All Articles Education Educational Leadership AI Impact: ASCD/ISTE’s Culatta looks into AI’s future in education

AI Impact: ASCD/ISTE’s Culatta looks into AI’s future in education

AI tools already are being used a little in education, but for real effectiveness, professional development for teachers and pre-service teachers is paramount.

10 min read

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Artificial intelligence — especially generative AI, such as ChatGPT, Bard and other tools — is only in the nascent stage but is causing a seismic shift in every industry. SmartBrief’s recent AI Impact virtual summit included 25 sessions, including two on the effect of AI in education and workplace training, featuring Richard Culatta, CEO of ASCD/ISTE, and Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute think tank.

The two-day summit opened with keynote speaker and AI futurist Zack Kass, who believes AI is not a job destroyer but a tool that can rid us of tedious tasks and free us from limitations related to information-gathering and computation. AI, Kass says, will help humans evolve in ways that will “shatter” the status quo. 

Kass also believes AI eventually will make education a staple, rather than luxury, outside the First World, envisioning “every child with an internet connection having access to an AI-powered tutor who knows what they know, how they learn and knows how to communicate that with their parents.” 

In “The 3 Ts of the AI classroom: Teaching, Training and Tools” session, SmartBrief Education and Business Services Content Director Kanoe Namahoe spoke with Culatta, who also is a former appointee to the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology under President Barack Obama and author of “Digital for Good: Raising Kids To Thrive in an Online World.” We’ve selected some of the highlights. Part 2 with Michael Horn is online, too. 

Kanoe Namahoe: What does this AI classroom look like? Is it devices? Is it strategy? Is it a mindset? 

headshot of Richard Culatta

Richard Culatta: There’s two parts. One is the AI tools that are used to help us tackle some of the tough problems in education, like the fact that learning isn’t tailored enough to individual needs. So, there’s all these great tools that we can think about for supporting learning experiences [for students and educators] that are driven by AI. That’s all in bucket one. 

The second bucket is the role of schools and the education system in preparing young people to thrive in an AI world. It’s more about how are we building skills to have young people move into a healthy experience in the world. What skills do they need to know? What do our teachers need to know in order to help make sure that they can survive and thrive? 

Those are the two big pieces that I think we need to be thinking about when we think about the future of learning with AI.

Namahoe: As we talk about AI and instruction, is AI the star or the supporting cast?

Culatta:  It can be both, depending on how it’s implemented. But, generally, if done well, it will be the supporting cast. Whatever the technology is, if it’s going to be effective, it should always be in support of the learning vision. And this is why I get concerned when I see schools coming up with AI policies and AI strategy. You don’t need an AI strategy. You need a strategy for technology for learning, and if you have a good strategy that is based on solid principles for learning aligned to the ISTE standards, then it doesn’t matter what technology gets thrown at you. You are looking at them always through the lens of “How can this help support my learning vision?” 

headshot of Kanoe Namahoe

Namahoe: I’m glad to hear you say that it should always be the supporting cast because I think that’s one of the No. 1 fears that many educators have: How will my job be affected by this? What are the potential technical and policy landmines?

Culatta: Let me be clear: We should absolutely have policies that set the right conditions for tech use in schools. Please don’t misunderstand that. What I am cautioning against is having policies around a particular type of technology. The other day, I was visiting a school, and I asked to see their acceptable use guide. and they had this whole section around their policy for how MySpace should or shouldn’t be used. [No student today] even knows what MySpace is. Parents don’t even remember. 

It is far better to make policies around principles. Do you have a principle of how you want this technology to be used, about how your behavior with this technology should or should not support learning; should or not should not support engagement with the community; should or should not be used to support your assignments and your activities? The far better approach is creating policy for the healthy conditions for technology use in our school, have a great policy around data privacy, and a policy of interoperability. Keep it at the principal level, and then it doesn’t matter what the flavor of the tool is. Is it aligning to our school vision for learning? Yes, great. This is far more effective and saves the time of writing a policy for every single thing that comes out.

Namahoe:  Let’s shift and talk about training and talk about what effective PD looks like for this thing that is still very nebulous for a lot of people. What does it look like?

Culatta: ASCD is key. We have a very, very strong opinion on that. We believe that anytime we have new tools, whatever they are, it is critical that educators have two things: time and space to explore and some guided experience and professional learning. We have a great guide that we put out for school leaders on exactly how to do those two things in your school. How to bring in AI effectively to your school.

We have to be willing to do this for educators. Maybe it’s as simple as saying skipping a staff meeting and letting teachers use that 90 minutes to explore these different tools and don’t just explore chats. There are so many AI tools, generative AI tools, that we should also be exploring. It’s OK to explore. It’s OK to not have the answers, and we need to show that we need to model that to our kids as well. 

The second thing is to have some structured training. We have a really popular program called AI Explorations for Educators. We’ve had thousands of teachers go through it. It’s a deeper dive not just into generative AI, by the way, but into all flavors of AI. What does it actually do? What is AI? And what are some activities you can do with your students who want to learn more about it? 

Namahoe: Will we see AI deployed unilaterally in affluent schools and in schools that have fewer resources?

Culatta: It comes down to choices that we make and how we prioritize the training for our teachers. If we are making sure that we are being equitable in providing learning opportunities for our teachers and school leaders on how to use AI effectively for learning, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to have this roll out in an equitable fashion. I have to say, though, unfortunately, we don’t always make those decisions. We don’t always choose to prioritize making sure teachers in some of the most needy schools get the same opportunities as others.

ASCD and ISTE are working on professional development called Stretch AI, which doesn’t take the ChatGPT generalist approach to gathering information from all over the public internet. We believe in specialized AI that is giving answers and recommendations based on a curated set of materials that we’ve vetted, including years of our best-published materials from ASCD and ISTE, along with peer-reviewed research from journals and more, in conjunction with the US Department of Education. It’s in the training stage, but we hope to expand access soon. 

Namahoe:  As more specialized AI tools enter the education market, what will be important for those tools to truly serve education? 

Culatta: I think it’s critical that whoever is designing and developing tools for learning are keeping the learning goal in mind. What problem are we trying to fix? What solution are we trying to provide for learning? The only way that you’re going to do that is through talking to educators and keeping them in the loop. I want educator fingerprints to be all over the AI tools that come out. I want them to guide and shape them. We’ve done that with our Solutions Network, which is a community just for chief product officers, and we bring in teachers to give them really open, honest feedback so they can build better products.

Namahoe: If you have an AI in education wish list, what would be on that? What do you hope AI will achieve in improving our education systems? 

Culatta: One is I really hope it becomes a major force for empowering learner creativity, especially where students have the creative drive, but they may be held back by the implementation of it. If I struggle to do art, if I struggle to write well, but I have a great idea, and I have a vision, I think it would be really powerful to have AI just unleash that creativity.

And then I hope on the educator side, there’s so much time that teachers spend doing activities that could be handed off to AI to free them up to do what we need them to do, which is engage with students and to be inspiring learning leaders. AI can be incredibly helpful with tailoring and personalizing learning experiences. And that just frees up our teachers to be able to do the great, incredibly important work that they often have to sacrifice now.

I hope from a school leader standpoint that AI can start to be really powerful in helping prompt opportunities — to be able to say, “Hey, here’s some ways that you could rethink the design of your school day, the schedule, who’s teaching where and when.” 

When I was the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island, one of the things we looked about was simply nudging — like sending a little text message to a parent on a day that a student had an important assignment to say, “Hey, just so you know, there is important assignment today, so make sure your kid has eaten breakfast and shows up on time.” Turns out that nudge made more of an impact than a whole bunch of time spent studying the material. It’s important to learn the material, but we got a bigger bump by just making sure that, on that day, the parents showed up on time and their kids had something to eat. 

AI can be really helpful in helping us discover some of these patterns that are harder for us to see when we’re in the thick of it. Those sorts of patterns can be really, really powerful, and AI has the ability to help tee that up for leaders to take a deeper look.  


Read Part 2 with Michael Horn on AI and CTE.


Diane Benson Harrington is an education editor at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email or LinkedIn

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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