Human Meets AI: Helping Educators Navigate Their Emotions About Technological Change

Human Meets AI: Helping Educators Navigate Their Emotions About Technological Change

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With shifting societal norms, advances in technology and evolving pedagogical practices at play, it’s no surprise that change is the only constant in education.

Rapidly changing technology, particularly the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in education has positioned faculty and leaders with a pivotal decision to make: Stick with the known comfort of traditional methods or experiment with the enticing, yet intimidating, potential of AI.

As dean of the College of University Libraries and Learning Services at the University of New Mexico, I lead a team of over 120 faculty and staff members. Our collective responsibilities range from curating extensive collections, providing instructional services and supporting research activities, to ensuring the accessibility and relevance of our digital and physical resources for our students and faculty members. Entrusted with the task to enhance academic support and learning experiences, the decision-making process has become more complex and consequential, especially in light of our current budget and staffing constraints.

I had to do more with less, so I decided to experiment with AI tools to improve AI literacy among staff, enhance their workflows, and support them in exploring how this emerging technology could impact their work. Despite the initial resistance and skepticism from some staff who saw AI as an unnecessary disruption or a potentially risky experiment, I persisted in navigating this new frontier, leading to a path that not only challenged my understanding of the role of AI in education but also reshaped our approach to integrating technology within our college.

Understanding the Psyche of Technological Resistance in the Education Workforce

Resistance to change, especially technological change, is fundamentally anchored in our human psychology. It can be traced back to an ingrained fear of the unknown, a protective psychological response that’s hard-wired into our brains to shield us from potential threats. Typically, humans have an inclination toward safety and the predictability of routine, avoiding the uncertainty that comes with new terrain.

This dynamic is significantly magnified within the education workforce. Education is a field inherently linked to the human touch — one that thrives on interpersonal connections, emotional intelligence and a deep understanding of the needs of each individual learner. For educators, who have carefully cultivated their teaching methods over the years, the suggestion of a radical shift of any kind, can trigger profound unease. The use of generative AI — the type of AI that can create original content, like essays or reports, based on its training data — only intensifies this feeling.

Anxiety stemming from concerns over becoming outdated or replaced, fears over potential misuse of data and a sense of overwhelm at the complexity of new technologies fuel resistance and can create psychological barriers to acceptance.

The capabilities of generative AI tools might feel like an unwelcome incursion into the hallowed realm of the personal, human-centric field of education, stirring up deep-seated existential questions about the future role of teachers and administrators. The apprehension that generative AI could revolutionize the very core of teaching and learning is not unfounded. That’s why the prospect of AI encroaching on the human aspects of the field — the warmth, intuition and sensitivity, for example — can raise a defensive reaction among practitioners.

The idea of generative AI redefining teaching and learning stirs up a whirlwind of emotions for the general public as well. It’s not just the fear of teachers being replaced, but also the dread of seeing a profession that’s deeply rooted in human connection and interaction, being taken over by machines. The thought of a classroom driven by an AI tutor, curriculum being curated by algorithms or administrative tasks being managed entirely by AI tools, while fascinating prospects, can incite anxiety and fear among educators.

Yet, in the face of these psychological obstacles, it’s essential to remember that resistance is a natural human response to change and an inherent part of our human condition. It’s not indicative of weakness or failure.

Recognizing and addressing these fears is crucial in smoothly navigating a major shift in education. This has been key for me as I’ve led our library faculty and staff in taking steps toward integrating generative AI tools into their practice, whether to improve the efficiency of reference services, to automate cataloging or to explore new ways of AI-assisted content curation for digital collections. It enabled me to approach the transformation empathetically and patiently.

Facing the AI Frontier: A Dean’s Initiative

Grasping the pressing necessity to improve learning outcomes and streamline processes to increase administrative efficiency with finite resources, I recognized the potential of integrating AI into our educational environment. But I knew that for a fundamental transformation like this to take root, leadership was critical, so I led by example, modeling the kind of change I hoped to see among staff. To start, I incorporated AI-generated content in my monthly dean’s messages and presentations.

The reactions to this shift were revealing. While some staff members asked questions that demonstrated their interest, others conveyed apprehension, sharing that they perceived AI as a potential disruptor that could undermine the human element of their roles, or simply dismissed it as the latest fad. It was controversial, but the dialogue around AI in education had commenced, paving the way for further exploration.

This summer, to address the skepticism and fear I noticed from my team, I launched a GPT-4 exploration program, an experimental pilot initiative aiming to delve into the potential applications of generative AI within an academic context. For 12 weeks, a diverse group of 10 staff members are engaging and experimenting with GPT-4 in their daily work — employing AI for cataloging and metadata purposes, developing AI-assisted lesson plans and using AI to enhance library reference services.

The program consists of an introductory phase, hands-on experimentation, individual or collaborative projects to understand the tool’s practical applications and a structured evaluation process to record insights gained. Our primary goal is to assess the impact and utility of such AI tools in an academic setting, and disseminate our findings within our college community and potentially with the broader academic field.

A key component of the pilot and the broader transition has been frequent and clear communication. I regularly address AI in my messages and during our monthly “All College” Meetings, with a focus on demystifying and deepening understanding of generative AI. I continually emphasize that AI is not a replacement, but a tool to augment human capabilities. This reassurance, I believe, is a significant step toward fostering a more receptive and explorative attitude toward the integration of AI in education.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I have distilled three key leadership principles that can guide educators and administrators grappling with similar challenges.

  1. Emphasize constant and transparent communication: One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is the indispensability of clear, consistent and multi-directional communication. Change, particularly one as potentially transformative as the incorporation of AI, can stir up a host of emotions, such as fear, apprehension and confusion. Addressing these emotions openly and candidly was key in our journey.
  2. Lead by example and nurture a culture of experimentation: Another vital strategy was exemplifying the change I wanted to see and fostering an environment that encouraged exploration. By engaging with AI technologies and sharing my own experiences, including challenges and triumphs, I was able to inspire my team. This helped dispel the myth that AI is an esoteric, complicated domain exclusively for tech wizards. Creating a safe and supportive space to experiment with new technologies was also instrumental. I carved out time for my staff to directly interact with AI tools, which made the technology less abstract and more tangible, and allowed my colleagues to better understand the potential benefits and limitations of each tool. This hands-on experience was crucial in mitigating fears and debunking misconceptions.
  3. Demonstrate empathy and recognize the emotional aspect of change: Most importantly, understanding and empathizing with the apprehensions experienced by my team was critical. Navigating change, especially one that threatens to disrupt established ways of working, can be intimidating. As a leader, my role extended beyond guiding the technical transition. It also involved empathizing with and validating the emotional responses that accompanied this change. Normalizing these feelings helped create an environment of trust. I emphasized that embarking on this transition did not necessitate instant expertise with AI tools. Rather, it marked the beginning of a journey of continuous learning and adaptation for all of us, myself included. Promoting a psychologically safe environment, where it was acceptable to make mistakes and ask questions, regardless of how “basic” they might seem, made our journey less daunting and more inclusive.

These principles — transparent communication, leading by example and promoting empathy — are not novel ideas. They are time-honored leadership strategies that are quite relevant for our modern, rapidly evolving education workforce.

With this AI transition, we’re not just adopting a new set of tools, but reshaping our educational landscape. This requires not only technological acumen but also psychological insight and emotional resilience.

Integrating AI into education is just beginning. Our experience reveals that resistance can be a catalyst for meaningful dialogue and fostering growth. For the modern education workforce, the question isn’t whether to embrace AI, but how best to do so. As we venture further into the AI age, I invite you, my fellow educators, to reflect on how you’ll address the natural human emotions that are sure to come up during the transition.

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