Pearson, partnered with one of the world’s largest computing companies, IBM, at the end of October 2016 to develop new approaches to education in the ‘cognitive era.’ Their partnership was anticipated earlier in the year when both organizations produced reports about the future trajectories of cognitive computing and artificial intelligence for personalizing learning. I wrote a piece highlighting the key claims of both at the time, and have previously published some articles tracing both Pearson’s interests in big data and IBM’s development of cognitive systems for learning. The announcement of their partnership is the next step in their efforts to install new machine intelligences and cognitive systems into educational institutions and processes.

At first sight, it might seem surprising that IBM and Pearson have partnered together. Their reports would suggest they were competing to produce a new…

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Author: Adam Wood

Education researcher - school architecture. Blog:

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