by Dr Evelina Galaczi and Dr Nahal Khabbazbashi
images by Willy Verginer

How are you using GenAI to teach English? Dr Evelina Galaczi and Dr Nahal Khabbazbashi report back on a study between Cambridge and the University of Bedfordshire that asked hundreds of English teachers around the world about their experiences of using GenAI. The findings can help you navigate the fast-changing AI landscape and may even spark a few ideas for your own classrooms.

It feels like every morning we wake up to hundreds of opinions on the use of GenAI in the classroom, but there is currently little research into how English teachers are actually using this tech. So, we asked teachers about their attitudes and first-hand experiences of GenAI.

What is GenAI?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, Generative AI can be defined as: “a particular artificial intelligence (a computer system that has some of the qualities that a human brain has, such as the ability to interpret language, recognize images, and learn from data supplied to it) that is able to produce text, images”.

What did we ask teachers?
Through a survey and focus groups we asked 386 teachers in 70 countries important questions about their familiarity with GenAI, how they use it in their everyday teaching, attitudes towards it, institutional policies, training and challenges and benefits of it.

10 things teachers told us 

1. Teachers were positive towards GenAI as a tool for language education, and education more generally. They highlighted the integral role they assign to GenAI in language education. As one secondary school teacher from Kenya put it, ‘GenAI is currently my best teaching tool’. A teacher from China further noted how using GenAI puts teachers ‘at the forefront of educational innovation’. 

2. Teachers are comfortable with GenAI. 84% of them said they were comfortable with using digital technology in general. About half said they were familiar with GenAI and only 14% said they were not at all familiar with this technology. It’s worth noting that we did the study in July and August 2023 and ChatGPT (the first widely available GenAI tool) had only been launched in November 2022. The high level of familiarity with this new technology highlights how fast AI is growing in terms of impact.   

3. Teachers reported quite frequent use of GenAI. Just under half (46%) told us they use it on a weekly basis, and a third (36%) use it monthly. One primary teacher from Uruguay said they used it every week to create new activities and to get ideas on how to teach certain topics. However, there are still 18% who said they have never used it.

4. Humans are essential. 73% of teachers said that they do not believe GenAI will replace them as the main educator; they felt that humans are still important when it comes to areas that involve high levels of skill, making choices and decisions about learning. These involve a holistic understanding of the cognitive, emotional and social aspects of their students.

They also felt that GenAI will not fundamentally change the way humans learn and teach. As the head of a private school in Argentina said, the ‘skill, the choice and the decision’ about many aspects of learning still remain the responsibility of the teacher. A teacher from India similarly commented: ‘The role of the human teacher is […] not merely to transfer knowledge which is freely available’. There was also a strong feeling that the future is about bringing GenAI and teachers together rather than one replacing the other.

5. GenAI helps teachers enjoy their job more. 2 out of 3 teachers reported that GenAI enhances their job satisfaction. One teacher from Brazil commented that it contributes to their students’ progress in language learning, and the ripple effect of that is increased motivation for teachers. 

6. It can do some of the heavy lifting! Teachers felt they could use AI as a ‘teaching assistant’ to help them in a number of ways such as speeding up tasks by creating lesson plans and designing activities. They told us they use GenAI to adapt their learning materials for diverse student abilities, which, as most teachers know, is a time-consuming task for most teachers and their mixed-ability classes. GenAI did some of the heavy lifting to help reduce teachers’ workloads.  

[…] humans are still important when it comes to areas that involve high levels of skill, making choices and decisions about learning. These involve a holistic understanding of the cognitive, emotional and social aspects of their students.

7. It’s a work buddy with a different point of view. Two-thirds of teachers said that AI gave unique insights and perspectives that they had actually not thought of themselves.  GenAI was also described as a ‘work or conversation buddy’, a kind of ‘team member’ who can support the teacher, or as an ‘extra pair of eyes’ to review student work. As one teacher from Argentina put it: ‘It’s like a team member you can count on even on a Sunday afternoon when you don’t want to bother any of your teachers, or your coordinators and you need somebody to exchange ideas with’.

8. It can improve learning outcomes. Teachers also said that ChatGPT can help improve student language ability. For example, teachers can use it to improve their students’ writing skills through the feedback it can provide. One teacher in Italy said that it helped a student improve her C1 level writing.

9. A word of caution. There were also concerns about cheating, plagiarism and the potential to diminish critical thinking when learning. As a teacher from Ecuador said, ‘sometimes students tend to look for answers on ChatGPT instead of analyzing and thinking critically’.

We also see concerns about overreliance on AI, ethical issues, biased output, hallucinations (when AI produces false information) and the blurring of boundaries between truth and fiction.  And of course, there were concerns about unequal access to technology. A teacher from Kenya commented: ‘There are students who do not have access to AI and I feel they are disadvantaged as compared to those who do have access’.

We also found that institutional policies on the use of GenAI are very mixed and not always transparent. In a question of whether their school or institution allows the use of GenAI, the highest proportion of teachers (36%) chose ‘not sure’! So, we would recommend that as a starting point, teachers find out more about their institution’s policies on AI or proactively work within their school to create one.

10. Getting targeted training is a challenge. The research revealed a high demand and appetite for more training as part of professional development. Specifically, we found out 25% of teachers believe that they need ongoing monthly training and about half said they need training a few days a year.  A really high proportion (85%) reported feeling enthusiastic to learn about GenAI. 

At Cambridge we understand how important this technology is, but also how daunting it can be. If you’re already using GenAI or starting to think about it, there are a number of blogs, podcasts and tips you can check out such as: Enhancing learners’ critical thinking skills with AI-assisted technology, Can we trust AI? and Ways to use ChatGPT in your classroom.

We firmly believe that humans will remain at the heart of teaching. I’d like to end with a final thought from the prominent educationalists Hamilton, Wiliam and Hattie, who recently wrote that ‘the best (current) chess players are not humans or machines, but humans working with machines to figure out the best move’. 

So, what’s your next move?

Dr Evelina Galaczi. Director of Research - Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
Dr Nahal Khabbazbashi. Senior Lecturer in Language Assessment at CRELLA.

Willy Verginer is an Italian artist who lives and works in the city of Ortisei. With a career spanning more than 40 years, he has recently focused his artistic production on environmental themes always permeated by hints of the surreal and the magical. In 2019 Verginer began the Rayuela series, presented at the Zemack Gallery in Tel Aviv, which can be interpreted as a playful situation in which children move between tangible reality and digitality, offering a complex reading of the relationship between these two spheres and, instead of opposing them, enrich the dialogue between them. www.verginer.com | Instagram @verginerwilly

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