Education Technology in the Ecosystem in the AC-Stage

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Ash Kaluarachchi is the CEO of StartEd and a producer at EdTech Week. Ash advises and connects organizations solving problems in education. His EdTech programs have accelerated multiple global unicorns, including at Techstars. To date, Ash’s EdTech programs have enabled 2,000+ companies around the globe in partnership with organizations such as Google, Kaplan, Intel, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California and New York University. He continues to support founders solving problems for educators, administrators and learners in Pre-K12, HigherEd, Future of Work, and Adult learning as CEO of StartEd and Producer of EdTech Week.

Dr. Michael Conner

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. Welcome to another episode of voices for excellence. I am your host, Dr. Michael Conner, CEO and Founder of the Agile Evolutionary Group and proud host of VFE. And today’s guest is somebody I just, I absolutely just love his work. I am humbled, humbled, humbled that he is on VFE. And yes, I am going to say this, he is a person I want to be like when I grow up as an entrepreneur. So it is absolutely an honor to have Ash. oh man, what how do I, Kaluarachchi, Kaluarachchi. Okay. It is an absolute honor to have Ash Kaluarachchi on VFE. He is the CEO of StartEd as well as yes, one of the core architects and producers of Ed Tech Week in New York City. So I had to bring him on VFE because ultimately, you know, technology, AI is going to take over the education ecosystem. And we got to find new ways of integrating AI seamlessly into the operating model. So to have Ash here to pick his brain, to highlight specific strategies, to unwrap specific methods, and then also, what are the new ideas coming out in edtech in the tech world? So, Ash, welcome to VFE, my friend. How are you?

Ash Kaluarachchi

Very good to be here, Dr. Conner. It’s my pleasure.

Dr. Michael Conner

Absolutely just an absolute honor to have Ash here. And Ash, we’re just going to jump right into it because, have you just unpacked your thinking, unpack your perspectives and insights? This is going to be very invaluable for the VFE audience as well as our listeners and viewers today. But just to get started. Right, and this is to expand on your knowledge and expertise and the EdTech world, but also an AI education. But it’s a fun question as well, with your expertise, with your knowledge in EdTech, AI in education, what is your excellence song that defines your leadership and the ecosystem?

Ash Kaluarachchi

That’s such a great way to start the conversation, Michael. I think, when I think about the work that you and I and thousands of others have done to bring the industry to this point, I think about, how important it is to not focus on the technology. Technology will always be an enabler. It is not the end with all. What I think I’d like to base my next few comments on is, a little bit of a foundation. I, I spend most of my time, investing and enabling investment in EdTech companies. I’ve done so far about 100 companies from pre-K through workforce learning, at various organizations like Techstars, NYU, Intel. And then about ten years ago, I sat down with some other great exec founders in New York City, and what was birthed was StartEd®, our entrepreneur executive education company and networking and learning environment, for the industry as well as EdTech week, our investor conference. So we gather all of the stakeholders, in education because you need a village to build a compelling, impactful company in this space. As with everyone, I’ve been tracking the conversation around AI, and I go back to my initial comment that it is not the end all be all, it is an enabler. But it is rapidly evolving and we all want to be prepared for any changes that it might create. The most salient point I heard in the past week, I think myself and thousands of others were in San Diego last week, speaking with each other, and one of the best, more succinct ways to describe this was that in this moment in time, in early, you know, Q2, Q2, 2024 for the majority of people building on AI, they’re not building AI. And the very few, I’d say some, some percent of individuals are actually building artificial intelligence to solve educational challenges. They have a very different take on where this technology is and my content. And from what I understand, that consensus is right now, it does a great job of this, mediating some of the tasks that we usually translate into jobs that go into manipulating media. Yes, it does impact our ability to write, ability to depict our thoughts, ability to process them and gather information. But at the end of the day, it’s still about manipulating media, and it’s about communication. Right. And that results in two specific areas. It can change, schools and environments. One is in in how people are made aware of and are informed about specific aspects of education and then how people experience the service and are able to provide feedback and have a good, customer experience as part of engaging with education and technology. Those two are really the only two areas where this technology is impacting us right now. That’s not to say in a few months, we’ll have more areas that it does.

Dr. Michael Conner

Yeah, yeah. Ash, thank you for that because, your statement I want to expand on that building on AI, I think that’s, that’s very important because when we look at artificial intelligence and now just being, specific for level setting purposes, let’s say the dynamics of classroom instruction. Right? And we’re looking at how to prepare students. I like to say there’s that element of college readiness. Obviously we want to focus for career readiness. But this new readiness that just evolves, which is digital readiness. Right. And when I think about digital readiness, having that level of readiness for classroom practitioners, for leaders and for students, so when you say building on AI, right? How can we ensure that we’re designing and operating model or instructional framework or an instructional model for generation Z and Generation Alpha, where now we have this equilibrium between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, i.e. the classroom practitioner or leader?

Ash Kaluarachchi

Another great question, Michael. I think we want to look at the problem from two different perspectives. One is about how the technology impacting the classroom, and how are the students and educators impacting their futures using the technology. It’s a, it’s a mental shift from, being, passive or almost a passive recipient of the value of, of AI, the efficiencies, the productivity. Being aware and then also, you know, needing to manage around the risks of some, you know, hallucinations that the technology might have versus knowing the technologies limitations, its possibilities, and using it to be more productive directionally in your career and in instruction, as a student or educator, those two areas are very different in the class simultaneously, and we need to separate them out when they’re responding to that question. And I think with the first group, the responsibility lies really in, unfortunately, a handful of individuals. Truly, AI technology is being relatively controlled by some large organizations. And, and like we experienced with, the advent of search, there were a ton of different organizations. You must remember brands like, the Ristar and others, Sierra that that went by the wayside because Google, was the most resourced and they had the talent. We’re encountering a similar experience here, where those protagonists, they’ve changed their brands and names, where it’s relatively the same people. And again, unfortunately, there are groups like anthropic and OpenAI making those those step changes and developing the artificial intelligence. And then, there’s a very, there’s, there’s, there’s… the more folks, I think the 99%, while building on the technologies that those very few are, are determining the responsibility of that for that first group, how it impacts the lives and productivity of children and educators in the classroom is unfortunately, again, in those fewer hands. So those groups need to be advised, they need to understand the dynamics of the education space. They never know. I highly doubt they’ve actually spent much time in the classroom. I know they want to. I know both those organizations have started concerted efforts to understand the needs and desires of educators, superintendents and students. But they are still early in that journey. They didn’t build it for education use case. And then I think the second part of it is, I think, more aspirational. And to me, more inspirational. This is about showing the individual educator and learner, how one might be able to advance their objectives, their lives, improve the quality of their families using this technology. There are significant gaps to it. One of the more salient, I think, is the fact that most educators, let’s talk about New York City, for example. So in New York City, we have about 80,000 educators, teaching close to a million students. And a fair portion of those million students are going to end up in tech jobs, whether they like it or not. It’s going to be influenced by technology. But those 80,000 teachers don’t have a lot of context. The majority of them don’t have the a lot of context about what the tech environment looks and feels like. What are the skillsets, the mindsets, the cultures required to be successful in that environment. And I think that one of the biggest opportunities here is to enable educators to understand what they’re building, what how they can change classroom instruction to inform that next generation of workers in the US.

Dr. Michael Conner

Yeah, yeah. Ash. Great. Great points. Because I love how you highlighted that. it’s got there’s going to be various elements of technology. It’s going to be integrated into the future jobs for generation to generation Alpha. that’s why this is a huge emphasis. Now even those college ready, career readiness, college readiness, in the K-12 sector, we have to add that level of digital readiness as well, this digital ecosystem. I want to expand on, the development you started talking about the development of artificial intelligence, the development of these various softwares. Now, you know, asked to have a statistical background, analytical background, and the design of AI. We always see the front end experience. But the back end, I want to speak specifically around the back end because I want the ed tech, or I should say the AI, engineers and software engineers and designers and data analysts really focus on this question. The back end design to achieve equity. Right. And we’ll talk about because of the very limited experiences, because it’s domain expertise, technical expertise where around developing these algorithmic models, developing the statistical models, how do we now if there’s very limited experience, in the classroom sector or the dynamics of the classroom is really understanding the needs of our students, how can we start building these labs or the statistical models or building algorithms for fun and AI experience to level set equity within the development process of that?

Ash Kaluarachchi

It all comes down to the data, Michael. So, so, AI thrives and is growing and manipulated and ends up in a certain, takes on a certain perspective on the world, just as young human beings. It’s nature versus nurture. It’s a, there are scary analogies and in an environment where there’s, biased data and there’s a lack of data the human being also takes on certain words and biases. Similarly, this is the risk and reward, and opportunity around AI, the concerted efforts spent by certain organizations. There’s a few great foundations spending some time on it. There’s organizations, that that manage and guide, how we collect data in school is there are policies that that allow us to do it safely. When it comes to children, those 3 or 4 institutions need to, simultaneously focus on gathering additional data sets which allow us to figure out what, creating equity and and also identifying marginalization looks like, from a data perspective. Right. And we need to teach and feed, the other, AI tools, with that information and train them, you know, knowledge required to be recognized. So it’s, what the entities that are responsible for doing, is necessary whether what they’re doing is necessary, but it might not be sufficient. We in the education space, need to take a, take a step forward and provide that information, be available, to, to change those perspectives that they might have, as it’s being developed.

Dr. Michael Conner

Thank you for that, Ash. And Ash, you hit upon a great point is that the necessity to add an additional data sets. I was actually speaking with, a friend who is an economist, and we were talking about that and the addition of diverse data sets into these models. And we got into this conversation around the F1 accuracy of the model the confidence interval might be compromised significantly because of the data sets are, you know, it’s acknowledged and marginalization within is a knowledge. And, some of these, I like to say, attributes and assumptions that we would normally not add into a statistical model, for us to have the various outcomes of coefficients or whatever we’re looking at from a predictive standpoint. But I, I loved how you stated that these additional data sets are needed, and I just I just want to expand on one thing. And I apologize for this, Ash, because this is so critical when we start seeing some of the models, where we’re testing and training them and they’re become compromised, right, or doesn’t reach that level of accuracy, but we’re adding in elements of equity that have never been added. And before, how do we analyze these models if we’re on the back end of developing, let’s say, this new technical software that is adaptive, where students are, you know, it gets to the levels of proximal development. I want to go on the back end because we do have a significant number of, economists as well as data analysts, software engineers who listens in, and I want them to be able to, move beyond the noise of focus on the signals of the data so that we truly reach equity with AI in education.

Ash Kaluarachchi

So there’s two separate problems here to be addressed. I mean, there’s a lot, but to me, there’s two big chunks, right? One is the inaccuracies of the existing data set versus those who we might not even have data on. So equity and marginalization results from things like large swaths of the US and the world not even having access to the internet. But even if there aren’t users, if the users aren’t online, there’s no data set, there’s no behavior to be understood, and there’s no need or desire. The needs and desires of those individuals and populations are often included in the analysis. So organically a large group gets kind of left out. So we need to be mindful of that and extrapolate and collect information in order to be more inclusive. That’s a big task. I don’t think anyone’s really working on that. That’s a, that’s a high order problem that I think, those three institutions of kind of foundations, technology and policy need to come together and figure out. And unfortunately, it’s a very complex problem because it’s global. The second and going back to the first point, the lack of the… the inaccuracy of the existing information, and the biases it might have already, that is probably above my pay grade. But I do know that, at least we know that we have a problem there, right? We know that the problem exists. We know the relative scale of it, and we know who needs to be involved. And what I don’t see yet is publicly held accountable initiatives to make sure that those are the decisions that are being made and are being translated to the general populace, to the users and educators and learners. That impacts. So we probably need a little bit more visibility in that so the current administration, as I understand it, the new EdTech policy, is really focused on this particular topic of making available what those institutions are doing to make future generations of AI and what is built on it a little bit more equitable.

Dr. Michael Conner

Great, great. Thanks, Ash, for bringing that up because, you know, that has been kind of one of my, private concerns and one of my kind of open, open questions or I should say, open a central questions I bring up with regards to how are these models being developed with equity? marginalization, as well as all of what I like to say, these, inhibiting factors, right, that we see in the economy, how are we building that? So because that’s what’s represented in our school specifically when we see the demographic changing, where, public education or I should say education in the ecosystem, 57% are going to be black and brown. And we’re seeing this exponential increase of students that are living in poverty, within our schools. So now for building these, emerging technologies and looking at artificial intelligence in our classrooms, we want to make sure that the software, hardware. Yes, that’s what we got to focus on, you know, eliminating those inequities. But when we talk about software, we have to be able to design AI platform forms as solutions with equity in mind. So thank you for that, Ash. But based on the economy demand, we talked about this moments ago that there’s a and you said it, but you didn’t say it explicitly, but it was implicitly there that there is a de-emphasize or knowledge based skills, which is the traditional college pathway, but how the economy is dry, the economic drivers, where the economy is going, generation Z, generation alpha, generation alpha, who’s considered the generative native. Now we have to look at coupling technical skills with digital skills within students. This new paradigm of education, specifically when we’re thinking about designing career pathways with the integration of AI, how do we shift leadership or shift the ecosystem mindset to truly focus on technical skill development and digital skill development?

Ash Kaluarachchi

Michael, you probably remember growing up in a time where we didn’t have access to unlimited information. A lot of the people alive today don’t remember that. And, and I think our generation has kind of this unique perspective on the step change that that created. I want to think back to our parents who, you know, grew us and caused us to find our passions and livelihoods. They had a relatively good idea of what jobs we would have. Right. And, and I think back to that not that they had it easy. Certainly my parents didn’t have it easy, but, I know that a lot of parents had a decent idea of what the general options were in the relative area of whether you wanted to become an educator or a banker or a construction worker, whatever it was. I have a daughter now, and she’s growing up, and I have no idea what a job will look like when she reaches working age. I think this is a very unique time in human history where the generation that’s growing, the next one, can’t really have any reference point and can’t really guide with specificity what one should do with their career. So how do you actually make those decisions as a parent? The reason I want to put this frame on this response is because, we are we are creating an environment where the moment we train someone on a specific set of technologies and jobs, those jobs will disappear and morph quicker than we can train. And that is becoming shorter and shorter. So when we were growing up, it used to be about 20 years they could roughly say jobs stayed relatively consistent. That’s been shortened to about five now. And that’ll continue to go shorter and shorter. So what do you do in that situation? How do you train, someone? You actually have to shift how people are trained in school when one has to actually reimagine what that learning looks and feels like. My hypothesis is that we have to shift to an environment where we go through pre K-12, there’s a post-secondary experience and there’s likely a period of working, and then there’s probably another period learning and other peer looking or the politics, those work streams and and learn streams probably need to happen simultaneously. And the future probably looks like us learning and working at the same time and allocating time accordingly. That’s a probably somewhat utopian, perspective on things like that. The actual reality would probably be a lot of our luck with probably have a lot of biases and iniquities, but, that’s the that’s the future that we need to be creating policies, and technology as far.

Dr. Michael Conner

Absolutely, Ash well stated. And when I think of new models, right, new models in the education ecosystem, when I think of new value capture, value creation in the context of student learning experiences, you just highlight the accelerators and the incubators that need to be, implemented, right, that it needs to be instead of it being a reimagining process. It needs to happen within a design process, co-creation, coauthoring obviously voices of our, constituents empathy first, design principle. But you hit on it, right? School should not look the same as how our educational experiences, our parents educational experience, was give you an example of this. My son, who just turned nine at nine, you know what he said? He wants to be an entrepreneur, entrepreneur. But again, that means so many things that he could explore so many pathways. But again, it’s develop in those key skills that you talked about. Right. we don’t know what they’re going to learn, but that learning slash working developing skills develop and collaborate and developing that level of empathy, all of that, all of that should be a part of this new paradigm, this new model of education. I don’t know if we’re going to get there, because again, that to me is the antithesis of what the traditional legacy thinking mindset of education, 200 years of the industrial system. But we have to keep on pushing in order to get there. I, I believe I said we can we don’t I don’t think we could get there unless we could change the mindset. Let me rephrase it. Change the mindset of the, shared mental model of the ecosystem. but that goes nicely into this question, right? That needed transformation. I’m with you 1,000%. That is the utopia, right? That is the utopia. But we have to take into consideration some of the inhibiting factors that prevent us from reaching that utopia. There are traditionalists that still exist in the education ecosystem that want to protect the status quo, that do not want to change the status quo. We still have elements of, instruction and leadership that focuses on adults as opposed to being student centric. We need to have this level of disruption. We need to have this level, of serial change and a disrupting at the incremental level to get to that architectural change that you highlighted what cultural ideas ash. And this is something that, you know, we we we need to focus on. What cultural ideas or recommendations do you suggest for the broader redesign for us to reach that utopia? What are some of the cultural practices to change mindset to level set artificial intelligence to level set these new paradigms that we’re talking about to be a part of the organizational strategy for leaders, so that we can move beyond what the traditionalists say that we have to continue, that isn’t working.

Ash Kaluarachchi

I love that question. So from a customer perspective, I want to maybe take it somewhere a little bit personal as a foundation. So, I grew up in Sri Lanka, on that side of the world from right now. It’s a small little country, 20 million people. There’s there’s few, very few of us in the US. And in Sri Lanka, it’s a majority Buddhist, community. I call myself Buddhist as well. And we grew up with this idea of significant respect for those who played mentor or educator roles in the community. And in fact, there’s also this idea that everyone can be an educator and a mentor. I mean, it’s everyone’s responsibility to impart, but they have no one to look to the next generation. In fact, I mean, if you talk about it, if you think about it, that’s kind of why human beings exist and have prospered because we genetically… and also, through the language we’ve learned, we pass on knowledge, but it requires a certain respect for the people that do the unfortunate nature of how culture has developed in the West is that, especially the classroom etiquette. There’s a gigantic delta, and I think that the relative respect and reward one receives for taking care of our most vulnerable learners. And I think that us as a culture, we need to make sure that those educators are respected and rewarded more. I think we need to revisit our educators and be more thankful and grateful. If we made that simple cultural change, I think we wouldn’t have a lot of the knock on effects, which is the lack of educator retention and the level of compensation that educators are receiving. There’s a lot of cultural nuances that kind of are…you can tie back to that level of respect. So, that’s probably not the answer that you were looking for but I think that’s where our mindset is.

Dr. Michael Conner

Yeah, yeah. No no no no, I and I see this all the time. And I brag about the education ecosystem, our leaders, our teachers, our students. Because during Covid, we were the only industry that flipped the model in two weeks. We literally if you think about it, we flipped, a business model or education model in 14 days to ensure that you master. And that’s what teachers do, what we do, I mean, they take I mean, literally Ash. And I think that in the United States, meaning the value are educators more compensation, support. then we will start seeing those levels of retention, those levels, being a part of, the cultural spread, more. Right. And I think that once we put that emphasis that, you know, without a teacher, I always say this without teachers, without a teacher, anybody that is anybody within their respective industry, wouldn’t be there. It was one teacher, right? I always say one teacher that had the impact of their life to make them continue. So you’re absolutely correct, Ash. With that, the last question, you made it through VFE. Last question. Now, I don’t know if I can hold Ash to three words, right? I don’t know if I can do it. Everybody that that comes on with me, they always break the rules. So Ash just like I tell every guest that appears on this podcast, take this question as it is. But what three words, three words, do you want our audience to leave today’s episode with regarding AI, artificial intelligence, and the AC Stage of Education?

Ash Kaluarachchi

Great question, Michael. I’d say my three words are data, my second word is caution, and my third word is application.

Dr. Michael Conner

I’m going to break the rules. Ash, can you go in depth with data? You piqued, you piqued my interest when you said data. Okay. Data, caution and application. Just expand on that. Just for two minutes.

Ash Kaluarachchi

Yeah, so I think we covered a little bit of why the data is most important. And I think it’s not about the technology itself and how it accomplishes its task. It’s about how it’s trained and what it accesses in order to do its job. So I think if we can collectively, as a industry, make the information available for the technology to realize some of the biases and teach itself, even perhaps, things that we might not even realize exist, then that’s probably a great place to spend a lot of our time and effort as we develop this new technology. Caution is, I think if I were to hyphenate it, it’s probably cautious optimism. I think, you need forward momentum. I think there are a lot of people kind of pulling this technology back in AI because of fear because of how it might change their lives. I think at the end of the day, we are still in control. We are still making the decisions. The technology is not coming for us. It’s not really coming for our jobs, at least anytime soon. But cautious optimism in learning it and understanding how it applies to you and the people that you care about, I think is well served in this time. And then that is the best way to actually dive in and understand this thing is to apply it. So take your daily lives, whether that’s managing household chores and your scheduling, whether it’s managing the classroom and it’s instruction, whether you’re entrepreneur in marketing and creating awareness with businesses, whether it’s enabling the success of existing people that you work with, apply it to your daily lives to try it out. And I think you’ll understand where the technology actually is today, which is one. You probably understand. Oh, it’s not as developed as I had thought. And then check it six months from now and you’ll be able to understand that Delta. And then I think that also helps with the caution and the data because what you learn and are familiar with, you tend to be less fearful of and more optimistic about.

Dr. Michael Conner

Absolutely data cautiously optimistic and application. Ash, it has just been an absolute honor to have you on VFE. Let’s say, if I’m a CEO of a tech company or Superintendent of a district or a teacher, and they just want to be able to explore or even just spend… a stakeholder, a tech company, and they just want to continue to explore what we talked about in this episode, how would they be able to reach you or even get started?

Ash Kaluarachchi

Great question, if you are entrepreneur, check out www.StartEd.com. If you’re a stakeholder in education and want your voice to be heard go to www.EdTechWeek.com and submit a speaking application or register to attend or simply sign up for our newsletter and we’ll make you a little bit more smarter on a weekly basis.

Dr. Michael Conner

Thank you, Ash Kaluarachchi. Thank you for coming on VFE, it’s such an honor to have you. I look forward to seeing you soon. Obviously, I’ll be at EdTech week in October. So I guess we got a spring, a summer, and then an early fall when I see you, but it’s always good to hear your voice, my friend.

Ash Kaluarachchi

Thank you, Michael. Pleasure being here.

Dr. Michael Conner

Absolutely. And on that note, onward and upward, everybody. Have a great evening.