From the Editor: AI and Tech

I recently came across my first AI artwork: “Unsupervised,” by artist Refik Anadol, exhibited at MoMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The piece (viewable on YouTube), which is constantly changing and churning, producing and erasing, “uses artificial intelligence to interpret and transform more than 200 years of art at MoMA.” It possesses a strange beauty, endless energy, infinite creativity…

When you think about it, though, a raft of anxieties may bubble up to the surface. AI can “master” all of art, all of knowledge, and then use its terabytes to produce new things: besides art, stories, essays, books, conversations, genetic codes, computer coding… anything. Is what AI can produce “art”? Isn’t art the quintessential expression of our humanity? What happens to human art in the age of AI art? Is our whole understanding of human nature, human uniqueness, crumbling into zeroes and ones?

And even: Might that be a good thing? In the age of AI, are humans going to become “obsolete,” as many bemoan, or something else? Will AI enable us to be more human, or more “animal,” in some way? How will we know?

I feel a mix of excitement and horror at the prospect of this new technology. When I was a child, Frankenstein seemed merely a funny, kooky wind-up doll that could never become real. Now, AI not only threatens to take over human functions, jobs, it is already doing so and in many cases doing it better than people. And it’s just getting started. As Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson write in Power and Progress, their book about the history of technology and its economic impact, AI “will make humankind much more prosperous, healthier and able to achieve other laudable goals,” while also expanding inequalities, impoverishing billions of people, and destroying democratic institutions. “Rather than focusing on machine intelligence, it is more fruitful to strive for ‘machine usefulness,’ meaning how machines can be most useful to humans.”

As we will see, the authors in this issue keep their eye on places where AI and other tech can be most useful, where they can help our students learn, lighten teacher workload and improve school management, while exercising caution and restraint in areas where their potential danger outweighs their utility.

Not a day goes by when an article, often many, about AI does not cross my screen. Just one issue of the daily ASCD SmartBrief trawled the following articles: How AI Tools Can Aid Special Educators; How to Grade Essays in the Time of AI; Best Practices for Introducing AI Tools in Education; Planning Professional Development on ChatGPT. It’s starting to feel that AI is the only topic people want to talk about these days. While most articles assume an embrace of AI, for its vast powers or as the latest in a long list of edtech tools, some advise hitting the brakes, warning lest “we sleepwalk to a destination that we don’t want and can’t reverse back out of.”

While education seems more AI-enamored than other fields, every aspect of life and study is turning to AI. AI may help us solve problems of water distribution and consumption; it may even crack the linguistic code of whale communication. On the downside, AI provides enemy governments with the perfect vehicle for disinformation.

We originally conceived of the issue as addressing a range of new technologies, with AI as just one, the Johnny-come-lately. But very quickly it became apparent that people wanted to talk about AI far more than anything else. Among the authors of this issue, the enthusiasm to try new things, the range of experimentation and the sophistication of insight into AI bespeak the vitality and maturity of our field. Hence, most of the articles here discuss AI, while others address various additional tech platforms, their potentials and pitfalls for schools.

The first section of the issue reveals how school leaders are thinking about and setting policies regarding tech use, at different levels. Shpall and Sonnenberg discuss the reasoning they took to embrace AI and modern tech in the school. Raz and Glass describe methods for imagining the future and visualizing how school, and life, will change. Skolnick-Einhorn and Krieger explain how their schools have worked with the parent body to create tech-use policies, in and out of school, and Lebwohl presents a responsible-use document informed by student input. Kolhatkar and Piraino recount the lessons derived from the experience of leading during Covid that have endured in their work on AI.

Articles in the second section exploring the nature of AI as a game-changer. For Levy, AI has the potential to transform the nature of schooling in ways that visionaries have advised for more than a decade. Pinnolis shows how he is helping teachers to tap into AI’s potential to strengthen and ease their lesson planning and evaluation processes, and Lamm presents an approach to teacher PD in AI. Palmer uncovers ways that Israel’s National Library has developed dynamic AI tools to help students with research into history and primary texts, while Kalman reflects on the ways that AI may change the nature of Jewish sacred text study in schools. Nagy points to three different areas in which AI can “rewire” education and school management.

Our school feature, “AI in the Classroom,” showcases five schools using AI tools to advance student learning. The third section focuses on matters of tech use in education. Tierney spells out methods teachers can employ to cut down on digital distractions. Fass examines the “4 Cs of 21st century learning” through the lens of Jewish teachings. Augenbraun paints a multimedia approach to teaching today’s diverse learners, and Rothwachs offers guidance for tech limits and benefits for students with disabilities. Wolkenfeld considers Jewish precedents regarding the adoption of new tech for educative purposes.

The last section, called Caveats, contains articles that weigh more toward the side of caution in tech use. Referencing the social thinker Jonathan Haidt, Gottlieb ponders the deleterious effects of smartphones on religious belief, cohesion and trust. Porosoff maps out ways to infuse the tech classroom with values. Cohen Skulnick introduces a unit of study that succeeded in getting high school students to change their social media use. Addressing parents, Seidenfeld gives suggestions for things to look for in a school’s approach to technology. And Chomski presents a device, the paper tablet, that combines the benefits of tech and physical materials.

I hope the articles here help you to think about your approach to technology, in the classroom and beyond, and get inspired by ways that AI and other forms of technology can serve your educational vision and administrative needs.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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