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Editorial NRInglês

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching: Not a Pandora’s Box

I suppose human beings have always feared the unknown. It has to do with our evolutionary past and our survival instinct before we became Earth’s most dangerous predators. Think about our ancestors walking the plains of Africa without anything but a spear, some sharpened stones, and bones trying to find food, shelter, and avoid large hunters like saber-tooth tigers or woolly mammoths. Imagine sleeping in the dark out in the open, vulnerable to attacks. As Game of Thrones showed us:

The night is dark and full of terrors.

But there’s hope, and it might be our greatest source of weakness or strength, depending on the circumstances. This dichotomy evil vs good, fear vs hope, dark vs light has permeated human cultures since the dawn of humanity. It is in our stories, sacred books, pop culture, and our own lives. One of my favorite stories is the one that tells us of something that can unleash pure good or evil – depending on who possesses it and how they use it. It’s something that intrigues and scares us at the same time. It’s the forbidden fruit in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or Pandora’s Box in Greek mythology. It’s the rabbit’s foot in Mission Impossible 3 according to Benji, played by University of Bristol Alumnus Simon Pegg, who explains that one of his professors:

[…] used to sort of scare the underclassmen with this story about how the world would eventually be eviscerated by technology. You see, it was inevitable that a compound would be created which he referred to as the ‘Anti-God’. It was like an accelerated mutator or sort of, you know, like a, an unstoppable force of destructive power, that would just lay waste to everything […]

If anything, it appears to me that we have the tendency to overreact or fear when something new is presented to the world. That was certainly the case of ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new chatbot, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) – powered tool that uses Large Language Models to create human-like texts. I suppose I don’t have to explain much since I think that you’ve been messing around with it. I’ve already used it to translate my book The Owl Factor: Reframing Your Teaching Philosophy, write lesson plans and letters, ask for feedback on blog posts and activities I wrote, create speeches, poems, and a dialogue between my cats, summarize articles I wrote and turn them into social media posts, and so much more. Concerns have been raised in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Yuval Harari to halt powerful AI systems (above GPT-4) training, and UNESCO is calling on countries to implement their Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence immediately. In fact, some have called ChatGPT:

  • The Job-Stealing AI of Doom – YouTube Video
  • A Grotesque Mockery of what it is to be Human – Nick Cave
  • A “Weapon” of Mass Destruction – Julian Hill
  • A Stochastic Parrot – Emily M. Bender
  • The Homework Killer – The Atlantic
  • A Monkey with a Keyboard anda Dictionary of Collocations – a friend
  • A Teenager Trying Really Hard with noCritical Thinking Skills – a friend

The funny thing is that this type of technology is not that new. We’ve been using AI for some time. It’s in our social media, our email, our favorite streaming service, the maps we use to navigate, the apps we use to listen to music, the tools we use to translate texts, our digital personal assistants. There are AI tools that can create realistic images from a simple description or turn an image or text into a quiz. Other AI tools can remove the background of images, turn text into speech or a presentation with slides, and transcribe and summarize online videos. So why this buzz about ChatGPT? I suppose it has to do with the potential implications for several fields, including our own. How can technologies like the one used by ChatGPT impact the future of English teaching?

ChatGPT and the Future of English Teaching

English teaching has come a long way in the last two decades. Interactive whiteboards, social media, learning management, gamification and video platforms, videoconferencing tools and remote teaching, augmented and virtual reality, the metaverse and more. But it seems that ChatGPT and other similar tools are a major game changer because they allow people to produce language, in a variety of ways, that looks good enough – many times, way better than good – for basically any purpose and, most importantly, effortlessly. That means that teachers can very quickly create an ad, a dialogue, a public announcement, a report, a task, feedback on something their students created and whatever else they can think of. The dark side of it, at least to some people, is that students can do the same.

What critics say is that with ChatGPT, students won’t have to write their essays or complete the activities we assign. They can simply get ChatGPT to do them, and they will come out quite original – no plagiarism (except that it does plagiarize a little). Others point out that despite being very human-like and good enough, ChatGPT has internal biases based on the big data it collected and that it can occasionally be incredibly inaccurate, prejudiced and even “hallucinate”. That fear of “homework mass destruction” and more fake news has led a lot of people to look for tools that can recognize a text produced by ChatGPT – and they do exist. Some want ChatGPT to add a fingerprint or a “watermark” so that students can’t simply copy the text. Others are pushing for a return to handwritten assignments.

The bright side is quite exciting, though. Advancements in AI are set to transform the way we teach English. With AI-powered language creators and VR simulations, for instance, students can practice their language skills in an immersive and interactive environment. The software can interact with learners in real time, correcting language mistakes as they arise. This could become an invaluable tool for learners hoping to improve their writing or general language skills, giving them a partner to chat with anytime and to whom they can ask questions about grammar or vocabulary. Teachers can also harness this potential by assigning homework that makes use of the learner’s new personal tutor. Imagine we ask our students to write a paragraph describing their plans for the weekend or summarizing their favorite book. How long would it take us to go through everyone’s paragraph and point out what they got wrong and how to improve? ChatGPT can do it in a matter of seconds and to an incredible degree of detail. Will people need to learn English in the future? Will they need human teachers? However, ChatGPT also poses more existential questions about language teaching and learning. With the ability to effortlessly translate text from one language to another and write original texts in the language of choice, is there still a point to learning languages? We already have apps and devices that can translate in real time and more and more people are using them around the world to communicate. While AI may master the nuts and bolts of communication, it is unlikely to capture our personality, which is unique to each of us. Authentic communication requires intellectual effort and emotions. Also, bilingualism is known to benefit our brains both cognitively and emotionally (Bialystok, 2011). Learning an additional language is not simply about communication, it’s also about improving our brains.

Will people need to learn English in the future? Will they need human teachers?

However, ChatGPT also poses more existential questions about language teaching and learning. With the ability to effortlessly translate text from one language to another and write original texts in the language of choice, is there still a point to learning languages? We already have apps and devices that can translate in real time and more and more people are using them around the world to communicate. While AI may master the nuts and bolts of communication, it is unlikely to capture our personality, which is unique to each of us. Authentic communication requires intellectual effort and emotions. Also, bilingualism is known to benefit our brains both cognitively and emotionally (Bialystok, 2011). Learning an additional language is not simply about communication, it’s also about improving our brains.

The human factor is an essential element that AI-powered tools lack when it comes to teaching and learning. As much as we love the convenience of technology, there is no substitute for human interaction, especially in the realm of education. Teachers have the unique ability to connect with students, build relationships, and create a learning experience that goes beyond the classroom. But there’s more. Our brains are actually better than any learning machine according to neuroscience expert Stanislas Dehaene (2020, p. 238):

Our brains remain, for the moment at least, the fastest, most effective, and most energy efficient of all information processing devices. A true probabilistic machine, it successfully extracts the maximum amount of information from each moment of the day and transforms it as night into abstract and general knowledge, in a way that we do not yet know how to reproduce in computers.

The future of English teaching and AI is not dystopian, but rather one of coexistence. The role of teachers will evolve to meet the demands of a changing educational landscape, with AI-powered tools complementing and enhancing the learning experience. Teachers won’t be replaced by technology. Teachers who don’t know how to use the new technologies will be replaced by those who do.

As the ELT industry continues to adapt to a world where AI plays an important role in linguistic mediation, teaching, and learning, it is important to reflect actively on the role we want AI to play in the future. The power of this technology must be ultimately used to support our industry rather than dehumanize or replace it. The role of teachers in the classroom will always be essential, and their expertise and personalities will be the key to ensuring that learners receive a truly authentic language learning experience.

I asked ChatGPT if it’ll be our end or a path to a brighter future. Here’s what it answered me:


Referências

About author

Andre Hedlund is a Chevening Alumnus - MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol, an Educational Consultant, Speaker, university Lecturer on Bilingualism and Cognition, and Academic Director of EdYOUfest. He’s also a member of BRAZ-TESOL’s Mind, Brain, and Education SIG. He's the author of The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy, and he blogs at edcrocks.com
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