The rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence of the past few months are likely to transform the ELT industry and revolutionise the way in which languages are taught and learnt more generally. In this blog post, George Wilson, the Academic Manager in charge of our Teacher Training Department, reflects on some of the changes we may see in the coming days, months and years.
In November 2022, a private company called Open AI launched its application ChatGPT (GPT meaning Generative Pre-Trained Transformers). This event did not make the front pages of our national newspapers or come up in our weekly staff meetings but perhaps it should have done, for this software has the capacity to transform our professional lives, no matter the industry in which we work.
Just take a look at the exchange below. It took me longer to type my prompt than for the AI to generate its reply.
- Please write a twenty-word description of what chat GPT does in the style of a British Council blog post.
- ChatGPT uses AI to generate human-like responses to text-based queries, providing quick and informative answers. From chatting to trivia and creative content, it's changing the way we interact with technology. Get ready for an amazing AI experience!
Never before has a piece of software been able to perform tasks as swiftly or cogently as ChatGPT and this is just a research preview, with the real product set to launch in the coming months. To imagine its full impact on our working lives, we simply need to ask ourselves questions like how much of our time is spent writing emails? How much time do managers spend developing business strategies? How much creativity goes into designing an ad campaign? ChatGPT can, to some extent, already do all these things in a matter of milliseconds. It therefore seems like an opportune moment to reflect on how different industries will adapt to this new reality, and important to imagine the implications of AI for our own ELT sector.
Teachers are highly skilled professionals, and industry qualifications have been carefully designed to train them in the identification of learners’ needs and the structuring of interesting lessons designed to meet these. The success of such an approach is based on effective planning, and this is a skill that teachers spend years developing. ChatGPT, however, can plan lessons in a heartbeat. Just take a look at the lesson plan below, which was generated in response to the prompt: “Plan a lesson for a group of 15-year-olds in France. The lesson will last an hour and the aim is to draft and redraft a tabloid newspaper article about a piece of celebrity gossip. The students are particularly interested in US rap music.”
We can certainly quibble about the finer details of this lesson plan. How exactly do you “Encourage students to use the specific tone and language associated with tabloid journalism”? Should this not be a more structured and detailed part of the lesson? Would the analysis of a model text not be helpful? Nonetheless, we have to admit that this is a perfectly reasonable lesson plan.
So what does this mean for teachers? Well, planning a lesson is not the same as teaching one and so there will certainly be a place for the teaching professional for many years to come. However, ChatGPT does have the potential to support novice teachers in lesson planning and to speed up the process for others, although I would contend that, as it points out itself, its suggestions should only be taken as a starting point, with teachers critically appraising such plans and, of course, stamping their own personalities upon them.
The implications for our industry go much further than lesson planning, however. Chat GPT is also capable of interacting in real time with learners and of correcting their language mistakes.
- GW: I'm the student. You're the teacher. I am learning English. Please correct my language as we discuss. Please start the conversation
- ChatGPT: Sure! I'd be happy to help you practice your English. Let's start with a simple question. What would you like to talk about today?
- GW: My village. I come in Little Downham on the UK. It is small and pretty.
- ChatGPT: That's great! Here are a few corrections to your sentence: "I come from Little Downham in the UK. It is a small and pretty village.
The software therefore has the potential to become an invaluable tool for learners hoping to improve their writing or general language skills, giving them a companion with whom they can chat any time and to whom they can ask questions about grammar or vocabulary as they arise. It certainly seems wise for teachers to begin harnessing that potential, setting homework, for instance, that makes use of the learner’s new personal tutor.
Of course, ChatGPT also poses more existential questions about language teaching and learning. The software can effortlessly translate text from one language to another and it can write original texts in the language of your choice. With such powerful AI, is there still a point to learning languages? Will future generations ever suffer from the difficulty of making themselves understood or will communication across languages simply become effortless?
Only time will tell, but my hunch is that there will always be a demand for authentic communication with all the intellectual effort that it implies, since it is only by challenging ourselves that we grow as individuals. AI may well master the nuts and bolts of communication, but it is unlikely to capture our emotions and our characters, which are, after all, unique to each of us. That said, the ELT industry will undoubtedly have to adapt to a new world where AI plays an important role in linguistic mediation, teaching and learning. It would be wise for us to begin reflecting actively on the role we want AI to play in the future so that we have well-prepared answers to the questions it raises and so that its power is ultimately used to support our industry rather than deprofessionalise or replace it.