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The Impact of A.I. Chatbots in the English Language Classroom

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Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is becoming a daily part of school life. On the administrative side, it can be used to organise and plan the curriculum and collate data giving instant feedback on how students are progressing according to any given criteria. On the academic side, it can be used to help teachers write or improve lesson plans and to support student learning in many ways. In this article, we are going to look specifically at the advantages and disadvantages of the chatbot-type applications which have been generating headlines recently and the implications for teachers of English around the world.

Chatbots In The News

I must admit that until fairly recently I hadn’t given much thought to the threat to teaching or teachers from Artificial Intelligence. I had vaguely heard of ChatGPT but imagined it to be a trendy chat app for people who had nothing better to do in their spare time. I was wrong. Having used it a few times myself now I think this new manifestation of A.I. is going to change the world as significantly as the internet did, and much more quickly. In Britain, educators are becoming very worried. A recent letter to The Times, signed by more than 60 education figures, says: “Schools are bewildered by the very fast rate of change in AI, and seek secure guidance and counsel on the best way forward.” They went on to say, “We have no confidence that the large digital companies will be capable of regulating themselves in the interests of students, staff and schools. Neither in the past has the government shown itself capable or willing to do so.”

Some European countries have attempted to ban A.I. from all schools and educational settings, but given that A.I. can go wherever the internet goes, it is hard to see how such a prohibition can be policed or controlled in any way.

What Can Chatbots Do? (An Example)

So, what is all the fuss about? Well in case you are unaware of what ChatGPT can do, I offer the following as an example. As a prompt, I wrote, “Explain in simple terms how students could use advanced AI programmes to enhance learning and revision for their English Language exams.”

The next few paragraphs appeared on my computer in less than two seconds.

Students can use advanced AI programs to enhance their learning and revision for English Language exams in several ways. These AI programs are designed to understand and respond to students’ questions and provide helpful information.

Firstly, students can use these AI programs as virtual tutors. They can ask questions related to grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, or any other aspect of the English language they are studying. The AI program will analyze their questions and provide accurate answers and explanations. This can help students clarify any doubts they have and deepen their understanding of the subject.

Secondly, students can use AI programs to practice their writing skills. They can write essays, paragraphs, or even sentences and ask the AI program to provide feedback on their writing. The AI program can analyze their writing and offer suggestions for improvement, such as pointing out grammatical errors, suggesting alternative words or phrases, or providing tips for enhancing the clarity and coherence of their writing. This feedback can be valuable in honing their writing skills and improving their performance in exams.

Additionally, AI programs can help students with reading comprehension. Students can provide passages or excerpts from English literature or articles and ask the AI program questions about the content or specific details. The AI program can help students understand the main ideas, identify key points, and extract relevant information from the given text. This can be particularly useful for practicing comprehension skills and preparing for reading comprehension sections in exams.

Lastly, students can use AI programs for language practice and pronunciation. They can engage in conversation with the AI program, asking and answering questions to improve their speaking skills. The AI program can provide corrections and suggestions for pronunciation, intonation, and fluency, helping students refine their spoken English.

In summary, AI programs can serve as virtual tutors, provide writing feedback, assist with reading comprehension, and offer language practice. By utilizing these programs, students can enhance their learning and revision for English Language exams, reinforcing their understanding of the subject, and improving their overall performance.

That was the end of the A.I.s response but I was given the opportunity to reformulate the answer or to ask subsidiary questions. Let me repeat; the above paragraphs appeared on my computer screen in LESS than two seconds. The answer is clear and well written in standard English. It certainly provides comprehensive information about how students can make the best use of the various A.I. services that are becoming available. This alone is proof of the system’s capabilities and usefulness. However, what can be used can also be abused. Can you fault the English in those paragraphs? Can you fault the structure of the answer given? If I hadn’t told you in advance, would you have guessed that the previous six paragraphs were written by a robot? And perhaps most sinister of all, are you sure that the sentence you are reading now was written by a human?

The Implications and Concerns

If one of your students handed in a composition or essay that seemed to be of a significantly higher level than they normally produce, you might suspect that it was actually written by A.I., but could you prove it? Well, there might be ways, but sophisticated students might also introduce a few deliberate mistakes. The AI that I used earlier states that it is trained to decline inappropriate requests, which I assume would include obvious cheating; but I wonder if it is clever enough to recognise some of the more sophisticated ways students might find to fool the system. On the other hand, a generally average student might just have had a very good day but from now on there will always be an element of doubt about their best work.

Yet Artificial Intelligence is here, and it is not going to go away. Indeed, these applications are in their infancy. A year ago they were still in development, a year from now who knows what they will be capable of? There is much to fear and be cautious about but, as the A.I. pointed out in the previous section, it could be a very useful tool for students. It could be helpful for teachers too, for example in writing lesson plans or exercises. As artificial intelligence is developing so rapidly it is hard to imagine that teachers could realistically be ‘ahead’ of the game, but I think we owe it to ourselves to at least keep up with developments so that we can use these tools wisely and effectively. Personally, I think it should be enshrined in law that recognised educators must play a part in any future developments of these programmes.

Anecdotes and Reminiscences 

In order to prove that I am actually human I will conclude with some anecdotes and reminiscences to illustrate how the field of education has dealt with changes in the past. Presently A.I. seems less good at adding the personal touch, but that might not always be the case!

I am dyslexic. In my early school days, I consistently got very bad results in spelling tests and most English exams because my spelling was terrible. I was also a slow reader because I found it hard to either recognise or memorise written words. This was rather sad because English was my favourite subject and I really enjoyed writing stories. Fortunately, a few great teachers recognised that the problems I had were not due to stupidity and they encouraged me to continue with my writing passion. However, my dyslexia wasn’t fully recognised until I started university, at which point I was given some extra help.

Since then, for more than thirty years, I have had a successful career teaching English in the U.K. and around the world. My writing has also continued and progressed with the publication of various articles, blogs, teaching resources, a children’s book and another novel on the way. I have to thank technology for making some of this possible. Spell-Check is my friend! This relatively simple piece of software made life much easier for me and allowed me to put my energy into the more creative aspects of my work and interests. While my spelling has gradually improved over the years, my competence in English would still be marked below average if based exclusively on spelling tests. I am clearly happy that in most parts of the world, the teaching of English has become more holistic and has incorporated advances in technology as it came along. Most students come to class with the latest word processing software installed on their laptops. Virtually every school day either the teacher or the student makes use of Powerpoint or similar applications. Indeed, much of this software is built into the smartboards that have become part of the furniture in many modern classrooms. In short, technology helped me and school teachers have a long history of adapting to the technology available.

At the risk of showing my age, I can remember when calculators first became commonplace in schools. There was a lot of discussion about whether students should be allowed to use them at all in Maths classes or exams. Some teachers and parents were completely against it. These days most students have much more sophisticated calculators on their smartphones. The phone itself has become a high-powered computer which can connect to information from all over the world in a few seconds. Maths, and education as a whole, have moved on to incorporate these technologies into the syllabus. We will have to do the same with A.I.

Going Forward

As teachers of English, we need to be fully aware of what artificial intelligence applications can do. It would probably be wise to make it clear to our students that we are just as aware of what modern technologies are capable of as they are. More importantly, we will need to adapt our teaching styles and priorities. We need to ask ourselves what we can do that A.I. can’t? The time is certainly coming when A.I. can enable our students to write essays and dissertations with near perfect spelling and structure. Perhaps our focus should be on the content rather than the format.

More importantly, Artificial Intelligence doesn’t differentiate between facts or fiction; truth or lies. (The application that I used earlier states this openly when you visit the site, but some chatbots may not be so open about this fact). It is going to become more important than ever to cite sources and encourage critical thinking. Human teachers are probably still better able to teach pronunciation, watch and listen for individual learning problems, encourage confidence and creativity, understand and communicate nuance, and generally inject humanity into the learning process.

I believe that human teachers in classrooms still have a vital part to play in children’s education. However, in order to prove our value we need to be fully aware of what Artificial Intelligence is capable of, and what its limitations are. We shall need to keep up with changes as they occur.

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