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Get to Know the ABCs of Generative AI. It Could Power Your School Systems (Opinion)

Whether your nature is to be an early innovator or a meticulous evaluator before embracing new technologies, educational leaders must swiftly grasp the transformative power of generative artificial intelligence. The rapid adoption of AI by students, staff, and the private sector leaves us no choice but to engage, regardless of its complexity or our perceived capacity to lead in this area.

Andrew Ng’s assertion that “AI will have as much impact on our lives as the advent of electricity” recently reshaped my learning priorities and job title, as the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) aims to shepherd our members through this technological revolution. My initial dive into the plethora of online articles about how AI works and the pace at which it’s changing left me feeling intimidated and a bit overwhelmed. That all changed when Andrew’s quote came back to my mind, and it dawned on me that I don’t need to be an electrician to use and appreciate the important role electricity plays in my life. The same is true for AI. I don’t need to have a degree in computer science to learn the benefits and risks of AI, nor to leverage in its use, and neither do you!

Once we acquire a familiarity with generative AI, we can begin applying the system-and-change leadership practices that have become the bedrock of our work. Yet, thinking of AI merely as a checklist of tasks undersells its complexity. I believe leaders must resist the temptation to think of AI as an initiative.

AI will require more than adopting policies, procedures, and safeguards; implementing professional development plans; and incorporating new student-learning standards. The dynamic nature of AI makes it necessary to foster nimble systems. Ones in which all leaders become comfortable with experimentation and reliance on one another—and confident in our ability to lead in uncertainty.

The good news is that we’ve recently learned that we and our systems can adapt quickly. As leaders who’ve successfully transitioned schools to remote instruction, hybrid, and back to in person all while implementing frequently changing health requirements, labor union agreements, and parent backlash, we are ideally equipped to lead in the AI age. We learned the necessity of collaboration. In Washington state, educational leaders meet more than ever before. We accepted that regardless of our tenure, we were all learning and needed one another for morale and technical support and creative problem-solving. We learned that no matter how hard we worked we could not control COVID. We learned that long-standing traditional practices can shift quickly and the repercussions can impact financial and mental health, cultural norms, and public opinion about education.

I believe the same is true for AI. It will morph, evolve, and it’s bigger than us. We’ll need to come to terms that unlike an initiative, leaders won’t be able to master AI and then “teach” it to others in our system. Instead, we’ll need to empower everyone in our system to share the responsibility for keeping our systems knowledgeable and growing.

Unlike COVID, AI offers the chance to reduce time spent on management tasks. Peter DeWitt views AI as “a powerful means to assist leaders to de-implement low and no value practices, freeing time for human interconnectedness.” It’s these aspects of our work that bring the most joy and have the greatest impact—spending time in classrooms, working in teams to solve complex problems, coaching, and learning from others.

So how might we begin the transition to the AI era? Here’s been WASA’s journey? After discussing AI’s anticipated impact on education, WASA’s executive director appointed me as the association’s assistant executive director of learning innovation and AI. Armed with a new title and the responsibility that it signified, I adopted the following theory of action and got to work: If WASA mindfully implements AI within our internal operations, then we’ll increase our productivity and gain firsthand experiences to inform the AI supports we provide members.

This began by providing our staff with a questionnaire to assess their interest, experience, and apprehensions about AI. The information gleaned was used to inform the content and instructional strategies used in subsequent professional learning sessions. Believing our association’s ability to remain relevant in the AI era requires each of us to embrace roles of both teacher and learner. After our first two-hour hands-on training session, we began asking a different staff member to volunteer each week during a short virtual “AI Wednesday” learning session. The featured staff member spends 5-7 minutes responding to three questions:

1. What have you tried that you can show us?

2. What did you learn from your experimentation?

3. What are you going to try next?

Our accounts payable staff member taught us how to use ChatGPT to reformat spreadsheets to aid in the ability to merge multiple Excel documents to quickly harvest needed information. Our administrative secretary showed how to ask AI to create a list of catchy email subject lines to entice members to sign up for events. Our communications specialist walked us through how AI can be used to write social media posts. We conclude each session diving a bit deeper into available AI assistants, safeguards, learning how to build our own bots, and more. This internal structure has fostered AI experimentation, productivity, and our collective efficacy to remain a relevant source of member support.

Armed with what we’ve learned from our internal systems work, WASA’s external AI emphasizes partnering with other leaders to navigate AI’s uncertainties. We’re not just embracing change; we’re leading it by learning alongside the leaders we support. Below you’ll find some of the ways we’ve chosen to enhance our members’ confidence in leading their district’s AI transformation:

  • Offering conferences, online training, and access to resources to build foundational knowledge about AI and how to use it for personal productivity and organizational creativity.
  • Doing deep learning dives into instructional implications, ethics, and workforce utilization.
  • Collaborating with our state’s office of education, associations, and business partners to align supports and adopt shared vocabulary and goals.
  • Engaging with education and noneducation AI experts across the nation.
  • Infusing the use of AI assistants into our other professional development offerings.
  • Preparing online PLCs and think tank opportunities for leaders to reimagine and redesign systems by sharing their AI journey, challenges, and successes.

I can’t imagine life without electricity, and similarly, after experiencing generative AI, I can’t imagine a future without it. Just as electricity revolutionized our lives, AI offers the promise of illuminating pathways to innovating and enriching education for the students we serve.

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