In the Future Everything Will Learn
Friday, January 17, 2014

Each year, IBM releases a list of five innovations that it believes have the potential to change the way people work, live, and interact during the next five years. This year, the IBM researchers working on the “5 in 5” listing focus on the notion that in the future, everything will learn. 

According to IBM: “Driven by a new era of cognitive systems where machines will learn, reason, and engage with us in a more natural and personalized way. These innovations are beginning to emerge enabled by cloud computing, big data analytics, and learning technologies all coming together.” 

The number 1 item for 2014: The Classroom Will Learn You. And although the focus is on k-12, there are some implications for adult learning and the business world. Steve Harmm, strategist, writer, and videographer for IBM, writes on the Smarter Planet blog, “Today’s advances in computing, we’ll hold learning machines in our hands in the foreseeable future. And because of the nature of these machines, they’ll keep getting better at what they do. They’ll learn not just about us as individuals, but about the collective us.” 

Leading the research for IBM is Chalapathy Neti, director of education transformation at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Neti explains, “The rapid digitization of the education industry and the emergence of cognitive systems is already happening in parallel. Over the next five years, the two concepts will link, and personalized classrooms will motivate and engage learners at all levels: from a kindergartener studying the alphabet to a physics PhD candidate studying the finer points of String Theory.”

Pointing toward trends in massively open online courseware and mobile learning MOOCs, IBM envisions “educational institutions adopting cloud-based cognitive systems to collect and analyze all of this data over a long period of time—creating longitudinal student records that would give teachers the information they need to provide personalized learning experiences for their students.”


IBM sees the future of learning looking something like this. A system looks at a student’s learning records, and couples that information with data on her goals, interests, learning styles, and motivation. The teacher determines not only a personalized syllabus, but also the best way to present the content. The system would enable the student and teacher to spend more time interacting with content than finding or developing it.

For example, consider an eighth grader who struggles with quadratic and linear equations, but dreams of working in finance and likes to learn through games. Enter simulations to the student’s learning plan. Knowing the student’s goals, the teacher could seek input from partnering financial services companies to ensure the she is developing skills that would be relevant in the workforce.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Corporate learning executives (and suppliers) have been adopting talent management and learning systems that promise to do the very same thing for their employees.    

Check out IBM’s 5 in 5 video, “The Classroom Will Learn You” to find out more of IBM’s predictions on this trend. 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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