Building My HI about AI: Part 2 with Maria Stavropoulus

Working at the District Level

In the first part of this series on building my HI (human intelligence) about AI (artificial intelligence), I interviewed a friend who is having an impact at the national level. Eric Nentrup is an independent education consultant and writer/producer who is part of the team that crafted Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations for the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. I next turned to someone I know who has been working in a school district that has found support from national organizations.

I’ve been collaborating with my friend and colleague Maria Stavropoulus for a few years on a project for the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), located in the state’s governor’s office. We’ve helped the NCBCE establish a network of student technology teams across the state and have provided guidance, coaching, and some curriculum development. I’m fine with the curriculum stuff—even for topics new to me like Information Technology Fundamentals—but when it starts getting highly technical I’m lucky to have Maria on my side. She has a whole lot of HI in a lot of areas and is a great thinker. She’s always able to come up with a different way to see an issue or a task.

Maria is an educational technology (EdTech) leader in Township High School District 214 in the Chicago area. She brings a range of knowledge and expertise from both the EdTech and IT sides of the house, and for much of the time I’ve worked with her she’s been sharing her growing interest and activity in AI—even giving me nudges now and then. Maria is a former board member of Illinois Educational Technology Leaders (IETL). IETL is the state chapter of Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and a professional association for K–12 EdTech leaders. She recommends the toolkit and guide that CoSN co-authored as a valuable reference for having conversations with educators in her district about AI.

It was fun to catch up with Maria and share my first steps with AI in a way many first-timers do—by giving ChatGPT a whirl. I told her that my experiences weren’t as fruitful as I had hoped because I was specifically working on learning activities for kindergarten and first-grade students. ChatGPT knew there were content standards, but it had a hard time describing activities that aligned with them or were at an appropriate developmental level. It also struggled to reduce the reading level of some passages I wrote to be appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds—something I heard AI could do.

“Were you using the free version?” Maria asked. As a newbie, of course, my answer was, “Yes.” “The free version is based on older data and algorithms,” Maria shared. “You’ll get different results with different tools.” Lesson learned. It also echoes advice from my colleague Eric Nentrup: Use different tools because you’ll get different results. I’ll remember that going forward.

Districts Write Procedures Based on State policies, but Not Too Many States Have Created Policies to Support/Monitor AI

I know about Maria’s work with CoSN in her state. I know she has an understanding of issues related to AI in this broader context as well as at a more micro level since she works with teachers and others in her district. She’s also teaching a course for Quincy University called Exploring AI and Understanding Your Human Potential. I began by asking her what some of the best advice is she has for state leaders about AI.

“Policies are critical, because districts look to the state for policies so they can draft procedures for implementing new resources like AI,” she said. Her concern, however, is that not many states have crafted policies to govern AI or to guide educators in its use. Based on an upcoming presentation she was working on about AI for local educators, as of September 2023 only two states provide guidance on AI—and only 11 were developing guidance. AI is moving quickly in every business sector, few states have taken steps to consider guidance for education.

State AI Guidance

In just a couple of weeks since talking with Maria and as of this publication, we’ve now found AI guidance from seven states, so state guidance is growing.

California: Learning With AI, Learning About AI
North Carolina: North Carolina Generative AI Implementation Recommendations and Considerations for PK-13 Public Schools
Ohio: AI Toolkit
Oregon: Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in K-12 Classrooms
Virginia: Guidelines for Generative AI Integration Throughout Education in the Commonwealth of Virginia
Washington: Human-Centered AI. Guidance for K-12 Public Schools
West Virginia: Guidance, Considerations & Intentions for the Use of Artificial Intelligence in West Virginia Schools

There are educators across the country who rely on state departments of education for guidance on issues like this, just as they have for past technologies, such as the internet and cell phones. In the meantime, school and district leaders are turning to a hodgepodge of resources, including vendors and even the press, to try to figure out how to implement AI in their classrooms. Maria’s recommendation, if you’re in this boat, is don’t wait for the national release of any overarching policy. Instead, first go to your acceptable/responsible use policy and see how it might or might not support AI and work from there.

A key consideration is data privacy, which more states do have laws about. AI is in your schools, whether you have procedures or not. How do you know data and information from your staff and students are being kept secure as they’re using AI? How do you know your staff and students are managing to keep data secure? Do they even know? How do you know a vendor that incorporates AI bots or widgets into other products is keeping that data secure?

She notes that all too often IT departments get requests from teachers and are pressured to purchase resources without adequate scrutiny. Sometimes these things are purchased at the building or classroom level without IT being involved. That throws out a lot more questions for Maria like, “Can it be supported in your technology environment? Will it run on the devices and network resources? Who’s going to provide technical support for it? With equity as a concern, will the resource work for every student? Will students who have an Individualized Education Program or other accommodations be able to use it?” Yeah, a lot of questions.

Of primary concern is what does it do with the data that students, teachers, and other staff are feeding into it? School districts that have already investigated technology and curriculum purchases through the lens of data privacy and security may have a leg up on others, but now AI has to be woven into those purchasing decisions.

Another recommendation is to go to your vendors right now and ask them what they’re currently doing about AI. Have they started to infuse it? Are they thinking about it? Maria talks to vendors for her district and she’s had responses from “It’s in the pipeline” to one that has “21 separate AI resources running in the background.” Twenty-one! Others are slowly releasing it—by tomorrow or by the end of the school year. It’s likely your students will soon have an AI chatbot as a tutor that “lives” within a learning management system (LMS) you’ve already adopted and it’s just going to be added as a feature without your district having the opportunity to go back and scrutinize the whole service. Or teachers will have AI lesson plan support within or outside of the tools they currently use. “The train,” she notes, “has already left the station.”

From an operational standpoint, it’s critical you have these conversations with your vendors. How do the vendors talk to each other? How do the tools talk to each other? What data are they sharing? What assurances do you have that vendors are keeping data secure? If they are relying on a third party to provide some of these tools and resources, how are they keeping on top of them to ensure secure data? She notes that you can build on experiences from past curriculum adoptions. Ask similar types of questions. It just looks different, because it’s AI.

I asked if Maria had a good checklist or rubric to support decision-making when reviewing AI resources. She couldn’t think of one right off the top of her head, so she generated one to help you get started. Thanks, Maria!

Table
Table

District Leaders Should Partner with ALL of Their Departments, Not Just IT

Once again I learned that vendors play a crucial role in the development and deployment of AI resources. Education leaders can talk to vendors, but they can’t always control the actions vendors take or the decisions vendors make. So I asked Maria for advice on what district leaders can do in their district with the people they can influence.

Maria didn’t hesitate a second and noted that district leaders need to partner with their departments—all departments—to consider how AI might impact their work. It could be teaching and learning, transportation and maintenance, or the business department. AI is not just the purview of your technology department. She said that all of the district’s departments need to be having “the AI conversation.” That’s because it’s already impacting your systems—whether you have considered it or not.

Like me, you may be more familiar with the AI in our daily lives—Google Maps plots your route home, spell-checkers clean up your emails, word-prediction suggestions speed up your text messages, or maybe your rely on Siri or Alexa to tell you the weather or start your favorite playlist. The data we have been feeding into those systems has been training and customizing them and the way they interact with us for years. Maria said, “We all have that responsibility to start understanding what it means for us personally, as individuals first, and then consider how that translates into our work.” She suggested expanding those considerations to your department, your team, and even globally for people like you. It’s all moving so quickly that she encouraged due diligence to stay informed and keep up with it.

While all departments should be having “the AI conversation,” it is vital to keep technology departments looped in. They should be at the table, for example, when doing curriculum adoptions through teaching and learning, because they’re likely to include technology-based resources that contain AI moving forward. Take the popular Khan Academy that just released its AI tutor Khanmigo. And if the technology department can’t always be at the table, they might be able to check in at critical junctures and provide guidance and tools to support decision-making. Working in a technology department, Maria jokingly noted that technology teams are often viewed as the “No, nope, just say no” team. She says they don’t try to be that way. Instead, they need other departments to understand privacy and security issues and that the entire system is focused on protecting the PII—or personally identifiable information—of students and others.

“Sometimes I think the smaller districts do a better job at it if they have enough leadership that is proactive versus reactive,” she said. Larger districts can have more turnover and sometimes, she observed, things slip through the cracks. These issues can be swept away due to the “It’s not my job. It’s somebody else’s job” syndrome. She suggests this issue is likely at all of our jobs but we can all be diligent. “Use your resources. Find things in supporting documents. Identify and question things. Talk to your peers.” These are all ways we can be diligent about keeping on top of AI and how it’s being used.

If you’re in a district where you’re not exposing your staff to AI, Maria recommends you start at the top. “You can either partner with external consulting firms for structured AI training tailored to your district’s needs or leverage your internal talent to create a customized AI professional development program. Both approaches offer unique advantages, whether it’s accessing specialized expertise or fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptability within your team.” But they have to have some understanding of AI first.

Focus on Instruction

Of course, your teaching and learning staff need to understand how their practice might have to change. For example, how do they shift the discussions they have with students? With other teachers? With parents? They need to understand how the tools and resources they are using might be incorporating AI. She notes that if you haven’t been focused on personalized learning, now more than ever you will be personalizing learning.

Personalized learning and the resources that support it have pushed data privacy laws and policies. AI ramps up the importance of following procedures to keep data safe and secure. AI is going to be embedded in all kinds of resources teachers use—their LMS, search engines, record-keeping tools, and even productivity suites like Google Workspace and Microsoft Office. If a student or teacher is using one of these resources and entering pirvate information or student identifiers, according to Maria, “we’ve got issues.” For teachers, that means what you have in your online storage, the information in your emails—perhaps information about students—all has to be kept secure.

Truly personalizing learning can yield benefits, though. Schools and districts that do it well have already seen those benefits. Just like when I was talking with Eric[DBH3] , we came across the “If you can Google it …” question. If you can, it’s not a great assessment. Now with AI, if you can get AI to answer it, consider turning it around. Asking students to write a definition of new vocabulary and use it in a sentence, write extemporaneously about a topic, or even complete a cookie-cutter science lab report are all tasks GenAI can do for them in a matter of seconds. But teachers may be surprised by the suggestions they might receive asking a GenAI tool to generate classroom activities that could replace these activities. Vocabulary practice could become collaborative storytelling. Students older than 13 might use AI to brainstorm ideas and create an outline for a writing assignment that includes peer review all supported on a collaborative document. Students might create their own labs to demonstrate their understanding of a topic. None of these ideas will be a stretch to most teachers and may just be reminders of more personalized learning opportunities.

When we truly personalize learning, we can move beyond auditing student recall and foundational skills. Maria is excited about the ability for AI to help generate opportunities to help students develop their critical thinking skills. It’s going to be necessary in some fields, as technology is not just replacing labor-intensive jobs but is supplementing or supplanting decision-making positions and creating the need for differently-skilled workers. Quoting The Future of Jobs Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum, Maria said many workers “will need to upskill and reskill to remain competitive” and there is a growing need for “soft skills, such as creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.”

Teachers are often called upon to be creative problem solvers and to think critically. That’s because we work with humans—a wide variety of humans—and all their complexities. As Eric did, Maria sees the potential for AI to support education by completing some of the administrative tasks people don’t really need to do or by using it to assist in these tasks so we’re more efficient and effective. That leaves teachers to do what they do best, teaching those humans—but doing so with an assistant that’s going to take care of the little things that could otherwise sap your time.

Getting Started as a Teacher

Where to start? What if you are a teacher and already have all these other things on your plate and it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day? Maria echoes advice I received from Eric: “Jump in and try a few things, but use it for personal reasons first. If you’re comfortable with that, consider how those resources can help you with your instruction. Keep talking to it. Keep prompting it.” Maria said, “I love that it doesn’t get mad at me. I rephrase the question when I don’t get what I want, but that helps me get better at prompting.”

Prompting is an important skill in using AI. It’s strategic. In some tools, like Chat GPT, the user has to create the prompt. But there are tools like Magic School AI where it provides a template so users can build better prompts. It may ask, “What grade? What’s your goal? What are you looking for?” She compares that process to building a website from scratch versus using plug-and-play elements you can drop into a website template. Some people will need the template but others will not.

There will be users at different levels—from those who “geek out about AI” and want to have full control to those who will benefit from a template. Maria says the templates are a great way to get some people started. “Not everybody has to be a coder, or a developer, or a prompter of AI. They can use the supports that are built into some of the tools, whether it’s an adult, a child, or somebody in between.”

The course she’s teaching for Quincy University has 15 teachers and counselors exploring and using AI in their own practice. They recently completed an assignment anyone can do and it would be a good group project for any district or school trying to learn more about AI. She asked them to review all of the curricula that is being used in their line of work and all of the tools being used with their students. She told them to look for AI infused into tools. She challenged them to find AI elements and determine how it was being used right now. She also challenged them to think about how it might it be used. She asked them to evaluate how it might be used more effectively and efficiently. She encouraged her teachers and counselors to talk to their peers and also to students to see how they might be using any of these resources. “It’s important to talk to the students, because sometimes teachers assign things and don’t realize there are more ‘bells and whistles’ on there, but the students always find everything.”

She urges her teachers and counselors to build a more global perspective on AI and its uses. If they haven’t yet capitalized on these tools, she encourages them to go further to find out what is available. They are encouraged to start with something relevant in their practice and then go a step further with their students and create some acceptable classroom procedures that incorporate AI. By doing that, they are generating samples that can later be shared in their own schools and districts.

She shared one last activity that is not only fun but actually accentuates the idea that AI is more than just a text generator. There’s a lot of focus on plagiarized text right now, as my friend Eric noted, but AI can create a range of content in different media formats that can be used to explore, encourage, or reflect on new ideas. Maria had her students use a prompt to create an AI-generated photo. Using Adobe FireflyCanva, or Microsoft Bing and the prompt “A (color) (animal) eating (food) in (destination)” her students could generate images of a purple goat eating pizza in Rome or a pink giraffe eating macarons in Paris. She shared one of the images.

Make a Fake graphic using a prompt

It was great to have a fun ending to our conversation and to understand that not all is doom and gloom in AI land. I told her my next step was to dump our recorded chat into Otter AI so it could generate a transcript. “I’m so proud of you,” she beamed. “This is how it starts for you.” And, you know, I guess it is.

John Daniels and Eric Nentrup

This is the second in a series of three interviews on my path to learning more about AI. Next I will share what I learned from John Daniels, an EdTech coach at Newport Elementary School in Carteret County, NC. I have been working with the EdTech coaches this year and AI is a popular area of interest amongst them. John Daniels has taken it a step further and is presenting at the North Carolina Technology in Society (NC TIES) conference on how he uses AI with teachers in his school.

If you missed the first one, this conversation started  with an interview with my friend and colleague Eric Nentrup, who is one of the authors of Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations and has more publications forthcoming.

Discover more about Maria Stavropoulos, an EdTech Specialist dedicated to enhancing education through technology in the Chicago area. Beyond her daily role, Maria is an active participant in the tech community, often sharing her insights at esteemed conferences like IDEAcon and CoSN. Connect with Maria on LinkedIn or via Advanced Learning Partnerships.

Build Your Own HI about AI by Exploring these Resources Maria Mentions

Please note: not all resources are free

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations f from the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education

The Future of Jobs Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum

Consortium for School Networking toolkit and guide

Illinois Educational Technology Leaders (IETL)

Khan Academy’s AI tutor Khanmigo

Magic School AI provides templates for prompting

Generate images with Adobe FireflyCanva, or Microsoft Bing[CH5] 

Building My HI about AI: Part 1 with Eric Nentrup

Introduction to this Series

It seems like I can’t go a day without hearing about AI—artificial intelligence. It shows up daily in my education blogs and e-zines; in the general news; my friends and colleagues bring it up; and it’s in books, movies, and TV shows. When my friend and colleague, Dr. Caitlin Howley, asked me if I would write about AI, I had to pause. I have tinkered with some AI engines, but I readily admit that I am not an expert. Why should people believe me about AI? I’m a newbie just getting my toes wet. Luckily, I know several people who are not newbies, and in fact, can probably be called experts in a field where expertise is changing every day. They have what I will now call HI—human intelligence—about AI. So, this is the first in a series of blog posts about AI intended to help me—and hopefully others—build some HI about AI based on advice from different experts in the field.

While AI has seeped into almost every industry, this blog series is geared toward AI in education. All three experts I interviewed are current educators or education consultants with much greater experience and knowledge about AI than me. I already had respect and appreciation for their work, and it was fun for me to learn some more about this rapidly evolving topic from people I trust. I hope you find it helpful as well.

This blog series was written for the Region 8 Comprehensive Center and is cross-posted on their blog.

An Expert at the National Level

I started my HI journey with Eric Nentrup. I know Eric for his filmmaking skills as we worked together on a project in a large urban school district on the East Coast this past year. We got to visit some great teachers in their classrooms; I interviewed them and Eric created fantastic videos. Eric calls himself a storyteller, and he truly is. His films prove that. A former English teacher and administrator, Eric also goes by the more formal titles of educational consultant and writer/producer.

Many people in the education sector know Eric through his work following his teaching career, working broadly in educational technology (EdTech), and more recently as an education consultant focused on AI’s impact on the profession. He is part of the team that wrote Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations for the Office of Educational Technology (OET) at the U.S. Department of Education. This team is currently working on additional guidance documents for the OET, so be on the lookout for them.

AI is Not Just ChatGPT

One of the first things Eric cleared up for me is that the now familiar AI engines that some of us—along with our students—have found and use are not all there is to AI. Eric notes that these tools, such as ChatGPTPiClaude, and others rely on AI components and give us a way to interface with it. As Eric points out, when we’re working with ChatGPT, “We’re experiencing the superficial layer—and often not aware of the large language model beneath it and how it came to be.” There’s much more to AI than a search tool.

Eric shared that when people refer to “AI” these days, they are usually talking about generative AI (sometimes called GenAI), tools that can create—or generate—text, images, audio, and other content. In fact, while writing this piece, OpenAI introduced their next product, Sora, which can accept text prompts and turn them into realistic videos that are just as—if not more—stunning than what other recent tools have produced. GenAI has been made possible by large language models (LLMs) that are “trained” with an inconceivable amount of information so that they can then respond to your prompt, craft a picture, or create that video for you. He describes AI as the “big umbrella,” and underneath that umbrella are multiple disciplines, which are complex in their own right. These include machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, deep learning, neural networks, and more—far too many things for an AI newbie to explore.

The takeaway for me, however, is that these components of AI are everywhere, not just in education. There are a lot of moving pieces that are changing every industry under the sun. AI is changing medicine, transportation and shipping, marketing and advertising, coding, the arts, and even political discourse. It’s impacting the tools, processes, and information we use every day.

Eric makes a great distinction between fads, trends, and paradigm shifts. He said, “Ignore the fads. Trends are where we do most of our work. Paradigm shifts do most of their work on us.” Generative AI is the latest paradigm shift, but he notes, “You don’t have to be full-time into AI. You’re already benefiting from it. You’re already using it. You’ve already been exploited by it.”

Ack! Exploited? What am I supposed to do about that? Eric’s advice: “Every time you’ve been surprised by an astute music or product recommendation from your favorite platforms is an example that your contributions to training Apple or Amazon or some other organization’s algorithms have made that technology more useful to you—and conversely, more apt to give those companies your money! So, stay curious. Don’t be afraid. Don’t dig in your heels. It’s better to learn to swim, even if it’s in the shallow end.”

Eric referenced a helpful metaphor he used in the report for the OET. “We should think about AI in education like we have other automation examples. As teachers, we can harness AI-enabled tools that are more like an electric bike and less like a Roomba. One amplifies the efforts you put into your craft, while the other is a delegate for your most menial tasks. Though the latter is helpful, the former is more exciting to ponder.”

Educators Aren’t Looking at the Right Thing

Eric is worried that the initial knee-jerk reaction to AI by educators is drawing away focus and energy about the potential for AI to support and even improve teaching and learning. “Initially, people were not paying attention to the right thing. They were obsessed with trying to prevent things like plagiarism instead of seeing this as a chance to usher in teaching and learning strategies we’ve desired for decades,” he said. Another early reaction to ChatGPT as an example of mainstream AI that could affect education was the fear of replacing teachers. This is an ongoing complaint about new technologies that was levied against technologies such as radio, television, and, of course, personal computers. Eric notes, “We can acknowledge such fears or frustrations without promoting them as foregone conclusions. The tasks and the job are going to change just like they always have. This is a reminder that as educators, we are purveyors of change.”

Together we lamented this same cycle that, historically, has caused people to react defensively and try going the route of banishing the new technology rather than exploring its potential. I shared my experience of creating a performance assessment for whether schools should or shouldn’t allow cell phones in schools—in 2010(!)—and the issue is still alive today. More and more school districts and even some states are exploring banning a part of their students’ daily lives that they have grown up with and have always known and used in every aspect of their life …except in school. Can we not do that with AI, please?

Eric had a great suggestion to shift the focus from obsessing over plagiarism and instead leveraging AI to promote teaching and learning—for all students. He suggests that educators “should instead invest that energy into redesigning their assessments.” Remember when we used to say, “If you can Google it it’s not a great assessment?” AI has upped the ante on that one. Eric notes that we know a lot about how to design more relevant instruction and assessments. We have proven design practices such as backward design. We just don’t always follow through with best practice. Now’s our chance.

Image of an instructional coach working with a teacher generated by AI on 3/14/24
Image generated by AI on 3/14/24

I’m all for it. I taught music. I never gave my students a multiple-choice test. They always had to perform, at least something. Teachers in the arts and career and technical education understand this. The best way to show you can wire a house is to wire a house! I carried this practice over to the graduate students I taught in an educational technology class. I told them the class was based on the philosophy, “You won’t be asked to fill in a bubble sheet to teach a kid. So multiple-choice assessments aren’t appropriate in my class. Instead, you have to show me what you know.” Maybe AI will help us finally get to the point where assessments become relevant teaching tools rather than an audit of low-level knowledge and skills.

Promoting Equity with AI

I mentioned that AI is not just an education sector thing. In fact, education is probably one of the last sectors that everyone in the generative AI disciplines is worried about. AI has the potential to change fundamental business models. It has the potential to eliminate formerly lucrative careers and spawn new ones. That all means money—so people are moving full steam ahead to try to figure this out! Educators and their AI considerations may be on the back burner.

That’s an issue for educators like us. Because these LLMs and the other resources being developed and honed are not necessarily being developed with all audiences and populations in mind. A foundational pillar of our education systems is the concept of equity—equitable access to educational experiences and resources for all students. Eric warns that equity was not always at the forefront for everyone who generated these LLMs, and educators need to be aware of this when incorporating AI into teaching and learning as well as other areas such as discipline and even surveillance. “Employing emerging technologies with good intentions doesn’t equate to protecting a student’s civil rights. I’ve learned to consider impact over intentions and it directly applies to AI in education,” he said.

There are many people who raise the concern of bias in AI. A quick internet search about bias in AI finds dozens of scholarly articles and reports from respected organizations. They note that these engines “learn” by using data and relying on algorithms to make decisions about that data. If the data used wasn’t representative of multiple viewpoints or populations, the system generates biased output. Bias and stereotypes can also be perpetuated through the way AI has been coded and the algorithms it is programmed to use, whether those doing the coding realize it or not. Humans can also perpetuate bias and stereotypes when they take this content forward in their thoughts, products, and actions. So, what do we do about that?

Eric suggests that reducing bias has to start with the vendors. Educators need to be savvy when talking with vendors about where the data comes from in the AI products they use. Does it take multiple viewpoints into consideration? Does it take into consideration underrepresented populations? And then how is the new data that users generate being used? Educators should require significant transparency about where the data in AI tools comes from and how it is used.

How Educators Can Get Started with AI

While educators may not have much sway over determining how GenAI is trained, especially with an eye toward equitable representation, there are things Eric suggests educators at different levels can do to explore AI and to begin to harness it in their own work. I asked him to break it down into three levels: state, district, and school/classroom.

State Level

Eric said that at all three levels, there is already a growing body of resource materials about AI. In addition to the report Eric contributed to, the new National Educational Technology Plan has also been released. It’s the first revision in seven years and truly necessary because of the rapid changes in technology—not just technology’s capability but also how the way we use technology continues to change. Eric referred to the new plan as “your broad syllabus” and it includes information from the AI report he helped produce.

Eric noted that AI and the Future of Teaching and Learning is just the start of guidance from the OET. There’s a developer’s guide available and a toolkit forthcoming. And there are education-friendly organizations providing advice to educators at all levels. He suggests paying attention to the work being conducted by EDSAFE, which is focused on the issue of equity and supporting research on AI to generate greater trust in its use in education. He’s also a fan of educators like Amanda Bickerstaff and her AI for Education work. As always, it’s good to find some experts you trust so you can keep your thumb on the pulse of what’s happening.

District Level

In addition to keeping informed about the development of AI through trusted organizations and experts, Eric suggests district leaders focus specifically on what they need to know to employ AI—or any new or emerging technology—to become more effective and efficient leaders. He stresses that AI should promote teaching and learning, and district leaders have to build a background to understand how AI can support and even improve teaching and learning.

Eric recommends district leaders ask themselves three questions:

  1. Are we doing everything we can to empower teaching and learning to increase the academic offerings we have, regardless of age, grade, or learner pathway?
  2. Can we find evidence-based solutions that provide finer offerings for all interest-based aspirations?
  3. Can we personalize learning to the extent possible without increasing the burden on the teacher or student?

Eric warns, “Don’t let the tail wag the dog!” Focus on teaching and learning, and doing so in a way that keeps everyone and their information safe.

School and Classroom Level

Reflecting on his early classroom days teaching at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in Indiana, Eric recalled an internship program with a local IT company, the Kinney Group. One statement still resonates with him from the group’s leader, Jim Kinney, who said, “If you automate the mundane, you liberate the people.” Eric notes that’s a practical place to start for educators who want to begin using AI in their daily work: delegate what you safely can, and recover instructional time and relational growth with students.

Eric said that if he could “automate the mundane for himself,” he’d give himself the liberty to reallocate those energies and resources elsewhere—whether that’s time, energy, or money. Classroom teachers can find AI resources to do that in their daily practice right now. One example Eric shared was simply making information available to a young person, which is the bulk of what most teachers do every day. Eric notes that for some time, we have not needed to be information disseminators. Many teachers do enjoy delivering content directly, but there are now multiple resources that can do that for us, especially through GenAI. Although, he does not discount the “value of an experienced human sharing what they know.” Like Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at Stanford (2014), Eric notes the most critical element in a technology-enhanced learning environment is still the teacher.

But what if you’re completely new to AI? Maybe you even have your doubts or concerns about it? Eric says a good place to start is to play around with some of the apps built on top of the most popular LLMs. Many of us may have heard about ChatGPT, but it’s only one resource. He suggests starting with ChatGPT, but then you should also try out some others. If you’re “risk adverse or feel intimidated” by the buzz you’re hearing about AI, Eric recommends trying one that’s “a little bit more warm.” Try Pi, which he says makes an excellent thought partner and sounding board to generate momentum on a task.

“And if that was fun, get in the middle and try Google Gemini or Anthropic’s Claude,” Eric said.

He suggests newbies, like me, should work on building a baseline, rudimentary understanding of what interacting and playing with these LLMs is like—and that means experimenting with several in a safe, personal way.

He had one last suggestion that is especially salient for those who might be a bit reluctant to explore new technologies. “Ask yourself, are you a more hands-on heuristic learner, or are you happier being a spectator?” If you’re a spectator, find peers you can work with and “look over their shoulder to see how they approach this stuff.” Eric notes it has been most informative for him to watch others write prompts to get different results from LLMs and see how they might apply to his own work. See, even with his experience and expertise, Eric is still learning with others. We can all do that.

Next Up: Maria Stavropoulus, then John Daniels

In the next post in this series, I get to share advice from another good friend and colleague—an EdTech director in a school district. Maria Stavropoulus not only helps teachers in her district explore the uses of AI but also collaborates with other EdTech directors across the Midwest through work with the Consortium for School Networking. After that, I’ll talk to a new friend, EdTech Coach John Daniels, who works with teachers daily at his elementary school in Carteret County, North Carolina, and is exploring the value of AI with teachers in his school.

Want to know more about Eric Nentrup? Eric is an independent education consultant and writer/producer specializing in emerging EdTech at the intersection of policy and practice. You can find Eric on LinkedIn or through Advanced Learning Partnerships.

Build Your Own HI about AI by Exploring these Resources Eric Mentions

Please note: not all resources are free

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations f and the National Educational Technology Plan from the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education

Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning (2014) by Linda Darling-Hammond, Molly B. Zielezinski, and Shelley Goldman

EDSAFE focuses on equitable outcomes for all learners

AI for Education from Amanda Bickerstaff

ChatGPT (if you can, check out different versions to see what they offer)

Pi (also comes as an app for your mobile device)

Anthropic’s Claude

Create video from text with Sora

Google Gemini

When I was a “lower level” student.

How teacher language impacts student achievement.

I have recently come to the realization that, yes indeed, there are some words that actually “trigger” me. I don’t need a time out when I hear them and can recover on my own, but now being back with educators in person certain words definitely stand out as triggers for me. Before I get to those, a story.

Prior to matriculating to junior high, my sixth-grade teacher decided that I was a “lower level” student in English and shouldn’t be able to be in the “advanced” English class. Years earlier, thanks to my parents filling our house with books, I entered kindergarten reading at a third-grade level. For years my English teachers sent me to different classes at reading time because I had already read all of the books in kindergarten, or first, or third grade, and so. In the fifth grade, I tested into and was able to attend my district’s gifted-and-talented program. So, in sixth grade, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable. Instead, I was pretty social in class (okay, very social) and an excellent procrastinator. I believe I could claim I was an “advanced” student of procrastination. Therefore, my sixth-grade teacher labeled me “lower level” and sent me on.

The “lower level” English class—technically the “intermediate” class—was a dramatic and, I would argue, a damaging experience. It would have had tremendous, long-term negative impact on my school career and beyond if it had not gone through a course correction two years later. It didn’t show up as a problem on my report card, as I easily earned the highest grades possible in that class. However, my seventh-grade English teacher, thanks to my being labeled “lower level,” subsequently had much lower expectations for me and all the other “intermediate” kids.

It’s not like I didn’t know what the students in the “advanced” class were doing. They were all my friends! We had been hanging out together for years, and I spent most of my day with them outside of English. They would tell me what they were learning in that class and I would think, “Wow, we’re not doing any of that!” They had the very same teacher I did, just one period earlier.

I remember distinctly when they told me about the phone lessons at lunch one day. One of the skills my “advanced” friends were taught was how to answer the phone—using a classroom set of rotary phones. Maybe they were expected to be…what? Receptionists? Legal assistants? Do CEOs have to answer their own phones? Maybe. I don’t understand why answering the phone was in their curriculum, but I was jealous.

Imagine my joy one day when I walked into my English class, literally as my friends were leaving, and the phones were on the desks! I actually told my English teacher, “Finally! We get to use the phones, too!” Her reply was that they had run over in the previous period, so she asked me to pick them all up and put them away. No phones. No fun learning. Back to being “lower level.”

I was automatically assigned the “intermediate” English class again in the eighth grade, my guess is with no consideration from my current English teacher and no influence by having top grades throughout the year. Luckily, in the eighth grade, I was assigned a more free thinking teacher. She pulled me aside at one point after class and asked me, “Why are you in this class? You definitely shouldn’t be in this class.” I told her the story of my sixth-grade teacher. She tried, but she wasn’t able to change my assignment that year. She did, however, work extra with me and assign me additional work to prepare me to re-enter the “advanced” track in the ninth grade. I am tremendously indebted to this teacher. Her willingness and courage to buck the system probably saved not only my academic career but led to the things I’ve accomplished in my professional career.

It took me several years to get caught up. My friends had actually learned a LOT of different skills in their “advanced” classes that I had never been exposed to. Many of the most notable were related to grammar. It wasn’t until my ninth-grade English teacher pulled me aside, heard the story, and helped me try to catch up to my friends. That work continued throughout high school. Again, it wasn’t that I wasn’t capable, it’s that the well-accepted cultural norm of one person deciding I wasn’t “advanced” pigeon-holed me in a place where I wasn’t expected to know some things or develop some skills—skills like using conjunctions and the proper use of the semi-colon.

There’s a coda. Because of a scheduling conflict, in the 10th grade I was put in a “basic” English class. Oh my word! If you thought the expectations for the “intermediate” kids was low, “basic” was like a different planet! I attended one class, immediately went to the principal’s office, and told them I wasn’t leaving until they put me back into an “advanced” English class. They could call my parents. They could assign me detention. I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving until I knew I never had to go back to that class again. Luckily, one English teacher agreed to add one more student to her already full “advanced” English class. She became one of the mentors in my life.

With those experiences in my own education and having the realization that if I had stayed in the “lower level” classes, even the “intermediate” class, my life could have been much different. I might have gotten into college, but not with the scholarships that I received. I wonder if I would’ve believed I could earn a Ph.D.? Maybe I wouldn’t have written the chapters, books, and research studies I’ve published. I certainly wouldn’t be asked to teach teachers! How could someone “lower level” have any credibility with teachers?

That’s why, when I am working with teachers, and one of them says to me, “This real-world technology stuff is fine for my advanced kids, but my lower-level students…” I am triggered!

I’ve heard statements like this so many times in districts across the country. We need to remember that the language we use has consequences. When educators use terms like “advanced” or “lower level” we immediately set up barriers for some students. When we describe a student as “lower level,” we are limiting our expectations for that student. And our students know it! They lower their expectations, as well. They know we don’t believe in them. I knew my teachers had lower expectations for me and so they didn’t even expose me to basic foundational knowledge and skills—like grammar!

We are all “advanced” at some things, and there are some things that all of us have to work harder at. If we want our students to do better, perhaps like getting higher grades or doing well on things like high-stakes assessments, let’s stop limiting them. To do this, all we need to do is stop saying a few words, like “advanced” and “lower level.” Removing these words from our vocabulary can remove limits to our expectations as well as barriers to every student’s potential.