Aug 17, 2023

Amanda Bickerstaff: Meet the Former Teacher Turned AI Trailblazer on a Mission to Transform Education!

Bridging the educational frontier - a young entrepreneur's odyssey from classroom to AI innovation...

Amanda Bickerstaff: Meet the Former Teacher Turned AI Trailblazer on a Mission to Transform Education!

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As the Founder and CEO of AI for Education, Amanda Bickerstaff is at the forefront of a transformative movement that merges artificial intelligence with pedagogical prowess, that aims to create just the right balance between technological advancement and human touch.

At the heart of AI for Education's mission lies a commitment to empower educators and academic institutions with responsible AI integration. Amanda's leadership aims to propel teachers into the future while enhancing student outcomes. Navigating the waters of AI in education can be daunting, but under Amanda's guidance, educators find a reliable compass, ensuring that every step taken aligns with the best interests of students.

Drawing from her extensive background, Amanda is well-versed in both the art of teaching and the realm of technology. With over two decades of experience in the education sector, including a tenure as a dedicated high school biology teacher, she possesses an innate understanding of the challenges educators face. This unique perspective infuses AI for Education with a compassionate approach that resonates with those who are on the frontlines of knowledge dissemination.

As a sought-after consultant, speaker, and author, she has initiated vital dialogues on AI's role in education. Her workshops and professional learning sessions, spanning both K12 and Higher Ed, light the path for responsible AI utilization.

However, Amanda's journey began in a small town nestled in the Northeastern corner of Georgia. Her pursuit of knowledge led her to Emory University, where she delved into anthropology. It was this very curiosity that took her to New York City, where at the tender age of 22, she embarked on a transformative journey as a high school biology teacher in the Bronx, part of the NYC Teaching Fellows program.

Amanda's scholarly pursuits didn't cease in the classroom. Armed with a Master's degree in Science Education from Lehman College, she undertook PhD-level coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center for Urban Education, fueling her drive to elevate education through informed research and progressive thinking.

As Amanda's story continues to unfold, it becomes clear that her narrative is one of synergy—a delicate balance between the wisdom of the past and the promise of the future. This week, in conversation with Machinelab

Can you share your journey from being a high school biology teacher to becoming a leader in the AI for Education space? Howhas your background influenced your approach to AI implementation in theeducation sector?

Teaching in a high-complexity, low-income school out of college was aformative experience for me both as a professional and as an adult. It cementedthe need for educational equity and the importance of creating fit-for-purposetools that supported all types of learners and teachers. After teaching I gotmost of a PhD in Urban Education and worked in just about every corner ofeducation.That led me to start building education technology companies, includingat my last organization: an Australian EdTech company that focused on data andanalytics in schools. When it came time to leave that position and think aboutwhat’s next, I knew I wanted to start my own company with a strong socialimpact mission.

Which led me to founding AI for Education, an organization that isdedicated to helping educators and education institutions adopt generative AIin a responsible way. My experience as a teacher has led our focus to createtruly practical and fit-for-purpose resources and training for educators,because I know how hard teaching is.

As the Founder and CEO of AI for Education, what is your vision for the company's impact on the education sector? How do you see AI transforming the future of education?

Our vision is to help education institutions responsibly adopt generative AI, with the ultimate goal of easing the adoption curve, so teachers and students experience immediate impacts to their teaching and learning. Whether that is teachers being able to lower their enormous administrative burden with Gen AI tools or students gaining access to personalized learning support, there are immediate positive outcomes that Gen AI can bring when used ethically.

We use the tsunami metaphor for the impact of Gen AI on education, as the wave is already set in motion and it will radically transform not only education, but the industry as a whole. The skills of today are no longer the skills of the future with the ability of Gen AI to generate text, images, code, and sound. We have a major task of re-imagining teaching and learning in our near future.

AI in education has the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning, but it also raises concerns about privacy and data security. How do you ensure the ethical use of AI in your organization, and what steps do you take to address these concerns?

We talk about the three E’s of responsible adoption of AI: ethical, equitable and effective. For ethical adoption, we have created a set of questions that education institutions can ask EdTech companies building in the space around data privacy as there are extreme risks with tools being built on top of, in some cases, multiple foundational models like ChatGPT. We suggest that schools do not use any PII when using chatbots and that they work with EdTech vendors to deeply understand how data is being shared, stored, and if/how their data is being used to train the models.

From your experience working with schools and teachers, what are the most significant challenges they face in adopting AI technologies in the classroom? How do you help them overcome these challenges?

There are a whole host of other reasons, but here are three common ones; First is COVID fatigue, teachers were tasked with shifting their instruction fully online in a couple of days with various EdTech and Tech tools. On average it has been recorded that a district can have more than 2000 EdTech tools in their schools. This has caused an enormous amount of fatigue, frustration and in some cases, distrust of new tools.

Secondly, teacher burnout is increasing at an alarming rate. Teachers have been tasked with not only teaching students, but also an enormous administrative burden (in some cases 10-12 hours of extra work outside theclassroom). So they often do not have the cognitive or emotional load available to try brand new technologies.

Third, teachers have been told for decades that EdTech tools were going to replace them. Now with Gen AI, we are hearing that refrain again. In this case there is some truth to that rhetoric with AI teachers starting to come to the market. There are also major fears that students will misuse the technology to cheat and will be in a position where the cognitive offload that students experience with these tools will deeply impact their learning. A recent study showed that ~62% of students believe they will use Gen AI to do their homework.

The education sector has traditionally been slow to embrace new technologies. How do you approach convincing educators and administrators about the value of AI in education, and what strategies do you use to foster its adoption?

It’s all about the lightbulb moment. Gen AI is unlike any technology we have ever seen, so it often requires someone guiding educators to see the potential value of these tools. Many people will first use Gen AI chatbots like Google, but it is definitely not Google (in fact ChatGPT or Claude are decidedly bad at things Google does very well). So we have created a Prompt Library for teachers to use and see the immediate impact on creating new lesson ideas, craft newsletters and email responses, create rubrics, and other keytime intensive tasks. Once that lightbulb moment goes off, we often see that educators' natural curiosity takes effect and they are off to the races so to speak. Gen AI is here to stay and is only going to get more sophisticated, so it’s very important to prepare students for the future in a way that bridges the digital divide.

AI technologies can sometimes perpetuate bias or reinforce existing inequalities. How do you ensure that AI for Education products and services are designed and implemented in a way that promotes equity and inclusivity?

A major part of our focus is that educators are using AI responsibly, but also that EdTechs and other organizations are using their platforms to increase equitable access. Unfortunately there are many cases in which independent or fee paying schools have had access to ChatGPT while government and lower income schools have had the technology banned by the governing body. So there are many questions about how we think through access to technology. I’m excited about the opportunities for low to no bandwidth versions of these Large Language Models (LLMs) and mobile first design, which could make a huge dent in the digital divide that exists today.

As a frequent speaker and writer on AI in education, what do you believe are the most common misconceptions or myths about AI's role in transforming education, and how do you debunk them?

The most common misconception is that AI is here to replace teachers. AI is instead here to augment teachers, with the goal that teachers can focus on what matters most: teaching. While there may be a time when there are fully AI teachers, teachers' ability to understand, respond, and be proactive with their classrooms is something that cannot be replicated by any technology.

The educational landscape is vast and diverse, from K12 to Higher Ed and beyond. How do you tailor AI for Education's offerings to meet the specific needs and requirements of different educational levels and institutions?

We aim to create truly accessible, practical tools and resources that work across context. We have had attendees to our free workshops, course enrollments and access to our Prompt Library from educators from over 100 countries. We also work with schools, districts, and higher education institutions to ensure they are ready to adopt AI responsibly. We are in the process of exploring partnerships with other industry leaders in different geographies to be able to contextualize our work to better meet the unique needs of educators and education institutions from across the world. We also work closely with schools and institutions to adapt our content to meet their specific needs, as we know there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Can you share a specific case study or success story where AI for Education had a significant positive impact on student learning or teacher efficiency? What lessons did you learn from that experience?

For us, we have had great success in teaching educators how to use Gen AI to save time, create engaging, personalized content, and lower their time outside of the classroom. It is always amazing to see how our resources and tools have positively impacted teachers of all types. This is the most open I have ever seen teachers to a new technology. The excitement that comes when a teacher experiences the capabilities first-hand has been palpable.

What have you learned in your entrepreneurship journey, any key takeaways that could benefit others?

There is never a straight path to entrepreneurship and it is definitely not always easy, but following your passion is always a worthwhile endeavor.


Photo courtesy of: AI for Education

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