At the interface of AI and language learning

Melbourne Skyline from Southbank, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2023. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

VicTESOL Symposium
Melbourne, Australia
13 October, 2023

I was invited to be a member of a panel on Generative AI in EAL learning: Promises and challenges at the VicTESOL Symposium held at the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership in North Melbourne. Hosted by Melissa Barnes (La Trobe University) and Katrina Tour (Monash University), the other members of this 3-person panel were Shem Macdonald and Alexia Maddox (both from La Trobe University). Perhaps reflecting the degree of interest in this area, the panel ran twice, with different audiences.

We started off each time by considering the opportunities presented by generative AI in terms of language learning inside classrooms (explaining vocabulary or grammar points; acting as a concordancer to provide examples of language-in-use; improving language, register and style; creating self-study revision questions; collaborative story-writing; and engaging in immersive conversation, with AI acting as a Socratic tutor – an approach currently being explored by the likes of the Khan Academy and Duolingo in its Max premium subscription version) as well as in terms of preparation for present and future life needs outside classrooms (including the need to use AI in professional workplaces, as well as when interacting with chatbots and automated services provided by government organisations and corporations).

We then quickly moved on to discussing the challenges raised by generative AI, and the need for teachers and students to take a critical stance towards this rapidly evolving technology. In particular, this entails the development of AI literacy,¬†which intersects with a number of other key digital literacies: prompt literacy, search literacy, attentional literacy and, perhaps above all, information literacy and critical literacy. We should also remember that not all students are ready or able to use this technology: accessibility is a major issue for many, especially in communities of recent migrants and refugees. Neither are all teachers ready: in some cases, some of our students may have more awareness of and facility with the technology that we do, but it’s crucial that we upskill ourselves and help students develop the aforementioned critical perspective that may sometimes be missing.

Questions and comments from the audiences at both panels were revealing: it’s clear that for many educators, the initial wave of consternation that accompanied the release of ChatGPT and the following wave of genAI has subsided, and teachers are finding productive ways to build such technologies into their teaching, their students’ learning activities, and even their assessments. Our reflective conversations and exchanges of ideas about how to best incorporate these technologies into education augur well for the future.

In coming years, we’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more presentations and panels about generative AI and its place in language learning and education more broadly. Meanwhile, photos from the panel are available on Twitter/X.

Generative AI meets language learning

ChatGPT-based avatar Call Annie

Chat GPT-based avatar Call Annie. Source: Animato Inc. (2023), Call Annie, V. 1.0.1, App Store.

EuroCALL Spring Festival
UK/online via Zoom
29 April, 2023

On Saturday 29th April I had the pleasure of taking part in the EuroCALL Spring Festival, both as a presenter and an audience member, as we focused on the ever greater role of technology in language education – and in particular, the arrival of generative AI like ChatGPT.

The day was opened by Mike Sharples in his keynote, Introduction to Generative AI for Student Writing, where he described GPT-4 as a highly trained text completer and style copier, which he sees as offering a vast improvement over GPT-3.5 (which underpinned the original version of ChatGPT, and continues to underpin its free version) and as having changed his working practices around writing.

There are a number of issues with ChatGPT, including student plagiarism (AI detection software is essentially an unpredictability matcher, with independent verification needed of its accuracy levels, and with educators needing to decide whether a rate of 2% false positives, as currently claimed by TurnItIn, is acceptable) and inaccuracy, as seen in ChatGPT’s occasional hallucination¬†of incorrect information and non-existent references (as a language generator, not a database, it is of course not designed to look up facts, has no inbuilt model of the world, and is essentially amoral). When it comes to generative AI, educational institutions have four choices: ban, evade, adapt (requiring new methods of assessment, policies and guidelines) or embrace (involving a long process of building trust). Most universities seem to be taking adapt or embrace approaches.

He mentioned some creative approaches to the use of ChatGPT and similar software. It can be a possibility engine (where an educator or student uses AI to generate multiple responses to an open question, and each student then critiques and synthesises the responses to create their own written answer); a Socratic opponent (where students engage with ChatGPT in a Socratic dialogue as a way of developing arguments and thinking skills); a guide on the side (along the lines of its coming incorporation into Microsoft’s productivity software; a student might instruct it to act as an expert tutor in computing and tutor them as an undergraduate in quantum computing, after which ChatGPT could provide a summary of their current state of knowledge of quantum computing to be sent to their professor); and as a language playground (where it can provide a starting point for academic writing, or translate back and forth between languages and compare the documents generated).

He noted that it is essential for educators and students to develop the AI literacy needed for a world where AI is becoming pervasive.

Following Mike’s keynote, I co-presented a 90-minute workshop, entitled From Chat to Fluency: When Humans and AI Collaborate for Language Education, together with Louise Ohashi and Antonie Alm, with our team presenting from three different locations in Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Our central theme was that to move from simply chatting with AI to using AI with digital fluency, we must develop our understandings and literacies, as well as developing our practices and techniques to allow successful collaboration between humans and AI.¬†

I began with a theoretical introduction which located ChatGPT in the context of recent developments in generative AI, introducing key terminology and outlining benefits and challenges (including highlighting the importance of prompt literacy). Louise and Antonie then demonstrated a range of language learning and language teaching uses of ChatGPT, before examining in more detail how to design appropriate prompts to get the best results from ChatGPT. Participants were invited to log in and try activities in parallel with the demonstrations. We finished with a demonstration of a ChatGPT-based digital assistant, Call Annie (see image above right), released less than a week earlier. This gives us some idea of likely near future developments in this space.

Given the time zone differences, I wasn’t able to stay for any more of the programme. This was not the first time I’ve attended or presented sessions on generative AI this year, and it certainly won’t be the last. Ongoing rapid developments, both technologically and educationally, mean this will be a key topic of our discussions over coming months.

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