A.I.’s place in education is familiar, albeit ever-evolving, says Active-Con keynote speaker

Don’t call it a revolution, says John Spencer

Speaker John SpencerInstead of thinking in terms of the A.I. revolution, educators should consider it the A.I. evolution, keynote speaker John Spencer told attendees at Active-Con 24.

A college professor and former middle school teacher, Mr. Spencer counseled against looking at artificial intelligence as something entirely new but rather as the newest version of technology with which they are already familiar.

He recounted for his audience at Edith Macy Conference Center in Briarcliff Manor on March 1 examples of early tech - from flip phones, MapQuest and mixtapes to Clippy, Microft’s passive aggressive virtual assistant - that predated yet foretold the arrival of A.I.

It’s as if the A.I. we now know has been with us all along.

“It’s the newest form of A.I., and because of that, I think it’s important to ask not, how will A.I. change education, but how has A.I. already changed education?” Mr. Spencer said.

The opening keynote speaker at Active-Con, Mr. Spencer kicked off a day of shared learning around the impacts, benefits, and pitfalls of the latest wave of technological change in the education space. Active-Con is the latest event in the year-long Technology Leadership Institute series hosted and supported by the LHRIC Instructional Technology Department. The annual gathering is all about learning spaces, the virtual and the real. The theme this yearspeaker in front of class was The Future of A.I. 

In a well-received presentation tinged throughout with personal recollections and examples from his own educational upbringing, Mr. Spencer shared how the encouragement of two middle school teachers brought him out of his shell. “I wanted to be invisible,” he confided. “And I was.”

His teachers saw him, though, and by way of a historical research and presentation project on baseball groundbreaker Jackie Robinson, they shed light on his hidden abilities, putting him on a trajectory to embrace education. “That year changed me as a student,” he said. 

When he tried to quit that project, discouraged by his novice presentation skills, his Language Arts teacher refocused him. ‘When you hide your voice you rob the world of your creativity,” she told him. “And I’m not going to let you do that.”

 speaker panel on stage

Along the way he leveraged long-distance telephone calls to interview former Negro League players. He dove into his local library’s microfiche collection. He even recorded his presentation at a local radio studio. Today, none of the technology he relied upon - save the books he devoured - is around in the same form anymore.

Fast forward to college, he recalled being presented with two texts, one A.I.-generated, the other human writing, and being asked to guess which was which. He guessed wrong, failing his very first Turing Test - or so he thought. It was terrifying and exciting, he said. 

“When something is new we tend to have a freak-out moment as a culture,” he said.

It happened with bicycles, which came with all manner of threats to societal stability and human health. But bicycles changed the way we dress and travel and in important ways proved to be a boon for the women’s suffrage movement. 

jerry crisci on stageThat example is one of many that demonstrate an important pattern, Mr. Spencer said. New tech is greeted with unawareness followed by growing awareness, then moral panic - bicycles transport the human body at unsafe speeds! With increased usage, there is a period of lessened concern, followed by the most dangerous phase of all: boredom. We are bored with cars and social media, and so we are uncareful, he posited. 

The current moral panic over A.I., with fears of its impact on student learning among other areas, can bring reason, attention and important conversations that we can leverage before even this new tech begins to bore us. 

Mr. Spencer advised educators to look at what A.I. does well but also at what humans do well. Humans, in his view, excel over A.I. in terms of voice, contextual understanding, curiosity and empathy.

“A.I. cannot get curious,” he said. ”A.I. doesn’t daydream when you’re not around.”

The idea is not to become A.I.-proof but rather to be human-centered, he said.

Grammarly, for instance, makes writing stronger and might have saved him from an earlier gaffe in which he wrote about student placement in the “International Bachelorette” program. His principal once referenced “meth intervention” for students rather than math intervention.

A.I. can help with repetitive tasks while allowing us to bring our own voice to them.

Humans are also superior at understanding context, he said, advising careful consideration about when to use A.I. -  focus on the subject and the learning target. Using A.I. to create code  students at workstation makes sense unless you’re teaching computer programming, for example. Meanwhile, he suggested fostering curiosity by making it structured. For example, question breaks imbued curiosity for students during his own class discussions.

Last, he shared a personal video about Jasmine, his family’s greyhound, which had passed. He asked ChatGPT for feedback on a video script embedded with deeply personal detail. He was amazed at the specific suggestions provided. His son thought the feedback was awful, though. The only correct feedback, he told him, was to say I’m sorry for your loss and to ask, do you want to talk about it?

“As we embrace A.I. wisely and ethically, in the end it will not be A.I. that transforms learning,” Mr. Spencer said. “It will have to be educators, and it will have to happen from a human perspective.”

In an engaging K-12 panel discussion later that day on “The Future of A.I.,” which Mr. Spencer moderated, panelists representing diverse district technology roles addressed questions about what comes next for A.I. in education.

“I think part of the challenge is that things are changing so quickly, said Jerry Crisci, former co-Director of the Center for Innovation in Scarsdale. “ChatGPT has been out for, what, a year and a half?” Mr. Crisci said. “The truth is that a year and a half from now, we have no idea what technology will do.”

David Steckler, a seventh-grade Computer Science Teacher in White Plains, said educators are preparing students to be citizen developers, “where there’s no barrier between their ideas and creating anymore, if they have the right skills to use the right tools.” A.I. is an enabler, he said, and it can break down barriers, allowing students to pursue their dreams in a matter of days rather than years.

Pearl River Director of Technology Jamie Haug said foundational skills still matter. The world students today will enter is different from even five years ago. “We’re at a point where the A.I. that’s here is at the worst iteration that these kids are ever going to use,” she said.

Still, she said, educators should treat A.I. like any shiny new tool and ask what makes the most sense for learning and instruction. “I think the magic is going to be around for a while,” she said. 

Other panelists included Alana Winnick from Pocantico Hills, Lee Weber from Suffern, and Jennifer Mazza from Clarkstown.

The day was packed with some 20 A.I.-themed or related breakout sessions that included interactive presentations, collaborative discussions and hands-on experiential learning labs, all featuring expert presenters from the region’s districts, vendors and the LHRIC. Mr. Crisci closed out the day with a final keynote on the future of A.I.

Upcoming TLI events include:

The TELL Awards — Transforming Education through Leadership and Learning, on Wednesday, April 10, from 4:30 to – 8 p.m., also at the Edith Macy Conference Center. 

TECH EXPO, TLI’s Capstone Event, will be on Friday, May 17, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the IBM Learning Center in Armonk, featuring keynote speaker Trevor Muir. 

Learn more at lhric.org/tli.