ltsigIt’s hype time again. Spurred on, no doubt, by the current spate of books and articles  about AIED (artificial intelligence in education), the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG is organising an online event on the topic in November of this year. Currently, the most visible online references to AI in language learning are related to Glossika , basically a language learning system that uses spaced repetition, whose marketing department has realised that references to AI might help sell the product. GlossikaThey’re not alone – see, for example, Knowble which I reviewed earlier this year .

In the wider world of education, where AI has made greater inroads than in language teaching, every day brings more stuff: How artificial intelligence is changing teaching , 32 Ways AI is Improving Education , How artificial intelligence could help teachers do a better job , etc., etc. There’s a full-length book by Anthony Seldon, The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity? (2018, University of Buckingham Press) – one of the most poorly researched and badly edited books on education I’ve ever read, although that won’t stop it selling – and, no surprises here, there’s a Pearson commissioned report called Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education (2016) which is available free.

Common to all these publications is the claim that AI will radically change education. When it comes to language teaching, a similar claim has been made by Donald Clark (described by Anthony Seldon as an education guru but perhaps best-known to many in ELT for his demolition of Sugata Mitra). In 2017, Clark wrote a blog post for Cambridge English (now unavailable) entitled How AI will reboot language learning, and a more recent version of this post, called AI has and will change language learning forever (sic) is available on Clark’s own blog. Given the history of the failure of education predictions, Clark is making bold claims. Thomas Edison (1922) believed that movies would revolutionize education. Radios were similarly hyped in the 1940s and in the 1960s it was the turn of TV. In the 1980s, Seymour Papert predicted the end of schools – ‘the computer will blow up the school’, he wrote. Twenty years later, we had the interactive possibilities of Web 2.0. As each technology failed to deliver on the hype, a new generation of enthusiasts found something else to make predictions about.

But is Donald Clark onto something? Developments in AI and computational linguistics have recently resulted in enormous progress in machine translation. Impressive advances in automatic speech recognition and generation, coupled with the power that can be packed into a handheld device, mean that we can expect some re-evaluation of the value of learning another language. Stephen Heppell, a specialist at Bournemouth University in the use of ICT in Education, has said: ‘Simultaneous translation is coming, making language teachers redundant. Modern languages teaching in future may be more about navigating cultural differences’ (quoted by Seldon, p.263). Well, maybe, but this is not Clark’s main interest.

Less a matter of opinion and much closer to the present day is the issue of assessment. AI is becoming ubiquitous in language testing. Cambridge, Pearson, TELC, Babbel and Duolingo are all using or exploring AI in their testing software, and we can expect to see this increase. Current, paper-based systems of testing subject knowledge are, according to Rosemary Luckin and Kristen Weatherby, outdated, ineffective, time-consuming, the cause of great anxiety and can easily be automated (Luckin, R. & Weatherby, K. 2018. ‘Learning analytics, artificial intelligence and the process of assessment’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.253). By capturing data of various kinds throughout a language learner’s course of study and by using AI to analyse learning development, continuous formative assessment becomes possible in ways that were previously unimaginable. ‘Assessment for Learning (AfL)’ or ‘Learning Oriented Assessment (LOA)’ are two terms used by Cambridge English to refer to the potential that AI offers which is described by Luckin (who is also one of the authors of the Pearson paper mentioned earlier). In practical terms, albeit in a still very limited way, this can be seen in the CUP course ‘Empower’, which combines CUP course content with validated LOA from Cambridge Assessment English.

Will this reboot or revolutionise language teaching? Probably not and here’s why. AIED systems need to operate with what is called a ‘domain knowledge model’. This specifies what is to be learnt and includes an analysis of the steps that must be taken to reach that learning goal. Some subjects (especially STEM subjects) ‘lend themselves much more readily to having their domains represented in ways that can be automatically reasoned about’ (du Boulay, D. et al., 2018. ‘Artificial intelligences and big data technologies to close the achievement gap’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.258). This is why most AIED systems have been built to teach these areas. Language are rather different. We simply do not have a domain knowledge model, except perhaps for the very lowest levels of language learning (and even that is highly questionable). Language learning is probably not, or not primarily, about acquiring subject knowledge. Debate still rages about the relationship between explicit language knowledge and language competence. AI-driven formative assessment will likely focus most on explicit language knowledge, as does most current language teaching. This will not reboot or revolutionise anything. It will more likely reinforce what is already happening: a model of language learning that assumes there is a strong interface between explicit knowledge and language competence. It is not a model that is shared by most SLA researchers.

So, one thing that AI can do (and is doing) for language learning is to improve the algorithms that determine the way that grammar and vocabulary are presented to individual learners in online programs. AI-optimised delivery of ‘English Grammar in Use’ may lead to some learning gains, but they are unlikely to be significant. It is not, in any case, what language learners need.

AI, Donald Clark suggests, can offer personalised learning. Precisely what kind of personalised learning this might be, and whether or not this is a good thing, remains unclear. A 2015 report funded by the Gates Foundation found that we currently lack evidence about the effectiveness of personalised learning. We do not know which aspects of personalised learning (learner autonomy, individualised learning pathways and instructional approaches, etc.) or which combinations of these will lead to gains in language learning. The complexity of the issues means that we may never have a satisfactory explanation. You can read my own exploration of the problems of personalised learning starting here .

What’s left? Clark suggests that chatbots are one area with ‘huge potential’. I beg to differ and I explained my reasons eighteen months ago . Chatbots work fine in very specific domains. As Clark says, they can be used for ‘controlled practice’, but ‘controlled practice’ means practice of specific language knowledge, the practice of limited conversational routines, for example. It could certainly be useful, but more than that? Taking things a stage further, Clark then suggests more holistic speaking and listening practice with Amazon Echo, Alexa or Google Home. If and when the day comes that we have general, as opposed to domain-specific, AI, chatting with one of these tools would open up vast new possibilities. Unfortunately, general AI does not exist, and until then Alexa and co will remain a poor substitute for human-human interaction (which is readily available online, anyway). Incidentally, AI could be used to form groups of online language learners to carry out communicative tasks – ‘the aim might be to design a grouping of students all at a similar cognitive level and of similar interests, or one where the participants bring different but complementary knowledge and skills’ (Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M. & Forceir, L.B. 2016. Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education. London: Pearson, p.26).

Predictions about the impact of technology on education have a tendency to be made by people with a vested interest in the technologies. Edison was a businessman who had invested heavily in motion pictures. Donald Clark is an edtech entrepreneur whose company, Wildfire, uses AI in online learning programs. Stephen Heppell is executive chairman of LP+ who are currently developing a Chinese language learning community for 20 million Chinese school students. The reporting of AIED is almost invariably in websites that are paid for, in one way or another, by edtech companies. Predictions need, therefore, to be treated sceptically. Indeed, the safest prediction we can make about hyped educational technologies is that inflated expectations will be followed by disillusionment, before the technology finds a smaller niche.

 

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Comments
  1. N says:

    Thank you for the very thorough look at the topic of AI in language teaching! I completely agree with “the safest prediction” you have made.

    There is an interesting article on the use of AI in language learning posted a couple of years ago (https://www.goethe.de/en/spr/mag/dsk/21290629.html) that voices concerns very similar to those raised by you in this and other related posts. It also brings up self-reflective consciousness as a “fundamental pre-requisite” for spontaneity and flexibility in communicative interaction, characteristic of living humans, but absent in AI systems. Could it be that it is uniquely human factors like those that limit AI to explicit language knowledge while putting the actual language competence beyond its reach?

    Also, given the topic of this post, have you seen this app: https://www.elsaspeak.com/home ? I’ve found out about it from this article: https://www.forbes.com/sites/chynes/2016/08/30/the-app-using-artificial-intelligence-to-improve-english-speaking-skills/#23c863fe1c82 and feel rather funny about it. On Google Play, the app is positioned as “English accent coach”, all the while luring the potential user to “learn perfect English pronunciation, conversation, vocabulary and idioms”. The reviews are hilariously controversial.

    Absolutely looking forward to your further posts!

    P.S. Having spent a few recent years professionally under a rock, I began reading your blog from the very first post, and came across this: https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/part-7-the-next-4-to-5-years-of-adaptive-learning-in-elt-10-predictions/ It has been almost five years since then, so it does rather feel like a good time for an update (I realise you are a busy person, though, and totally would not insist!).

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