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In my opinion

AI tools cannot entirely replace traditional language programs

The efficacy of learning from apps and achieving intended learning outcomes begs contemplation.

BY WEI CAI | NOV 10 2023

Amidst a budgetary crisis, West Virginia University (WVU) recently put forth a proposal to eliminate some academic programs. Among those being cut are some language programs. Spanish and Chinese classes will remain, but major and minor language degrees, as well as many other foreign language classes have been removed. In response, the university is considering the possibility of partnering with an online language app or engaging in online collaboration with another university to address students’ language education needs. The scale of these cuts and their potential repercussions on language programs is both startling and difficult to accept. The well-documented advantages of acquiring a second language, including cognitive and academic advancement, as well as intercultural competence and more, underline the importance of continuing to offer opportunities for students to learn languages in higher education.

It is essential to distinguish between learning through structured in-person language programs, utilizing apps or AI tools like ChatGPT and exclusively opting for online classes. Language programs provide comprehensive curricula that can be tailored to individual progress and diversity. The human element, the rich social and cultural contexts, and the motivational engagement that come from face-to-face interaction are critical for language learning.

The efficacy of learning from apps and achieving intended learning outcomes begs contemplation. While apps can be very effective for language learning and can hold the potential to enhance language learning, there are serious questions surrounding their ability to replace formal language programs. In a recent article published in an academic journal, I put forth the following ideas:

  1. ChatGPT cannot entirely replace the teaching profession;
  2. Educators employing AI will outperform and gradually replace those who do not,
  3. ChatGPT can assume certain instructional roles, potentially leading to a reduced demand for instructors overall,
  4. Utilizing ChatGPT requires educators to possess heightened skills such as a deeper understanding of language learning mechanisms, enhanced critical thinking, and more.

Furthermore, the use of third-party apps or learning tools introduces a commercial aspect. Questions then emerge about the nature of these providers and the quality of their products. We haven’t yet reached a stage where online classes, apps and AI tools can entirely replace traditional language programs. Rather, these technological resources can harmoniously coexist within existing programs, albeit not as substitutes. This transformation does not appear imminent, at least not within  the current landscape.

What implications does the WVU scenario hold for other language programs and educators? First and foremost, it’s critical to understand the context. Is it a singular unfortunate event, or does it potentially indicate a larger trend that could impact language education in the future? While it may be premature to declare a definite trend, there is growing evidence that such occurrences could happen more. A recent New York Times article lends support to my viewpoint, highlighting concerns about the potential cuts in liberal arts departments, including language programs. In some Canadian universities, there is a notable situation that retiring tenured professors are not being replaced, which could signal a worrying trajectory for the field.

Furthermore, it’s worth considering which language programs (as well as other academic programs) are most vulnerable in the face of budgetary crises. Certain programs might be at a higher risk due to factors such as enrollment numbers, resource allocation, or overall institutional priorities. Recognizing these issues can help institutions proactively address potential threats to language education and mitigate the potential impact on language education and the educators involved should such scenarios arise. Having well-defined transition plans is crucial in the event that similar challenges arise elsewhere. These plans could include program restructuring and transformation to ensure continuity and enhance competitiveness. Exploring the potential to build a multi-university joint language Bachelor’s degree program for sustainability and growth, and collaborating with external partners could also be considered, as previously mentioned.

Language programs are a crucial investment in students’ intellectual, professional and personal futures. The benefits provided by systematic in-person language instruction programs are significant. Although online platforms, apps and AI tools provide versatile support, they should be seen as supplements to, rather than replacements for, the traditional classroom learning.

Wei Cai is a professor in the school of languages, linguistics, literatures and cultures in the faculty of arts at the University of Calgary.

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