Will the Rise of AI Spell the Demise of Social Capital?

Educators need to be thinking hard about AI’s potential impact on the relationships that build lives and careers, writes Julia Freeland Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Every few weeks I have breakfast with my friend John Bailey at a small corner cafe in Northern Virginia. We talk about everything from education research to elder dog care to impact investing. Bailey is also my go-to on all things AI-related. Where I’ve merely dabbled, he’s become steeped in the cutting-edge uses of new tools, and the muddy waters of regulating a space where private innovation has quickly outpaced public discourse about guardrails. 

Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute

One morning, Bailey said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Kids will want the affirming relationships that they can have with their AI system. That sounds like science fiction until you experience the technology.” 

Since ChatGPT’s meteoric rise, education debates have fallen into all-too-familiar camps. Advocates are heralding its immense potential to disrupt staid structures in schools. Skeptics are calling for outright bans to protect against cheating and privacy violations. 

Woefully absent from the debate is how we should be thinking about AI and relationships—and making sure that the rise of AI doesn’t spell the demise of social capital. As researchers like Daniel Cox have warned, young people growing up amidst AI may be more tempted than ever to turn to technology not merely for entertainment or distraction, but for a deep—yet simulated—sense of connection.

The research is clear that such a reality would both be bad for human happiness—deepening our epidemic of loneliness—and would jeopardize the kind of social capital that is critical to building careers. It could also worsen opportunity gaps, given the inextricable link between social capital and economic mobility and the mounting premium that social skills command in the workplace.

What can safeguard against that? In reality, whether it’s about learning or connecting, how AI impacts young people’s lives has far less to do with chatbots, and far more with how schools define and measure their success. 

That’s why Bailey’s statement has made me even more bullish that schools—and their students—miss out when they are missing relationship data. As AI infiltrates our homes, schools, and workplaces, better measures can reveal whether young people’s networks are growing or contracting; whether the quality of their human connections is deepening or deteriorating; and whether their muscle to interact with the peers and adults in their lives is strengthening or atrophying.

Prioritizing and measuring relationships, however, is easier said than done. In our recent “People-powered pathways” report, we detailed the journey of 20 career-connected learning sites endeavoring to integrate social capital into their work. For the majority of sites, taking a data-driven approach proved tricky. During the planning phase, many site teams were unsure how to accurately measure students’ social connections. 

  • Surveys of site staff indicated that 85% felt that having student surveys and other measurement tools for social capital would be helpful or very helpful. 
  • However, some staff were hesitant to add another survey on top of existing ones due to concerns about survey fatigue. 

Measuring relationships is also complex and multi-faceted. With many potential indicators of social capital, it was sometimes challenging to choose one or two that aligned to the team’s vision and could easily be tacked onto an existing survey. Among six of the sites that participated in a third-party evaluation in partnership with American Institutes of Research (AIR), most did not have measurement plans in place. 

In their own analysis, the team at AIR offer myriad hypotheses for the conditions that could make social capital strategies and measures more effective, equitable, and widespread. One of their top recommendations? Schools and programs need to establish a common understanding of social capital goals among staff and students

Which brings me back to Bailey’s dystopian prediction. The process of learning about relationships, deciding which connections should be cultivated, and establishing a shared mental model across students and staff is a worthy exercise for anyone trying to help young people thrive. But that common understanding will be more critical than ever as AI sweeps through our lives.

One last note: Far be it from me, a student of disruptive innovation, to ignore the possibility that AI could be a game-changing technology in enhancing the quality and quantity of our connections. Take Protopia, an AI-powered tool that helps colleges enlist alumni in helping answer students’ academic and career questions. As founder Max Leisten put it to me, colleges have a huge opportunity when it comes to engaging alumni to share their wisdom with current students: “You’re sitting on a goldmine of good will that you haven’t been able to unlock.”

That good will could go untapped if colleges deploy chatbots chasing efficiencies alone, and ignore the critical role relationships play in our lives and the labor market. Institutions need to start looking for tools that not only modernize their existing enterprise, but also unlock networks for all students, especially those furthest from opportunity. Such tools can help students, faculty, and alumni build the habit and the muscle of connection. 

They’re going to need both to thrive in the age of AI.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute and the author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.

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