Bird's Eye View News

The Next Seismic Shift: Artificial Intelligence

Technology shifts are disruptors; they change the way we work, communicate, conduct business, and even learn and teach. From typewriter to computer, computer to Internet, Internet to cloud, and cloud to mobile, each jump has had a transformative effect on our society, business, and individual lifestyles. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes an increasingly prevalent force across many aspects of life—the next technological shift in a long series of innovation phases—its impact on teaching and learning methodologies has become a focal point of discussion on campuses nationwide. The conversation around tools like ChatGPT, Bing, Bard, and others is bubbling up at Head-Royce, too, raising concerns and illuminating opportunities. 

We connected with parents, students, and professional community members who are using AI for a variety of tasks—from minor to massive—to hear their stories and apprehensions. Folks are experimenting with it; kicking its tires. Here’s what we learned, and what questions linger, including whether AI is a productivity tool or if its misuse might supplant the purpose of learning? If we use it, how do we continue to support the development of critical thinking skills in students? How do we ensure that it is used fairly and doesn’t widen inequities? 

Dr. Jen Brakeman

Dr. Jennifer “Jen” Brakeman, neurobiology and honors biology teacher, has already dipped her toe in the AI water, so to speak. As the new President of the Board of Directors of a masters swim team—the Manatee Aquatic Masters—she writes monthly greetings to the membership, a task she dislikes with a singular intensity. She used ChatGPT to craft her first message which she then peppered with her own voice. Positive feedback flowed in from the swim community, adding to her inner conflict about the experience. On one hand, she says, “Oh gosh, it was so good compared to what I could have written and it saved me so much time!” Yet even as she felt appreciation for her AI partner, she also expressed disappointment, “I’m avoiding developing this skill which I am going to have to employ for the next two years!” At school, she had students compare their own summaries of scientific papers with those of ChatGPT in preparation for writing their mock grant proposal—their final project in Neurobiology—a graduate level assignment that hones argumentative writing skills. Students found that while ChatGPT is good at churning through research, helping them get a sense of the state of current research in a short amount of time, it often missed or misrepresented important parts of those prior studies. She notes,

“It’s really important that we use AI…we have to teach students how to use it well and also how and when to NOT use it. I want students to know that ChatGPT might be faster than they are, but it is not a better thinker than they are. "More importantly," she continues, "writing is important for students to further develop their own thinking skills.” She believes AI is here to stay and teachers must be prepared—which she hopes means time for professional development and collaboration with colleagues.

Harry Muniz

“The latest iteration of Adobe Creative Cloud introduces generative AI tools that I have begun teaching to my photography students,” says Harry Muniz, photography teacher.  He explains that he and his students have discussed both the implications of using AI in the creative process and the ethical questions that it raises—like what does “authorship” mean in the AI age? So far, he notes, “students who have used this technology have done so to expand the visual possibilities of photography in creative and thoughtful ways,” however, he cautions, “there are still many unanswered questions that this technology raises.”

Thomas Kuoh

Thomas Kuoh, parent of a current student, also uses Photoshop’s new generative AI for his professional photography business. “It helps us brainstorm, research, write, and iterate ideas quickly.” It also helps improve and speed up workflows by automating processes that would otherwise take a long time for an individual to tackle. In the end, he says, “it is still just a tool, and the results depend on the skill and taste of the user.”

Through a survey, we learned that students have used AI to summarize reports, write essays as part of an assignment, conduct research, look up definitions of technical language, and to form ideas for speech competitions such as those used in debates. One student shared that their Upper School history teacher assigned the class the task of writing an essay using ChatGPT with evidence-based prompts, quotes, and other source material. Students were graded on the quality of evidence used in the prompt. “I personally wasn’t a huge fan of this assignment, because I like being able to have control over what I am writing and not just blindly turning in something, even though that was the task. I have mixed feelings about AI, I don’t really love that teachers are telling us to use it, but it does have its benefits!” shared an Upper School student. 

Middle School students are currently using a science curriculum published by CK12 which has an AI empowered tutor built into the online textbook. ‘Flexi’ the tutor is interesting in that it can create analogous examples of explanations, framing information in more relatable terms for individual students—a herald of the personalization AI promises to bring. While it’s too early to say if or how Flexi is impacting learning in 7th and 8th grade science classes, we are certainly eager to hear more.

Justin Alanis

"AI is a central pillar of what Justin Alanis, a lifelong entrepreneur and current parent of two Head-Royce students, has made his life's work." His venture, Story.Co, which he started with his brother, is what he calls “a next generation entertainment platform at the nexus of the creator economy.” According to ChatGPT 3.5, "a creator economy refers to the economic system that has emerged with the rise of digital platforms and technologies, enabling individuals to create, distribute, and monetize their own content." In the creator economy, individuals, often referred to as "creators," leverage online platforms to share a wide range of content, including videos, articles, podcasts, art, and more. Justin explains that making a Hollywood movie is an incredibly expensive venture. The process of creating and distributing a multimedia production involves many people with highly specialized skills including voice over, CGI (computer generated imagery), live action video, podcast, and illustration. “Think about apps like TikTok,” he suggests. “These are creative engines for everyone to be—where anyone can be—a creator. Tools like these are gaining momentum worldwide and lowering the barrier to be a creator—to tell your story to larger audiences.” AI makes it possible to create multimedia content with all the same elements with fewer people. “AI is getting good at all these things,” he assures. What once required a cast of thousands, now can be made with only a few people.

“Humans still need to be at the helm—the human element needs to guide the direction and the spirit of the story," Justin stresses. When asked how he feels about AI and education, he is confident that “students will absolutely learn how to be critical thinkers with AI, in fact, AI can help a student become a more critical thinker.” He believes students will need to know how to harness AI for the future, "Kids will still need, more than ever, to build strong foundational skills of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking. If they can master those skills, then there is an opportunity to leverage AI even more powerfully to improve and build upon their work, provide better prompts to the AI, and work more harmoniously with AI in the future. But to do that, you need to understand the tool’s strengths and shortfalls and be able to think critically."

Joel Sohn

Joel Sohn, Assistant Head of School for Policy and Strategic Initiatives, has used AI to crunch through data that he says would have taken him weeks to organize and process. “So from an efficiency standpoint, I’ve found it very helpful,” he stresses. “Speaking institutionally, I think we’re taking a position of curiosity and intrigue, not fear or aversion. Using AI in learning, teaching, and the business operations of the school will take critical engagement and philosophical discipline—both of which take time.” He acknowledges that AI won’t be implemented overnight, but notes, “we are talking about how, when, and why we would use it and being thoughtful about our approach.”

Considering these accounts at the cusp of the next radical shift in technology, the impact on education is becoming increasingly pronounced. The narratives shared by our community members, including educators, parents, and students, paint a complex picture of both the promises and challenges AI presents in the realm of teaching and learning. Dr. Brakeman's experience with ChatGPT highlights the efficiency gains but also raises questions about the balance between convenience and skill development. Harry Muniz and Thomas Kuoh offer insights from the perspective of the arts, exploring the creative possibilities and ethical considerations of AI tools. Meanwhile, our students are already engaging with AI in various forms, from summarizing reports to utilizing AI-powered tutors, highlighting the early stages of integration in the educational landscape. 

As we navigate this evolving space, one constant resonates: the importance of cultivating critical thinking skills alongside AI adoption, ensuring that students not only use these tools effectively but also understand their nuances and limitations. With AI poised to be a transformative force, the educational journey will undoubtedly be shaped by a delicate balance between harnessing technological advancements and preserving the indispensable human touch.