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. John is also my go-to on all things AI-related. Where I’ve merely dabbled, he’s become steeped in the cutting-edge affordances of new tools, and the muddy waters of regulating a space where private innovation has quickly outpaced public discourse about guardrails. 

One morning, John 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.

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 the metrics by which schools measure their success. 

That’s why John’s statement has made me even more bullish that schools (and 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 capital. 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 student surveys 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.

Similarly, 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 John’s dystopian prediction. The sites featured in our research and AIR’s evaluation were committed to exploring new ways of building students’ access to connections and confidence in mobilizing them. As my colleague Rob Markle recently argued, that work will be even more critical as social skills command a premium in the workplace. 

But 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. And it 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 current students: “You’re sitting on a goldmine of good will that you haven’t been able to unlock.” 

Is your organization thinking about how to foster relationships using AI? In spite of it? Please share your thoughts!


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.