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

Digital Literacy: A Moving Target

When I was in the ninth grade, I took a typing class. It was expected that most students in my school did. We did have electric typewriters back then, not manual, but they were definitely typewriters and not keyboards. My classmates and I learned about the home keys, and over the course of a year we learned the others and different conventions of typing. Typing was an expected skill for most students, so could be considered a basic literacy.

The author with his pal Max honing their digital literacy skills on their weekly Zoom family meeting.

Twenty years later, I was working on digital literacy training for school leaders. No more typewriters! It was all PCs now. I had just entered an elementary school in Georgia to visit with and interview an exemplary principal when we ran across a young man pushing a large cart of older laptops down one of the school hallways. The principal looked at me and said, “I’m having the old laptops sent to the Kindergarten classes so they can learn keyboarding now and really apply those skills next year.” Next year, as in the first grade! So much for the keyboarding expectations for high school students.

Travel forward another 20 years to a fourth-grade classroom I visited in Kentucky last week. Every child had a laptop on their desk and they were working away on several tasks comparing and contrasting Greek and Roman gods to prepare for reading one of the Percy Jackson novels. The students were going back and forth between a spreadsheet, some notes from online research, and the Canva website where they were using their information to create an infographic. One young man in front of me furiously pounded away on his keyboard about as quickly as I can touch type, but…he was truly a hunt-and-peck aficionado. Most of the students were. My typing teacher wouldn’t have liked their style. She might have gotten out the masking tape to cover their keys, but their method didn’t slow them down. I can’t imagine what they could do with their thumbs on a handheld, touchscreen device. I’m sure they’re much better than I am.

This little storyline emphasizes that the idea of what a person should know and be able to do to be considered “literate” evolves over time. I’ve been working with schools on aspects of digital literacy for much of my career, but just like this story, the digital literacy projects I worked on 20 years ago are different from what they are now. I’m co-author of a textbook with two of my mentors, Kathy Cennamo from Virginia Tech and Peg Ertmer from Purdue. It focuses on the ISTE Standards for Students and for Educators, but those standards have changed over time. They’ve moved from being very tool-focused to focusing on what teachers and students do with digital resources. To reflect this, we had some foundational agreements about technology that thread their way through the multiple editions. One of those is that technology is constantly changing, which means “being literate” changes, and so we encouraged our readers to become lifelong learners who understand how to manage change and develop new literacies as they become important. Another is, “it’s more important how you use technology than if you use it.” (Cennamo, K. S., Ross, J. D., & Ertmer, P. A. (2019). Technology integration for meaningful use. A standards-based approach. Boston, MA: Cengage. P. 2.)

I’ve been working on the “what technology skills do our students need to know” question with numerous school districts across the country a lot lately. During the time of forced remote learning, so many school districts bought a lot of devices and digital resources for students but didn’t have the time or ability to thoroughly teach everyone how to use them—even teachers. Now that students are once again attending schools every day with those devices, we are seeing teachers and students with access to powerful devices and digital resources but perhaps not using them as effectively as they could be. But what to focus on? Many adults are calling for isolating technology and teaching those skills separately. For example, some think we should stop everything and focus on typing, because typing was once seen as an important skill (and still probably is for some) but is it that important for everyone? Phones are more ubiquitous than laptops with keyboards. What skills do you need to be considered literate if your digital device doesn’t have a keyboard or you don’t need to use one? Phones have teeny tiny keyboards that I can’t use my touch-typing skills with, and many people just talk to their phone (or TV remote, or smart speaker, or other device) to navigate the apps on it.

I go back to the how you’re using technology part of the equation as being the most important consideration for being literate. The ISTE Standards no longer focus on the technology you’re using. Instead, they encourage students and adults to become empowered learners who leverage technology to connect with content and with others to support their learning. They acknowledge how important it is for all of us to be savvy digital citizens that understand what it means to live in an information-rich society and to manage and protect our own information and data that is now generated in any number of media formats with the click of a button. They inspire us to communicate and collaborate locally and across the globe and to create innovative new products and propose solutions to challenging, real-world problems. What I see as the connecting thread behind those standards is that they happen everywhere, not in isolation. They happen in every class. They happen on the playground, and at home, and everywhere else, and so maybe the secret to digital literacy is to not consider it something separate or unique. It’s just literacy. And we use the tools that are necessary to be literate in whatever situation we’re in.

This entry is cross-posted with the Region 8 Comprehensive Center blog.

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.