Prepping the next generation for the AI future

Alex Kotran was sounding the alarm on the need for AI education before ChatGPT made it cool.

After starting his career in the political space during the Obama administration, Kotran transitioned into the education realm with his 2019 creation of AI Education, or aiEDU, a group aimed at giving instruction on artificial intelligence to K-12 students.

As his organization was working through the coronavirus pandemic to convince schools and investors of the utility of AI in classrooms, OpenAI was creating the AI tool that would eventually propel the issue into the national spotlight, ChatGPT.

“The challenge of preparing Americans for the age of artificial intelligence is not a technical problem. It’s a social, political, societal problem,” Kotran, co-founder and CEO of aiEDU, told The Hill in a recent interview.

The world of AI blew up in the public eye at the end of last year, when ChatGPT was released and almost immediately had millions of users exploring the new technology, growing faster than Instagram did when it first became available.

ChatGPT shook the education world in particular — students figured out how to use it to help with their assignments, and teachers raised concerns about academic honesty.

At that point, Kotran’s aiEDU was already in hundreds of schools. Now, hundreds more are on the waitlist to bring the program into their classrooms.

Despite getting its start amid a global pandemic, aiEDU was able to grow substantially, reaching 3,000 students in its first year and between 20,000 to 30,000 in its second year.

“In 2020, nobody really understood what AI is or why it was important, and we often struggled to convince people that it was important in meetings,” Kotran said.

The service he offers includes a self-guided course that is compatible with Google Classrooms. Kotran said he had some good initial partners on the project, and they helped spread the word about the quality of the aiEDU program.

“It demonstrated that our approach would work, which is you can teach students about the concepts of artificial intelligence, about the future of work, about algorithmic bias and ethics without having computer science as a prerequisite to that knowledge, so that AI education could actually be the first stepping stone to that learning pathway as opposed to the way most organizations and schools had been perceiving it, which is sort of a module or a subset of computer science education,” he said.

The organization also offers professional development training for educators seeking a better understanding of AI and what education on the technology should look like in the classroom.

The emergence of AI’s use in the general population has led to debates at every level about its ethical implications and what, if any, regulations should be placed on the technology.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman will testify in front of Congress on Tuesday to explain AI to lawmakers as they assess its risks and rewards.

“Our goal is not telling students how they should think about AI, but rather equipping them with the tools to think about AI and make up their own minds,” Kotran said.

Part of the reason aiEDU is so unique in the space is that it is not run by individuals who are entrenched in Silicon Valley, though that also led to some initial skepticism of the group.

Kotran admits when he started this journey he had little knowledge of the coding or computer science skills that most associate with the field.

Before his transition to tech, Kotran said his high school dream had been to be a “D.C. insider” — eventually landing a job in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. He worked on the Affordable Care Act before a mentor of his told him the future was in “big data.”

“I ended up getting a job with an AI company called H5, and they were one of the early pioneers in the use of AI and machine learning in the legal sector,” Kotran said.

He says the future of AI education doesn’t rest with Silicon Valley but with teachers who interact with students every day.

“Most of the folks on my team are educators. That, I think, has also been one of the secrets for success. It’s not just the fact that we’re focusing on grassroots and meeting schools and school leaders,” Kotran said.

Kotran’s work highlights the difficulties of implementing change in education. He points out there isn’t a federal lever to get this sort of instruction in all schools around the country.

His group has had to go district-by-district, state-by-state in order to convince educators they were worth giving a chance.

While the group was successfully moving along before the explosion of ChatGPT, the conversation around it has definitely helped turned the tide for them.

“School districts and state education leaders and nonprofit leaders have been with us over the last four years on this journey. Now, everybody can’t stop talking about artificial intelligence, and we’ve already built that trust, and so we had the running start,” Kotran said.

While the hype around AI and the quick responses from the education sector on the issue are promising, Kotran believes the U.S. will have to move very quickly if it wants to stay ahead of the game on the growing technology.

“I would say if in three years, every single student in America doesn’t learn about artificial intelligence while they’re in school, we will have massively failed,” he said.

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