AI in Education? Salesforce Takes the Plunge

Attendees at Salesforce’s recent Back to School celebration. Photo courtesy of Salesforce.

It was a clear September day in San Francisco, and guests at the Salesforce Back to School celebration, held on a terrace at George Washington High School, had a ravishing view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The event was organized to herald Salesforce’s latest education investment: $20 million to “[expand] pathways into tech and AI careers.”

Salesforce, the giant customer relationship management software company based in San Francisco, is all in on AI these days. AI seized the spotlight at this week’s Dreamforce 2023, the company’s annual megaconference. The event, which closes down city streets and is a mecca for Salesforce employees, customers, nerds and groupies (an estimated 40,000 people attended this year), featured a glittering line-up of celebrities, musicians and tech gurus. 

Salesforce boasted that Dreamforce 2023 was the world’s largest AI conference, and Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s founder and CEO, mentioned AI “no fewer than a dozen times during his opening keynote,” according to the San Francisco Standard. Benioff’s conversation with Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, drew such a big crowd that many disappointed conference attendees couldn’t squeeze into the room. (To console themselves, attendees could purchase an “AI Is My Love Language” T-shirt, along with other conference merch.) 

At the Back to School celebration, held on the eve of Dreamforce, AI was also the main event. In a speech at the celebration, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who has touted the city’s role as the country’s “AI capital,” pointed out that the nation’s top AI companies are all based in San Francisco. “As AI continues to transform our schools, workplaces and society, education has never been more critical,” Breed said in the announcement. “I’m proud of our city's long-standing commitment to the jobs of the future and thankful for Salesforce's investment to ensure the next generation is set up for success.” 

The mayor’s enthusiastic endorsement is no doubt affirming for a company that has already made a name for itself in the annals of corporate philanthropy, including by committing to its “1-1-1” philanthropic model from its earliest days. But is boosting AI skills actually the best way to “ensure the next generation is set up for success,” and are there pitfalls that ed funders should be aware of before lining up to embrace artificial intelligence?

All in on AI

Salesforce routinely rolls out its major education gifts during its signature conference, as IP has previously reported. The greater part of this most recent $20 million in grants will go to public school districts in San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Chicago and Indianapolis. Meanwhile, $6.8 million of the total will support education and workforce development organizations in the U.S., France, Germany and the United Kingdom. 

Mark Benioff grew up in the Bay Area, and the city is where Salesforce first began its ed funding in 2012. Since then, the company has given San Francisco schools $72 million and Oakland Unified $52 million, while also expanding its philanthropic reach beyond the Bay Area to other states and abroad. The Salesforce Foundation has also made impressive education and workforce investments through its Catalyst Fund, as IP reported earlier this year. Salesforce giving for education and workforce development around the world now totals $233 million. 

For resource-strapped schools, Salesforce’s generosity has been a boon, as was in evident in the enthusiasm of the Back to School celebration attendees, many of them educators and principals from Bay Area schools. 

Becky Ferguson, CEO of the Salesforce Foundation, made it clear that schools have autonomy to use the funds as they wish. “The districts are very much in the driver's seat in determining how the funding gets allocated,” she said in a recent interview. “We start from that place of always trying to understand from them what the greatest areas of needs and opportunities are, and where they want to direct the funding. So we are not here to micromanage, or to say we are the experts or that we have all the answers. We're here to work in partnership and trust schools and amazing nonprofits to grow and deepen the great work they're already doing.”

Still, AI was definitely the focus of the current round of Salesforce grants. “These investments aim to equip students with work-based experiences and vital digital skills, including AI, to help students succeed in the changing job landscape and ensure equitable access to tech and AI careers,” according to the announcement.

Students at the event were as enthusiastic about AI as the adults around them. Christopher Meza Voong, a senior at George Washington High School, hopes to get a job in AI after college. He told me that he routinely employs AI as an education tool, along with many other students he knows. He uses AI platforms to challenge himself with difficult math problems, for example. Voong believes too many people, including some of his teachers, only focus on the possible downsides of AI without recognizing all it has to offer. “We’re just beginning to understand all it can do,” he said. 

“Trust in artificial intelligence”

The mantra at Dreamforce 2023, according to one observer, was “trust in artificial intelligence.” Marc Benioff made it clear at the conference that he is positioning the company as a model of how to do AI right. As the San Francisco Standard reported, “The overarching theme of Benioff's remarks and Dreamforce writ large is that Salesforce is building the guardrails to protect users from well-publicized AI problems like inaccurate information and toxicity, while making them more productive.”

Will Salesforce succeed in building those guardrails, and how will that work when it comes to education? Concerns about AI in education include the possibility that it will promote racial bias. Some educators have also raised fears that it will make young people even more dependent on technology, impede deep thinking and exacerbate student mental health issues. Still others worry that it will undermine teacher-student relationships. There’s also the reality that AI can make it easier for students to cheat. Finally, student privacy is real concern. (A recent report by the Center for Democracy & Technology examines some of the threats to student privacy and equity posed by AI and other types of edtech.)

Becky Ferguson at the Salesforce Foundation acknowledged the potential challenges. “There are things that need to be managed around AI and the thoughtful use of it in how we think about trust and bias and including diverse voices in this AI revolution,” she said. “We acknowledge that and are thinking about how can we unlock the most potential and possibilities that come with this technology, while also managing and mitigating potential bias and risks.”

But in presenting its recent round of grants, Salesforce primarily emphasized AI’s potential. “With this funding, students will have more opportunities to take advanced courses, gain in-demand skills, and explore potential new careers. Funding will also support efforts from nonprofits to expand pathways into technology jobs, including AI, helping usher in a more equitable future,” the announcement read. 

Many education experts share this optimistic view of AI’s role in education, and point out, as Voong did, that AI is already being widely deployed in schools. AI can help students grasp difficult concepts, for example, and assist teachers in grading papers and creating lesson plans, allowing them more time to work directly with students. Research shows that when AI is used in a blended learning model it can make high dosage tutoring, an effective tool in reversing learning loss, more cost effective, and therefore more scalable. 

As Ferguson pointed out, AI can also be used to mitigate the shortage of college counselors. “In some areas, schools may have something like one college counselor to every 400 students,” she said. “Not having that kind of guidance when you are considering college makes it really difficult, especially for first-generation college students, for example, trying to navigate an unfamiliar system. AI-enabled services could help reach many more students.”

Sal Khan, who created Khan Academy, believes there are ways to prevent the negative impacts some fear around AI and education. In fact, in a recent TED talk, he argued that with sufficient guardrails, AI can create “the greatest positive transformation education has ever seen.” Khan says AI will do that by “giving every student on the planet an artificially intelligent but amazing personal  tutor,” and every teacher an “artificially intelligent but amazing personal assistant.” Khanmigo is Khan Academy’s new AI platform.

One teacher who uses AI in her classroom told the New York Times that while she believes the potential benefits outweigh the downsides, she worries about issues including “bias, privacy and academic honesty.” In response to questions from the Times, she wrote, “I’m fascinated by the potential of this technology, albeit a little bit terrified.”

After the gold rush

Of course, AI is a tool like any other technology, and how it is implemented will depend on how humans elect to use it — in education and other sectors, as well (see IP’s recent report on the top AI funders). But after listening to the speeches, attending the AI workshop, and talking to students at the Salesforce event, I couldn’t help feeling wary about all the AI exuberance. Not because of AI’s potential downsides in education (although I have concerns about those, too), but because San Francisco has put its faith in technology as savior before, with decidedly mixed results. 

I’ve lived through several tech booms and busts since I moved to the city. Each of the booms, like this latest AI gold rush, started out with promises of jobs, economic growth and solutions to the city’s many problems. Each time, some of that did come to pass and many people became rich, but when the bubble burst, many others were laid off, small businesses were shuttered, and more and more of San Francisco’s low-income residents were left behind. 

Given San Francisco’s history of wooing the tech sector and giddily embracing the latest shiny tech object, it’s hard not to experience some deja vu in response to the enthusiasm around AI. It’s also worth considering whether relying on AI to solve tough challenges in areas like education — especially at this early stage — is a sound philanthropic move. After all, tech giving, specifically in the area of education, has never been immune to overreach (and corporate giving hasn’t, either).

As welcome as the Salesforce dollars are, San Francisco schools face significant budget shortfalls, pandemic learning loss, a large population of unhoused students and other problems. And if we don’t address those issues, I’m afraid they’ll be even worse when the AI gold rush is over.