What Is AI in the Classroom and What Do Education Administrators Need To Consider?

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This is a podcast episode titled, What Is AI in the Classroom and What Do Education Administrators Need To Consider?. The summary for this episode is: <p>Phil Harding was the first technologist to bring the internet to the schools in Val Verde, California in 1992. Ever since, he's been on a quest to put the latest technology into the hands of his teachers and students: email, file fetching, Google classroom, iPads, and today, the AI digital assistant for teachers. He went to Google and Alexa at first, but ran into roadblocks along the way. He almost gave up, until he met Merlyn Mind. Harding sits down with host, Levi Belnap and two other district and state California administrators, David Culberhouse and Geoff Belleau to talk about the considerations, challenges, and broader economic impacts of setting up an AI assistant for the classroom.</p>
Preparing our workforce for a future with AI, starts with K12 education
00:25 MIN
Technology should unlock new ways for students to demonstrate knowledge
00:43 MIN
AI hasn't fully broken through to the education space like it has in our personal lives, a missed opportunity
03:55 MIN
What is AI, especially in the classroom?
03:54 MIN
Phil's quest to bring AI to his students faced a lot of barriers at first with privacy, until he found Merlyn Mind
03:50 MIN
Teachers are tech innovators by design: they discovered how to use Merlyn not only as a digital assistant, but also as a student engagement tool
03:46 MIN
Schools need creativity and guidance when introducing new technology
01:05 MIN
As teachers see how Merlyn saves times and untethers them from technology, demand grows and Harding scales up
04:55 MIN
Teachers don't have time, and the digital assistant give it back to them
04:56 MIN
The next technological tool and skill we have to give our students is AI
03:01 MIN
Learn from pilot schools, and scale at across districts and states
01:35 MIN

Levi Belnap: This is Supervised Learning, a podcast where the Merlyn Mind Team learns from experts in artificial intelligence, technology, and education. We hope you enjoy learning with us through these conversations with those who know. Time to learn. Okay, welcome everyone to this episode of Supervised Learning. We are very excited that you are spending some time with us and sharing your stories with us. We have a unique group of experts on the call today. So let's quickly set the tone for what we're going to do. We have educational experts that are in the classroom at the administrative level, at the state level, who've kind of gone up and down the spectrum of all the things you can do in an instructional technology, educational technology, and guiding the future of education. We're going to learn about one specific innovator, Phil Harding, who has brought a new AI technology into their classrooms that we build called Merlyn, the AI digital assistant for classrooms. We're going to kind of zoom into what does it look like to bring something new into classrooms and to bring AI into classrooms. And then we're going to zoom out and hear from experts like David and Geoff on challenges, opportunities, questions, applications. So my name is Levi. I'm the chief strategy officer here at Merlyn Mind. And David?

David Culberhouse: Hi, good afternoon. My name is David Culberhouse. I work at San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, which is a county office of education in Southern California.

Levi Belnap: And Geoff?

Geoff Belleau: Yeah, good afternoon everybody. I'm Geoff. I've been an educator for, gosh, a long time. These topics are always super interesting to me hearing what my friends at the county office and the school district are doing, division areas that are there. My current job is I work here at the Department of Ed in Sacramento on all things education.

Levi Belnap: And Phil?

Phil Harding: I'm Phil Harding. I'm the technology integration specialist for the Val Verde Unified School District. I'm one of the most senior teachers as my superintendent Mike McCormick reminded me this morning. I would like to say I was first teacher on the internet in my district. I'm also a member of the CUE board of directors, which I'm really proud of that and serving the CUE community that advocates for technology in the classroom. So-

Levi Belnap: Let me pause you there for a second, Phil, and bring David and Geoff in. So just reflect on the role of an educator at the front end of technology and why it matters to bring things like email in the internet and file fetchers into the classroom in 1992. How does that matter for today and today's teachers and what we need out of classrooms and technology and learning?

David Culberhouse: All right. So just for some clarity, I have never worked in technology in schools and I've never done it at the county office, but I've spent a tremendous amount of time looking at the future of work and I've had chances to speak across the nation around that and what it starts to look like. And so for me, it's always been about really looking at this digital disruption. What does it mean for our kids. When we talk about upskilling, we always talk about what we're going to do outside of education, but we really have to think about how that starts to come into our classrooms and the work that we're doing as we're starting to think about. I mean, McKinsey said by 2030, 70% of global firms will have adopted at least one type of AI technology. So you have to think about kids are going to go out. I don't feel that we have to worry as much about the jobs being replaced, but how they're able to work effectively with technology. And we have to think about where that starts, especially when you look at our kindergartners and think about what's the world going to be like when they graduate. I'll add one last thing. I had a conversation with Laura McBain. She works at Stanford d. school and she's director of the K- 12 Lab at Stanford. She's always been all about design. So I asked her this question, I said, "What's next for education?" I thought she was going to talk about how they're changing design. She goes, "For me, I think it's going to be what does AI look like in the classroom?" And so that was very indicative of where things are going.

Levi Belnap: I was going to say, I took some notes, David. I think we're going to definitely come back to what you talked about the future's not so much about worrying about AI replacing us, but how are we going to work with AI? So we'll come back to that for sure later. Geoff?

Geoff Belleau: It's funny, Phil and I have known each other for quite a few years now, but it shows how small the world was. When he was drop in internet connection in'92 there in Val Verde, I was actually teaching elementary school up over the hill in David's district in San Bernardino, in David's County in San Bernardino Unified. I remember I was teaching 4th grade at the time. Those of us in California know 4th grade's all about California missions, things like that, and kids are just becoming coming into their own. And so your teaching and writing process and things. I remember I had some kids that struggled. I mean, my kids on... They were 504 plans at the time. The summer before I got that job... Actually the summer before my last year in college, I worked at this accounting firm where we used these Radio Shack TRS- 80 Model 100 computers. Anybody remember those? These little bricks that had a little screening about this big. It had a full keyboard, right? They were moving on to something else, and so like, "Hey, do you want these?" I'm like, "Sure, I'll take them." inaudible the good teacher is. We'll take anything, right? And so I remember I brought them in and we used him for different things. And then we're talking the most basic, basic, basic, not fancy. Nothing. We didn't do emails by Phil. But this one kid I remember, using that he was actually able to then get his thoughts. Everybody thought he was challenged, but because he was able to peck out the things using the computer instead of a pencil and pen, it was like, oh, he all of a sudden just took off. And I remember it was like, "Oh, here's a tool to get what's up here on paper, because his motor skill, because of the challenges he had just wouldn't work. I mean, here's a 4th grader who looked like he was a TK in his handwriting now nowadays. At that time, I mean it was my first year of teaching, I was like, "Okay, yeah, we got to use everything we have available to make our students should be able to show what they know and be able to learn." I think fast forward to now. It's like it's not a TRS- 80 Model 100 computer. It's all sorts of things. And the whole idea, it's not about the computer, it's about the experience, the job. Like David said, it's like, "Oh, okay, we just got to do our job. How are we going to do it differently?"

Levi Belnap: Okay. So Phil, now I want you to tell me about first on the internet. And then I know you were very early with a lot of different technologies, but some that have become mainstay, you could say, in how technology works in classrooms today including the Google kind of ecosystem of applications and tools. You had, at one point, iPads and then Chromebooks. Just that quick kind of summary of why you are early with those and then we can kind of zoom back out, but it'd be helpful to get that context leading into then how you got AI.

Phil Harding: Well, one thing leads to another. We had Intel teach the future in 1998,'99. That was a Microsoft initiative that helped us give every teacher a computer, a laptop, and also gave them a copy of Microsoft Office, right? So let's think about where that goes. Suddenly we start changing real instruction. Teachers start putting things up on screens and getting projectors. Projectors were unheard of in 1992. I wish I had a projector then. I didn't. When I went to CUE, the organization I bought into computer using educators, first time I discovered them in 1992, the number one priority of the CUE group was, "Let's get a projector in every classroom" because David Thornberg said, "We have them in bowling alleys. Why are they not in our classroom?", right? That was the next steps, getting the projectors in, getting the use of PowerPoint and Microsoft Office, getting people to use the network, getting email communications. Imagine how email communications changed everything and how the district office communicated, how a principal communicates, how staff talks to each other, right? It ended the isolation of teachers in the classroom is what it did. But then the next step comes along. We needed really to find a better way than putting kids in computer labs. That just wasn't working. Not enough exposure with a computer lab because you only get a couple hours a week. It's like going to music one day a week. It just doesn't do it for you, right? It wasn't for me. We first went and looked at iPads because we saw the use of tablets and thought, " Wow, kids all have a tablet and get their textbooks on it." But the iPad, one problem it couldn't get across was the iPad could not get that cost point down so that we could deploy it equally across all of our kids. The equity of it all, right? And then Google says, "Hey, look at this Samsung Chromebook." We're going to be able to sell it a lot cheaper than an iPad. We could buy three Chromebooks for one iPad and it revolutionized everything. My superintendent Mike McCormick is a visionary. He has this whole plan called the Portrait of a Graduate where we want our students to step into the future. And Google became a partner in that. We held the first Google Symposium, we put up the Google backend. Our teachers loved the fact that they could all share documents with not only themselves, but with students. The next thing you knew, we went one- to- one with Google devices. We also tested the first three or four Chromebook models that Google was looking at, and we had quite a success with that. So I think one thing that David was talking about is always thinking about the future. I think that's what we always have to do because you have to at least keep going forward. And I believe the next step is artificial intelligence.

Levi Belnap: So let's now talk about what is AI and what does it have to do with education and classrooms and teaching and learning and what we're going to work with, to David's point earlier, and come to a common understanding of what we're talking about with AI and then we can go into this specific application of what Phil has done with AI in the classrooms at Vel Verde Unified School District. So I'd love for our expert guests here, what is your understanding of what is AI and what does it mean to talk about AI in terms of education?

Geoff Belleau: Yeah, I think the thing with AI in education is we haven't quite figured it out. It's not being used like it's being used in the rest of our world. It's like I tell these guys a story they know. I was disconnected from everything talking about a propane fire pit, how awesome the propane fire pit was because it didn't smell my smoke. I mean, we had no connectivity. And then two weeks later Amazon's like, "Hey, you want a propane fire pit?" And so that's just marketing all the other stuff. I mean there's so much analytics and artificial intelligence that is feeding in all of our lives the way we can just do live. I think in schools we haven't really got to it yet. I think there's an opportunity. Or maybe we are and we just don't know it. I mean, I wasn't an English teacher, but the tools that English teachers have now when it comes to writing where they can check for original writing, they can check for grade level of writing. There was a tool I was talking to somebody where they can evaluate the writing process where it looks at the references and looks at the resource, track the kid, then it quantifies what an English teacher already knows. But yet we're going to have to embrace it, systemize it so that kids don't have to do a writing exam during every April or May when we do standardized tests. And then we also have to put that into the other subject areas. I mean, just as the math teacher. It's like you have to give up two weeks to give kids tests every spring. It's like, "How about just let the device assess them all year long, and you should know how the kid's doing, and then you don't have to because the multiple choice tests that we've digitized are the same tests?" I mean, I'm 55. It's the same multiple choice I did back when I was 4th grade. It's on a computer, it's a multiple choice. Multiple choice is great for efficiency because it was on a scan front. Remember? Stack of scan fronts? Any high school teachers? Multiple choice wasn't a pedagogically great way to assess, it was an efficient way to assess. And so our assessment, we've just digitized it and I feel like AI has an opportunity where we can norm it, truly track students the learning and mastery of a topic without invading their privacy and protecting their privacy. We haven't got there yet. It's one of those funny things, but we'll talk about that. We were talking about that at the national level and we talk to the testing people and they look like we have inaudible right up here because they're like, "What are you talking about?" So we still got work to go on that I think in education space. But I think some of it may already be happening, but we just don't even quite know it yet, I guess. David, that kind of brought your tracking.

David Culberhouse: Yeah. It kind of builds on the question that Levi asked, what is it? Most of the people you ask go, "Well, I kind of know it's in my personal life. It's in my phone. I know it brings me ads that I want." I know my kid, he does his phone in a way that creates ads that he wants to be shaped to what he wants. And I'm like, "I don't like ads." He's like, "Well, I like it and here's how I'm going to set it up to make it happen to get what I want." But I think when it comes to education, it still feels a little bit out there. I think we see it playing around with algorithms in our platforms and stuff, but it's still something that it feels like it's a little bit outside, a little bit more that affects our personal lives, but not as deep I think in our educational spaces.

Phil Harding: Well, I was going to just comment on what David said. It remind me of a couple of things, that to me AI is like making you a better human, right? Enhancing your abilities to get other things done. I read a recent article, I think it was out of The Economist, where they said, "Everybody's worried about AI taking my job and robots taking my job, and suddenly we're going to find we're need more robots to help us all get everything else done," right? I also think it's a mentality thing like Geoff was talking about, that in our minds we think science fiction- wise we're thinking it's like how 2000, it's artificial intelligence is ought to kill us, right? But then what about on the other side where it becomes Jarvis out of Ironman that's constantly helping Tony Stark walk through problems? Henry Kissinger just wrote a book on AI with the head of Google. One of the things he said in there, I underlined it and highlighted it, is he said, "AI to the students that are growing up now, it will become their friend, their mentor, their coach, their teacher." And I thought, boy, I got thinking about that and I said, "He's not far off."

David Culberhouse: Can I just add to that? I think that's where ethics comes in in a really strong way. Before the pandemic, I was reading several articles of how AI was being infused in the school system in China. A lot of it had to do with facial recognition and monitoring how kids paid attention, which is not kind of really the help you're looking for. So it's really understanding that it can be used in ways that are more positive than others I think too.

Levi Belnap: I think that's a great point, David. In fact, let's define what AI means to Merlyn Mind. Why are we here in this conversation? Why are we talking with Phil? Why did Phil bring AI that we build into his classroom? We saw that teachers were constantly living in web- based applications, in digital content. Students and teachers were living on devices and websites and that was part of how modern teaching and learning were happening. But there was a lot of human labor required to orchestrate all of this teaching and learning with technology as part of it. And so we specifically said, "AI can do lots of things, right? It could do many, many, many different things, but what if we just did one thing really well to start with?" And that was meet teachers where they're at with the technologies they're using and the devices they're using, and be the assistant not to determine which student's on task, not to monitor facial recognition, but rather be there ready so when the teacher says, "Hey, can you open my lesson for today?", you don't have to go to your computer. "Oh, hey, can you switch to the other application so I can run a quiz?" You don't have to go to your computer. "Hey, can you pause the video at five minutes and 30 seconds so I can talk to the class?" You don't have to go and turn your back on your students. We thought although that might seem basic, what we've heard from teachers was, "If you take the friction out of the way that I'm teaching with technology so I can focus on my students, then I can impact their lives for the better and do what I'm there to do." And that was the whole premise of how we wanted to build a custom solution for schools that were built to help teachers and students learn. That's what we went to Phil with almost two years ago in secret before anybody else knew about this and we said, "Hey, is this something that you think could help in your classroom?" So I think it'd be helpful to hear Phil, you again used your kind of foresight I think to see that this could be useful. Why? What was it about what Merlyn was proposing and why we thought we could help you that resonated?

Phil Harding: Well, what really started was I'm a policy wonk. My two friends on here would be called that as well, all three of us, and we feed each other information all the time. But I came across a book by Kai-Fu we called AI Superpowers. I read the book and I did something that is not normal for me to do. I sent a copy to my superintendent's house, "Mike, you've got to read this book." He calls me and said, "Phil, that book scared me to death." And I'm sitting there going, "What are we doing to prepare our students for the future?" And that's where it started. We didn't even know about you guys at that point. I had somebody out of all things, out of our EL service department, send me a memo, "Phil, I've got some leftover money and I want to put 70 Google Home Pockets into the classroom." Matt and I got behind it. Matt and I are innovators and we believe in innovation for students and our teachers and we thought, "Let's try it." But then a funny thing happened. We went to meet with Google, they said, "Absolutely not." They wouldn't give us the privacy protections for the student to use. I killed the project right there, but I didn't give up hope. I said, "You know, there is Alexa." And so I went clear to Las Vegas to meet with Amazon. They got to the point of saying, "Well, we'll let you use it, but you got to keep it to 16- year olds and older." Well that wipes out all the rest of the K- 8, right? And I gave up. I actually said to Mike, I said, "Someday there'll be a company." Who knew during COVID, my dear friend Ari Flewelling from CDW a longtime colleague in CUE called me and said, "Phil, I have an opportunity for you." She said, "You know how you're always trying to talk about AI and trying to find a company that would let you put a device in the classroom and that it would do what you wanted to do?" I said, "Yeah." And she said, "I want to set you up with this guy Jason Mayland and his group, and so you can go talk to him." That's where I met you at light Levi and I met Jason and the crew. You were top secret. You made it clear to me that this had to be really secret. And I thought you guys thought I was going to ask for one device, which is probably natural for most schools. And I said, "Send me eight and I'll find the seven teachers or eight teachers to use those devices." During COVID, we had teachers coming into our schools using our network because our network was better than their home network and they were teaching out of their own classroom. When I went forward with my volunteers, as I called them my AI-nauts as I labeled them, because I went to them and I approached them and I said... Brian Fish for example, I said, "Brian," I said, "How would you like to have an R2-D2 assistant in your classroom?" And he goes, "Phil, what are you talking about?" And I said, "Artificial intelligence." He almost had a heart attack. He said, "Phil," he said, "that's mind blowing." He said, "Are you sure? Does it work? Have you seen it?" No, I haven't seen it, but they're shipping it to us." And that's how it started. So I hand- delivered each one. We started off with you guys. And I think at first, Levi, and you can correct me if I was wrong, you guys actually thought it more as a true teacher assistant helping the teacher.

Levi Belnap: Yeah. From the beginning, we've kind of believed that AI in the classroom can improve student learning, right? The way that we thought we could get there first was by freeing the teacher to be helpful. And then yes, we also thought maybe there's applications for the students, but we definitely have focused on let's help the teacher with their workload, what they have to deal with, the technology they use, so they can be more helpful to the student. But I think Phil, we've learned from you that we're already maybe closer to helping both than we thought, right?

Phil Harding: Well, I'll have to say, my seven innovators, great teachers, all of them, I gave them the device. Like any teacher that you give a tool to, they find other ways to use it that you haven't thought of. I didn't realize that they were going to invert the pyramid on us. I told them, break the Merlyn. That was Jason Mayland's only request. And I said, "Break it. They want you to tell us what is wrong with it." They put it through its space and they were like, "Oh wow. It's cool that it can open up my Google Drive. Oh wow, it's cool, it can do this, that and the other and save me so much time clicking around and finding that lost file or getting that YouTube video ready or so on. Here you have the AI being that perfect assistant." But what happens is Diana Escalante, Darren Criss, some of the AI nuts said, "Well, you know what? I'm going to use it in my instruction with the students and empower the students using the artificial intelligence." So here I have my special ed instructor out of the group. He has kids who have speech impediment problems. They wanted to learn how to use the Merlyn and the only way they could do it is talk to the Merlyn of course. And so the kids worked overtime on their speech in order to talk to the AI device in Diana Escalante's 2nd grade classroom. Because when you see an AI device, your first thought is, "Oh, that's for high school and middle school." Well, I'm here to tell you we're going to blow that concept away because I have a great kindergarten teacher that uses it every day and a 2nd grade teacher that is fabulous with it. One of the things that Diana Escalante did with it is she was using it to kind of challenging her kids. "How can we beat Merlyn in math? Is Merlyn right? Did he get the number. Check your work." The kids in her class began to build a relationship with the artificial intelligence device. So they started talking about Merlyn like he was a person, right? And you think, "Wow, that's freaking me out." But think of what the children who've grown up in their environment. In their pop cultured life, they believe everything's going to function like it does in Star Wars and Marvel comic books, right? And so they have less fear of it than their adult counterparts, right? They're willing to engage with it. "Hey, do you want to meet our assistant Merlyn over here?" And so it changed the pedagogy that we have students using it. I had another teacher who used it in moot court situation, right? I had another teacher that was having kids actually test facts against the Merlyn about mileage and so on. So it's like a Swiss army knife when you think about it. Artificial intelligence can do all kinds of things. You have to just play with it enough to figure out what it will do.

Levi Belnap: So I want to hear from David and Geoff. So we zoomed in a little bit on the story of Phil bringing in this application of AI that was built with the privacy and security and real application of what it could help do in a classroom. Thoughts on what does that story kind of represent in terms of moving forward? How do we think about applications of AI in classrooms and the type of technology that could come in with this cutting edge AI to have impact today and set us up for the future?

Geoff Belleau: I think the thing that I see here, and this is where all teachers just excel and educators excel. Like Dennis or Phil was just saying, it's like we took it and we used it with kids, something that we thought would be used with teachers. And that's really in all these cases, you put something infront of a bunch of educators and out of necessity, they suddenly just start transforming it. I've thought it'd be great to sit down with a bunch of teachers and the people at Zoom and have them explain to Zoom people how they've used Zoom to change the way they do into production. Because I'm pretty sure the Zoom people would have no idea the ways that it's being used. I think that's the thing, whether it's AI, a tool like Merlyn, Zoom, the tools and apps that teachers have used over the last few years, it's always teachers just being teachers and being the creative or creators themselves with their students and letting the students also come to it. I heard during the pandemic a bunch of kids who didn't have devices, didn't have connectivity, but they had phones, so they found RingCentral and they were learning using RingCentral, which is lik an app not intended at all to use for education. I think that's where there's... It's like, just get out of the way and let them do it, help make sure that we have the privacy and the security that we can if we have or able to, but just let teachers excel and then shine the bright spots on it.

David Culberhouse: And just to kind of build on that. I think it's a two- sided coin because I think you need those who can create and run with it. But I also think I believe we need some curriculum and some policies where people really have deep understandings. It goes back to your question, Levi, "What is it?" And so when kids start to really understand what it is, it's kind of like, "I know how to use my computer, but I wouldn't know how to go in and build one." And so it is building those understandings because I think when you look at AI right now, it's really in its infancy. When our kids start to move out in the world, I think it's going to be them taking the reins and trying to grow it and move it towards a different kind of maturity. I think if we're doing both sides of that, you can create but also have deep understandings of what it is. It's kind of like creativity. If you don't have deep knowledge to make connections, it's hard to be creative. So I think it's those two sides of the coin.

Levi Belnap: Thank you. I appreciate the insights. It's really helped to hear zoom in, zoom out, zoom in, zoom out. So let's zoom back in, Phil. We have learned so much from you and your teachers. You talked about how this is a collaborative process. The way Merlyn works in classrooms is because we are working with you to understand how should Merlyn work in classrooms. What is AI really good for and how can we help your teachers? I think together we've come a long way in the last few years. It was definitely not as good two years ago as it is today. And it's not going to be the same a year from now and two years from now. We're going to keep working to improve how can AI support teaching and learning in the classroom through the Merlyn application. So as you think about why it's worked, I mean, I know you guys started with a handful of pilots and now, I mean, I think you've put committed to put this in every classroom in your district, correct?

Phil Harding: Yes. Yes.

Levi Belnap: So just tell us that story. What happened that made it so impactful and why are you expanding so dramatically?

Phil Harding: Well, any technology, you start small, you start with that, like you said, the pilot, and you start with eight to 10 users. And then if it's really doing something and making impact and other teachers see it, other admins see it, then it can grow, right? And so then my superintendent, Mike McCormick is a futurist first and foremost. If I had a resume and I had write his resume futurist would be at the top. Mike said to me, "Phil, I saw this in a classroom today" and he said, "I couldn't believe it." He goes, "Let's get 25 more." And then I bought 25 more and sent them out and expanded the pool, right? The more people that saw it, I started having teachers coming to me saying, "Hey, Phil, when do I get mine? Can you get me one of those AI devices? I want to try it, or I want to do something different with it." Once again, now that I got a larger pool, I'm finding that it's always been true, whatever technology you give a teacher, Dave may use it a different way, Geoff will use it a different way than I would use it depending on, one, what I'm teaching, two, what my goals are with it, three, is it useful to help my workflow in the organization? How is it helping me achieve my goals with my students? And how am I making an impact by using that device? Well, I'll say one thing about the Merlyn Mind. If there's one thing that I think is one of its strongest selling points is the fact that it saves teachers time. I had a colleague today at the county who's only seen the Merlyn in action, that's all. Doesn't have a Merlyn, hasn't used it, and he said, "You know what, Phil? I still think about that device when I came down to your district to look at it a month ago." And Mike Loughlin said, "You know, Phil," he goes, "what it is," he says, "is it's amazing how much time," he says, "when you think about it," he goes, "You say, 'Bring up my Google Slide deck on volcanoes,' and you don't have to go back over to your computer and say, 'Okay, what file did I put that in? Hold on, kids, give me two minutes to get everything up and running.' And here you have your assistant in the flow." When you walk in to Jennifer Thornton's classroom, the same thing. Jennifer uses it to do those tasks that used to take her more time. If I asked all my Merlyn users what's it's number one use, it's the timer. Oh, and number two is being able to tell Merlyn to put it into my Google classroom because we suggested that and you worked with us. And we now have that put it in the Google Classroom command. And I'll tell you what, that is super popular with our users. And now we have a shipment that's arriving shortly after Thanksgiving break of another 100. We're going to put those out into the classrooms. But concentrating now, we're equipping a whole school instead. We're equipping one of our high schools. We're equipping one of our elementary schools and one of our middle schools. And from there, we hope to grow it even more. Another thing too that was valuable is my union president of the teachers association saw the Merlyn in action in the classrooms and she said, "Wow, Phil, we should have that for everybody." Because I have a picture. When Jason Mayland come out to install one of the devices, I have a picture of a teacher's desk where she had five different things laying on her desk to help her run class that the Merlyn can do for her, right? So let's think about that for a moment. "Where did I put my stopwatch? Where did I put my remote to the projector?" All those different things that they use to run class. "Where's that darn egg timer? I know I put it somewhere," right? So we have to think of efficiency in the classroom. We're always saying in the classroom, "We don't have enough time," especially after the learning loss that occurred during COVID. We're seeing it in mathematics. I've been in three different places in the last month and everybody is talking about the mathematics loss. David, I'm sure you're hearing that at San Bernardino County. And Geoff, I know you're hearing at the state level. There's a concern about that. Well, AI comes in and frees up that time. It also can help us hone what we're trying to do instruction wise, because every few minutes you get is a lot to a teacher.

David Culberhouse: Hey, can I add something to that real quick. Because I think what Phil said is extremely important. Because right now what you hear is educators are tired. But the best thing you can do in VUCA environments, where it's volatile and certain complex and ambiguous, is to learn. And when you do what Phil's talking about, when you allow people to be in a flow and you take away those obstacles to time, it allows your cognitive load to lessen, which then creates space for learning. Right now people can't learn because their cognitive load is too much. And so what Phil was talking about right there is really important to learning during this time when people say, "I don't have that capacity anymore. I'm just tired. There's too much." And that's really important.

Levi Belnap: So that idea of bringing innovation in that does something today that people seems like a very important piece of bringing new technology in, right? So you mentioned, "What is AI? What does it do for me? How does it help?" We really focused on, "Let's free the teacher up. Let's save time. Let's automate workflows. Let's decrease the focus they have on their technology so they can increase focus on their students." And what we've seen is the kind of reactions Phil's talking about, which is, "Oh my goodness, this is what I've always been wanting." They don't actually care that it's AI. Let's be honest, right? It doesn't matter what you call it. It was helping them do the thing they were struggling to do. So as we look at going forward in the future and the role of AI and technology, if we focus in on the problems that teachers care most about and the opportunity to engage students most, does that set us up for success? Is that the right way to apply AI? Are we onto something here? Or are we missing it still? I'd love your kind of thoughts and feedback on do we keep going down the same direction because we got a lot of smart people spending a lot of time and energy to build what we believe is a solution that matters and should be in every classroom. Phil, are we on the right path?

Phil Harding: I think we are. I think the greatest fear, and I know Geoff and David think this way too, that one of the worries that I had after COVID is that we would suddenly go back to the future, we'd suddenly go back to the past. And that's a human reaction, right? "Oh wow. We better buckle down and really examine our curriculum and take a different view" when we need to be changing our thinking, right? David and Geoff was talking about this all the time. We need to change our lens not just at the teacher level. I think teachers are very innovative, creative people. They really are, and they really care. What we need is we need that bigger picture. And I'm blessed to have a superintendent that has that big view. When Mike McCormick looks through his glasses, he's seeing the future, right?

David Culberhouse: I think what's so important about that is if you... Look at the work of Bill Starbuck, he's an organizational theorist. The longer the arc of a crisis, the more people want to get back to what they've done prior. They want to get back to what they did before. And so I think what's important about what all of you are talking about is in some ways, the arc of the crisis lasted a lot longer. So a lot of times we wanted to get back to what felt like normal again. And so I think it requires some regrouping. When you have tools that allow you to facilitate and take load that cognitive load down, I think you can regroup and start to take what you learned over that time and start to push out in sometimes new directions. But finding that space to allow that learning and that regrouping to happen, I think is really important.

Levi Belnap: Well, this has been a wonderful session. I think we can kind of come to a conclusion here in a minute, but I would love to just hear ending thoughts, Phil, first from you on, I mean, you've been on an incredible journey in your professional career. I think I can't imagine how many thousands of students have been lucky to learn under the technology environments and classroom settings that you and superintendent Mike McCormick and others have created there in the Val Verde Unified School District. What are your thoughts on the next step for your own district? You're bringing AI in, you're getting students ready for the future, you're trying to help America get ready to be competitive in this AI future. Quite the story. Anything else you want to share?

Phil Harding: Well, you know what? I was thinking the other day about I was a very young teacher 30 plus years ago and my mission was educate those kids and to broaden their scope, broaden their world, and to motivate them and to be engaged with them. All these are buzzwords in the classroom even today, right? But it was taking that first step with that technology. I had no idea where the internet was going to take my students and myself or my colleagues. I didn't know it would transform an organization, right? And so now I have the ability to look back and say, "Wow, that was one of other steps to follow as we continue in the journey." It's never a marathon. It's a journey, right? It's going to be a long time before this all comes to a close, right? And we sit there and I think to myself, "Artificial intelligence is that next step." When we think of what is the primary drivers, every time I hear any kind of policy podcast that I listen to, somewhere in the podcast, somebody says, "Here are the five key things our country's got to get their act together in order to be competitive." And I swear every time somebody goes, "Oh, and artificial intelligence" and are we doing a service to the kids of our community, a very poor community? We're an economic polygon in Val Verde, we should lift the kids off, right? I think from my childhood, I grew up near an Amish community, a Quaker Amish community where they did barn raisings. And if you've never seen a barn raising, it's some site to be seen. And you're saying, "Phil, where are you going with this barn reasoning analogy and technology?" Well, here's the point. We got to help kids raise the barns. We got to give them the tools to do that. We got to think about what's that like for them economically in the future? Every person here in this podcast, we have a motivation for making sure those kids have a bright economic future, right? Our country has a bright future. I know that's taking a very big view of what we do, but every day when I come to work, one of the things that's always back in the mind is, " What can I do today to make a difference?" And the men who raised me from my childhood, that's one of the things that was ingrained in me, is, "What are you doing today to make a difference for others?" And that's the impact we should have no matter what the technology is.

David Culberhouse: Hey, if I could put the last part into an equation, it'd be time minus load equals flow.

Levi Belnap: That will probably end up in our marketing, David. That's genius.

David Culberhouse: Yes.

Phil Harding: We're copywriting that by the way, Levi.

Geoff Belleau: No, that's great. Yeah, no, I think that the thing a lot of us are looking at, we had this conversation again, it keep going back to last week when I was talking to some other states. Looking at AI and looking at all of these things and looking at the trends, looking at how, but also just being thoughtful and not just going head long into what's next because there are some bright spots, there are some good things, there were some successes. There are some things that need to adapt. I was like, "Let's see." In Phil's case, "How's it workout? What happens? Let's see what then." Watch the case study play out and then we'll learn from it as opposed to go on to the next, because we can have pretty bad ADD. This, that, and the other thing in education. It's like, let's stop for a second, look and breathe and be intentional. Like Phil and David's point, look at the flow and see what's working, what doesn't, and where do we need to go next after this last three years we've had.

David Culberhouse: And just to add on that from Geoff is, I think the hardest thing and the most important thing we need to do right now is move from knowing organizations to being learning organizations. You have to create spaces where people can learn. I think that reaches to what Geoff and Phil say, creating that space where people can actually learn in a way that people understand what this is moving towards.

Levi Belnap: If you look across the team at Merlyn Mind, what we found is we can find the world leading experts in artificial intelligence, machine learning, design, computer science, like up and down the stack. Whether it's like chip level, how do you design chips to how do I design apps, to how do I sell and market things, we have found that professionals who want to make a difference in the world have been drawn to the cause of Merlyn Mind because they care about using their life to do something good. And we all believe that if we can help teachers and we help students, we did something that mattered. And if we end our lives tomorrow, we can say, " You know what? At least we did something that we thought could make the world better. And we help teachers and students, and we use technology in a way that was productive." So the mission of Merlyn Mind is continue to apply AI to help teachers and students teach and learn in a way that they couldn't yesterday, but we hope is better tomorrow. So we're going to keep coming back to experts like you, David, and Goeff, and Phil to guide us on our mission because I think the idea of companies and school leaders working together to create the technologies that are used in schools, to Phil's point, it's the only way it really works, right? We have to do this together. So thank you so much for being our guides, our kind of experts on this mission and for working with us. It's been a fantastic journey so far with Val Verde Unified School District, and you, Phil. I know David and Geoff, we've had now a few years of coming back and learning from each other. I hope we have many more in the future to come. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Supervised Learning. Until next time, keep learning.


Phil Harding was the first technologist to bring the internet to the schools in Val Verde, California in 1992. Ever since, he's been on a quest to put the latest technology into the hands of his teachers and students: email, file fetching, Google classroom, iPads, and today, the AI digital assistant for teachers. He went to Google and Alexa at first, but ran into roadblocks along the way. He almost gave up, until he met Merlyn Mind. Harding sits down with host, Levi Belnap and two other district and state California administrators, David Culberhouse and Geoff Belleau to talk about the considerations, challenges, and broader economic impacts of setting up an AI assistant for the classroom.

Today's Host

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Levi Belnap

|Chief Strategy Officer, Merlyn Mind

Today's Guests

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David Culberhouse

|LCAP Program Manager, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools
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Geoff Belleau

|Education Administrator, California Department of Education
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Phil Harding

|Technology Integration Specialist, Val Verde Unified School District