Bridging our gaps: Why EAP students turn to AI?

AI generated image [BETA]: LEGO bridge over a developing LEGO landscape
AI generated image [BETA]
In this extra post, Barbara discusses why students rely on Artificial Intelligence tools and rapid Machine Translation applications and initiates conversations on embedding these new technologies within their curriculum. Barbara Katharina Reschenhofer is a pre-sessional Teaching Fellow in English for Academic Purposes (EAP)↗️.

With the rise of accessible Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and rapid Machine Translation (MT) applications, more and more international students appear to be turning to these online resources to draft and edit entire written university assignments. With the right prompt, a tool like ChatGPT can produce a bespoke essay on any given topic almost instantaneously. In this article, I suggest and discuss a possible reason as to why our students might be relying on AI and MT to compose texts for them instead of trusting in their own competencies.

In the context of English for Academic Purposes (EAP)↗️ classes, the umbrella term “international students” is commonly used to describe students whose first language is not English and who come to the United Kingdom (UK) to pursue their undergraduate, graduate, or postgraduate studies. As many UK universities have acquired a global reputation of quality research and prestigious education over the past centuries, international students have naturally become a core part of the academic community at institutions like the University of Edinburgh, for instance. With students flocking to the UK to obtain their desired degrees, anglophone universities have developed dedicated EAP courses to accommodate the academic needs of international students. Studying at an anglophone university requires students to evidence a certain level of proficiency in English language and literacy – and this is precisely where academic literacy courses, such as EAP, come in.

Over the past decades, however, EAP has evolved to encompass more than the practice of simply speaking, listening, reading, and writing for specific academic purposes in the English language. At the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Open Learning↗️, our pre-sessional EAP classes↗️, for example, equip students with the tools they need to become autonomous learners, critical thinkers, and dynamic innovators with a clear vision and sense of purpose. We support students in developing transferable life skills which they can make use of far beyond university. This highly specialized focus on adopting a critical thinking mindset, adhering to academic practices, and conducting research with integrity however leaves little room for the improvement of foundational English language skills. After all, an EAP course must not be mistaken for a General English language course.

Now, if EAP provides highly specialized support in navigating academia and developing sophisticated skillsets, why do international students still rely on Artificial Intelligence to complete (mostly written) assignments? The answer, to me, is clear: AI bridges the language learning gaps which currently exist in our EAP syllabi. In my experience, students generally report back with overwhelmingly positive feedback upon having completed their pre-sessional programmes. They most often highlight their newly found confidence and advanced critical thinking skills as two of the most significant benefits of their summers spent studying EAP. Aside from these invaluably rewarding advantages, students do frequently also comment on the scarcity of traditional vocabulary or syntax exercises in the course materials. Although they might have become purpose-driven and motivated early-stage researchers by the end of the pre-sessional, some students very much still worry about how to communicate their original and complex ideas, in English, in and outside of university. The perceived constraints of what might feel like a limited vocabulary or flawed grammar are, as I find, ultimately what motivates students to rely on MT or AI to produce language to match the sophistication of their ideas.

So, what might we do about this? With the continuous advancement of technologies like AI, an outright rejection of them is most likely futile. Rather than working against the proliferation of sophisticated language support resources, we should be thinking about ways to embrace and incorporate them into our lessons. As discussed in a previous post by Jane McKie, Stuart King and Lynda Clark↗️ from the Edinburgh Futures Institute, tools like ChatGPT can be used in integrative and creative ways. Of course, this will likely be a gradual process spanning over the upcoming months and years. To bridge the language education gap for now, perhaps the solution is to go “back to basics”; I believe that brief exercises in syntax can already work wonders in returning a sense of linguistic orientation to students who may otherwise resort to translating entire essays from their mother tongue into English. Students who feel unfamiliar with the basic rules of English grammar will be far more likely to turn to AI to produce perfectly coherent and cohesive constructions. Because we almost make a point to overly discern EAP from General English, students may feel somewhat hesitant to ask what they might fear to be “basic” questions about word order or article placement in an otherwise highly complex lesson on critical synthesis.

I am confident that we as EAP practitioners who teach in various contexts can successfully bridge the language gaps which tools like ChatGPT seem to currently be filling for our students. We first just need to enter nuanced discussions as to how we could best achieve this – whether this be in the form of revised EAP syllabi or additional language workshops offered as a supplement to pre-sessional EAP courses. Aside from adapting the EAP lessons themselves, the modes of assessment may also need to be updated to individually enquire into the originality of the submitted texts – for instance, by checking and evaluating the student’s understanding of their own writing via precise viva-esque questions. As forward-thinking and highly adaptive teaching professionals, EAP practitioners will certainly find a way to both utilize new technologies and supplement current approaches to best guide the student along their journey toward finding their own voice in academia.

Photograph of the authorBarbara Katharina Reschenhofer

Barbara Katharina Reschenhofer is a pre-sessional Teaching Fellow in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at the University of Edinburgh and PhD candidate of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include but are not limited to innovations in EAP, student motivation and well-being, attachment theory, multimodal literature, displacement narratives, and children’s literature. She is also an experienced EAP practitioner with a passion for promoting confidence and purpose through education and has taught at various universities across Austria and the United Kingdom.

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