Artificial intelligence in OC schools: It’s not about the tech, it’s about the approach

Kunal Dalal and Wes Kriesel
Kunal Dalal and Wes Kriesel were hired as OCDE’s administrators of artificial intelligence and innovation in late 2023.

As OCDE’s new administrators of artificial intelligence and innovation, Wes Kriesel and Kunal Dalal stand at the edge of an uncharted educational frontier. 

But their work isn’t so much about teaching others to use a new technology as it is helping to advance a cultural shift in how educators perceive and integrate AI into their pedagogy. 

In essence, when it comes to AI, the tool isn’t as important as the mindset.

“We are in the business of humans,” says Dalal. “That means we have the opportunity to reconnect with the human element of what we do and let the bits and bytes be managed by the AI model. Let’s redefine humanity in terms of who we are as humans, not the digital data we generate.”

Kriesel and Dalal both joined the Orange County Department of Education toward the end of 2023. Kriesel, who started in November, was a former high school English teacher who moved into educational technology, focusing on tech-forward strategies and the development of innovative school models. 

Dalal, who arrived in December, initially pursued a career in science but found his way to education through work as a wilderness guide for at-risk youth. That experience led to roles as a teacher, principal and, eventually, an education technology advocate in Silicon Valley, where he sought to reshape perceptions of public schools.

Now, united by a shared vision to reshape the conversation around technology in education, Kriesel and Dalal are on a mission to guide OCDE and Orange County districts to the forefront of harnessing artificial intelligence to refine, enhance and transform teaching and learning, with the higher goal of improving student outcomes. Their approach starts with listening to educators, families and other community partners, which will pave the way to targeted training sessions. 

We recently sat down with Kriesel and Dalal to discuss AI’s potential in education and what successful implementation looks like, along with the ethical considerations, misconceptions and their own expectations.


How are you designing this work?

Kriesel started out with a goal to have “a hundred conversations about AI in a hundred days” as a way to fully understand the county’s needs before developing targeted professional development opportunities.

“When Kunal came, I kind of saw a shift,” he says. The two decided that Kriesel would focus on implementing AI across 29 school districts while Dalal concentrated on empowering OCDE’s 1,200 staff members. What resulted was a structured yet flexible approach to AI, with the two constantly sharing ideas and strategies.

“We collaborate on everything,” Kriesel says.

What are your goals and desired outcomes?

Mastering artificial intelligence isn’t the same as learning to use a classroom tool like a smartboard, where you can sit in on a training or spend some time with an instruction manual. This work involves a shift in perspective, Kriesel and Dalal say.

“This is about you. This isn’t about this tool,” Dalal says. “This is the first tool that you don’t need to go reach out to try to figure out every little bit of it. It’ll actually come to you, and this is the first time this has ever happened. That’s a mind shift change that drives a lot of what we do.”

Kriesel talks about differentiating between “a transactional tool versus a transformational tool.” 

Here’s what he means. Transactional tools, like replacing a notepad with AI transcription, merely substitute one tech for another. Contrast that with transformational tools, which change how you work based on your values and goals, leading to a more personalized engagement with technology. Kriesel advocates for starting with transactional applications to build comfort and familiarity, especially for those who are apprehensive about AI, before moving toward more transformative uses.

How do you see education being shaped or impacted by AI?

Kriesel views AI as a catalyst for meaningful transformation in education, one that’s capable of breaking down long-standing barriers to personalized learning. He envisions a future where AI tools assist in tailoring educational content to meet individual student needs, thereby enhancing engagement and learning outcomes. 

Adds Dalal, “AI presents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink and revitalize how we educate, making learning more accessible, engaging and aligned with the needs of the 21st-century student.” The impact of AI, they argue, will be profound, affecting curriculum design, educational roles and the very structure of classroom interactions.

Do you have an example of how AI is already personalizing learning experiences?

Dalal shares the story of a local high school student who, before AI, struggled not only with reading and writing but also considered himself the “least creative person in the world.”

Immersing himself in the writing program ChatGPT for about four hours a day, he unleashed a wave of creativity, resulting in thousands of new stories and characters across multiple accounts.

This engagement ultimately led to significant improvements in his academic performance. During a recent English final — a task he once dreaded — he effortlessly wrote a five-paragraph essay in 10 minutes. In fact, he wrote seven paragraphs.

“He is now just thinking and living and breathing creativity,” Dalal says, “something that he completely thought was not even a part of his life.”

What kind of training can educators expect to receive?

Educators who participate in Kriesel and Dalal’s trainings can expect to focus on shifting mindsets towards AI empowerment. They emphasize the importance of seeing AI as a tool that complements human capabilities rather than replacing them. 

The La Habra School District has already become a model for integrating AI into educational practices. Meanwhile, Kriesel and Dalal are also building capacity within a network of district-level educational technology leaders, seeking to foster a culture of sharing and collaboration, and they’re developing hands-on sessions for classified employees. 

They are also planning a two-day event at OCDE called “AI Days” that aims to demystify artificial intelligence and showcase its practical applications, specifically for department employees.

“It’s not just about learning to use a new tool,” Dalal says. “It’s about embracing a mindset where AI enhances our human capacities. This is about empowering educators and staff to see AI as an ally in their work.”

How are you addressing ethical considerations or concerns related to privacy, data security and bias in AI?

The two acknowledge these are very real concerns. For now, Kriesel and Dalal encourage users to rely on their own guiding beliefs, standards and ideals — as well as those of their employers. 

“Your organization is going to have guidelines and policies for how you use work technology, including work email accounts and other tools,” Kriesel says, “and so that includes rules that you don’t share student data or personal identity information, for example. Those are good starting points.”

Their training activities also show examples of how AI biases manifest themselves while encouraging discussions on its implications. 

“We’re committed to the responsible and informed use of AI,” Dalal says, “which means understanding the limitations and potential biases inherent in these technologies.” 

How have you been received by OCDE and district staff?

The two say their OCDE welcome has been overwhelmingly positive.

Dalal, who is new to Orange County, says he’s felt “embraced and so supported” and appreciates the ability to be authentically himself without the need for strategic positioning, describing the environment as one where he can “be super real.”

Kriesel says OCDE has been open to new ideas and approaches, making it an exciting place to pursue innovation.

How does your work align with OC AI Forward?

Kriesel and Dalal’s work is gradually and intentionally aligning with OC AI Forward, a countywide project led by Dr. Sabba Quidwai of Designing Schools with support from OCDE and local district superintendents. OC AI Forward participants currently meet once a month.

Quidwai was contracted last year before Kriesel and Dalal were hired, but their roles were envisioned as supporting a unified AI front. Dalal says that they plan to work closely with Quidwai on the advancement of AI integration in Orange County.

What’s a myth or misconception about AI among educators?

“The biggest fear is that AI is stifling student creativity, initiative and even our intelligence,” Dalal says. “But once you start exploring AI, you quickly realize how misguided these fears are. It’s not a creativity killer — it sparks creativity.”

AI is primarily a tool for creating new content and ideas, but it has its limitations in generating factual information — a role that’s better served by traditional search engines like Google. This distinction, Dalal argues, is crucial for understanding AI’s true value and potential. 

Kriesel warns against policy decisions made by those not versed in AI — or blaming the technology for misuse. “If you put a pot of rice on the stove, and you walk away and burn the rice, you can’t blame the stove,” he says.

Some workers may be concerned about the potential impacts of AI on their roles. What do you tell them?

Dalal acknowledges these concerns, referencing reports that predict significant effects on jobs due to AI advancements, particularly in highly digitized economies like the U.S. and Europe. Adding to the anxiety is the reality that the current versions of AI are the worst versions we’re going to see moving forward. 

“The future will require us to rethink our roles in light of AI’s capabilities,” he says. On the flip side, educators may find themselves freer to shift towards more nuanced, creative and facilitative functions in the classroom.

Are there projects or initiatives on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?

Dalal says he’s excited to lead the upcoming “AI Days” at OCDE. The two-day event is aimed at introducing every employee to artificial intelligence through a series of virtual sessions, and Dalal hopes it will generate a buzz around AI usage. He believes OCDE can serve as a model for how government offices, which have a reputation of being slower to adopt new technologies, can embrace AI.

Kriesel says he’s enthusiastic about engaging more directly with students through interviews and the establishment of the Forward AI Network of Students and Innovators, or FANSI.

Students already have profound insights on AI, he says, and these interactions could be pivotal in changing adult perceptions about the capabilities and potential of this technology in education. Kriesel looks forward to showcasing student-driven projects and ideas for educators and policymakers.

What does successful AI implementation look like?

The journey towards successful AI integration will be an ongoing process of discovery, collaboration and adaptation. There are still plenty of unknowns based on the evolving nature of AI, but Kriesel and Dalal emphasize that what they’re doing now is laying a foundation for the future. 

The ultimate goal is to ensure that as AI technology evolves, its application in education does so in a way that enhances student-centered learning, making teaching and learning more engaging, personalized and effective. 

And then there’s this metric.

“The ultimate successful implementation means we don’t have a job,” Dalal says. “If we do our job, we’re going to work ourselves out of a job.”