Artificial intelligence & machine learning: friend or foe for English Teachers?
Have you ever Googled how to say a word? If not, try it sometime. You can “practice” and Google will give you feedback on your pronunciation with tips on how to improve. You’ll see something that looks like this. You can even choose to listen to the American or British pronunciation.
Are you a bit surprised, or perhaps even unsettled, to see that Google offers something this robust?
Actually, this voice technology isn’t necessarily new, but a few significant advances in deep learning and cloud computing have made it so that text-to-speech (TTS) now sounds incredibly humanlike. And the reverse, speech-to-text (STT) now picks up many different ways of speaking, making it much more accurate.
Non-native English speakers may recall significant frustration in years past getting Siri or Alexa to understand them. But these same people hardly have an issue today because the algorithm has been trained with trillions of hours of voice data from around the world. With this improved accuracy in terms of speech detection, comes a high degree of accuracy in terms of feedback and correction.
How will voice technology impact English teaching professionals and the entire industry?
Let’s first address the elephant in the room.
No, an AI-powered technology will not take your English teaching job
Just like free online courses offered by MOOCs like Coursera, Khan Academy, and Udemy have not displaced traditional classrooms in the past 9 years they’ve been in existence, English speaking apps and platforms like Sensay, Duolingo, Elsa Speak and Google will not take away your English teaching job. But what has and will continue to change for the English teaching industry?
It’s now possible to provide learners instant feedback on pronunciation, fluency, and more
As illustrated in the Google example, the ability to use AI and ML to assess speech also comes with the ability to give feedback and correction to learners. Of course, within educational institutions, human teachers are still the most common way ESL learners receive feedback and correction today. However, I believe that teaching pedagogy that embeds voice technology is going to increase dramatically in the coming years. The key is to make sure it is non-intrusive, contextual, and used in a way that makes sense for the learner’s goals.
When the time-savings for teachers and the benefits of student self-practice outside of the classroom (as in the Google example) reach an undeniable tipping point, I believe the English teaching industry will witness a tremendous positive transformation. For example, English teachers can focus more on teaching new material rather than assessment. My team and I started Sensay (https://oksensay.com), a speaking-based online learning platform, precisely so that teachers and students alike can benefit from robust voice technology.
It’s also now possible to instantly assess the language abilities of a student without a human evaluator
It used to be that TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC and other such exams were the only way to officially certify a person’s English language level. However, many companies now offer English assessments that they claim to be just as accurate, using only AI and sophisticated machine learning models. As more institutions worldwide begin to accept these certification alternatives, I believe that human raters may be out of a job in the coming years.
Many schools that are currently manually assessing student levels will find it much easier, cheaper, and faster to place students using assessment technology. If you are a school administrator or English teacher who is currently manually assessing student levels, and you’re looking for a better and easier way — consider checking out Sensay to learn more about our instant English-speaking assessment and how it works.
In conclusion, I hope this article helps to share a bit more information about what voice technology is, and how it can be a positive innovation to the English education space. Comment below what positive (or not so positive) impacts you think AI and voice technology will have on the English education space.
I would be remiss not to mention that internet connectivity and access to devices is still a tremendous barrier for millions of students around the world, making voice technology adoption at scale not without its challenges.