By Andria Lorentzen and Euan Bonner, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan
By now nearly everyone has heard about the incredible advancements that artificial intelligence (AI) has made over the past few years in regards to understanding and processing human language and responding naturally. This kind of AI is called a natural language processor, with the most popular being created by OpenAI. Their AI, powered by GPT, which is most popularly known through their ChatGPT service, has the ability to mimic natural human language and is set to shake up multiple industries, including language education. It will likely change how we do everything from translation, lesson planning, activity content creation, to even grading.
Those of you who have heard of or seen OpenAI’s ChatGPT are likely already familiar with its powerful capabilities and may even be worried about its potential misuse by students who may try to use it to write homework answers and essays. While its use by students will continue to be a serious debate within the educational field for some time, teachers should keep in mind that it is also a powerful tool that they can take advantage of as well. At our university we have used this kind of AI to save us a lot of time by using it to do things like creating language-level appropriate summaries of native-level texts, generating unlimited unique creative writing prompts, or even converting lesson idea notes into fully formatted lesson plans.
We already have some previous experience creating activities focused on customizing AI chatbots for use in student designed campus tour and there has been plenty of research conducted on the use of chatbots in language education. So we felt taking the next step would be to incorporate this new kind of AI into an activity centered around helping students practice their English conversation skills with a customized AI conversation partner that would respond naturally to any interaction. We wanted our students to benefit from role playing with an AI chatbot that had been given a personality and background uniquely created to match each student’s interests.
Since OpenAI’s AI can also be accessed and interacted with using a little bit of computer code called an API, we decided to go the extra step and develop a simple application using Unity, some 3D characters and some C# coding that would give the AI a customizable voice, accent and appearance. This way our students could not only create their own personalized AI conversation partners, but also choose how they look and sound. Finally, using Google Speech-to-Text for the students and Text-to-Speech for the AI, our students spoke with their AI directly and heard and saw the AI respond in kind.
The Class Activity
Once we finished building our AI chatbot system, we knew that we wanted to use it in the classroom. Our university in Japan is foreign language focused and one of the first courses our students take is Freshman English, which focuses on oral communication skills. The specific Freshman English class we chose for this activity consisted of 18 mixed level English proficiency students. We came up with a three day class activity designed for this class in order to give our students a novel way to practice their speaking and listening skills. We gave the students the opportunity to create their own unique AI conversation partner and chat with him or her about topics of their choice. The thinking was that students might feel less pressure speaking to an AI partner instead of a real person, and they would be comfortable since they already “knew” the personality of their AI conversation partner.
The activity was divided over three lessons. In the first lesson, we gave an overview of the activity and a demonstration with our own customized AI chatbot, Brenda, to the students. We then put the students in pairs and tasked them with creating their own AI personality. In the second and third lessons, each pair of students had 10 minutes to speak to their conversation partner, while their classmates worked on a separate classroom activity.
In stage one of the activity, we introduced the concept of an AI conversation partner through a slideshow. We then demonstrated a conversation with our teacher-created conversation partner, Brenda. We asked Brenda basic questions, such as, “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” to demonstrate to students that she has her own unique personality and background. We invited volunteers to chat with Brenda during the demonstration and ask simple questions. Students were then put in pairs and given an online worksheet (see Table 1) to create their conversation partner. They had to choose a name, gender, avatar, accent, age, occupation, and life history.
|Create Your AI Conversation Partner Worksheet
|Who is in your team?
|What is the name of your conversation partner?
|Is your conversation partner male or female?
|What nationality is your conversation partner?
Please choose from the following:
Australian, British, American, Indian
|Choose one of the following avatars:
actionhero, astronaut, basketball_player, boxer, business, carpenter, casual, chef, claus, clown, construction_worker, cyclist, dentist, doctor, eskimo, explorer, farm, fire, hazard, judge, lumberjack, mechanic, metalhead, mummy, naval_officer, ninja, paramedic, pilot, pirate, plumber, police, post, prehistoric, reporter, scientist, skate, soldier, sumo, superhero, swimsuit, tennis, viking, weightlifter, yeti, zombie
|What is your conversation partner’s occupation?
Note: “student” can also be an occupation
|Write four sentences about their life so far.
Please write in full sentences, 3rd person.
E.g. When and where was your conversation partner born?
Where has he/she traveled?
Where/what did/does he/she study? Relationships? Family?
Where does he/she live now?
What does he/she want to do in the future?
|He was born in Australia in 2000. He went to Japan once on homestay and studied Japanese in Osaka in 2016. Now he studies at the University of Sydney. His major is economics. He has a girlfriend. He wants to start his own business.
|What are your conversation partner’s hobbies?
Please write at least 2.
|surfing, making YouTube videos
|What kind of person is your conversation partner? (I.e. Personality)
Please write in full sentences, 3rd person.
|He’s talkative and funny and is very cool.
|Please choose a question and copy the question into the box.
How are you?
What did you do yesterday?
What will you have for dinner?
|What did you do yesterday?
|Pretend to be your conversation partner and answer the question above:
|I went to McDonald’s and ate a burger with my friends, Jimmy and Kylie.
Table 1 – The activity worksheet
After students completed their worksheets, we corrected any spelling errors and checked for strange grammar or sentence construction that might confuse the AI, then input the information into a spreadsheet which was linked to the application. Each pair of students was assigned a number, which they would type in to access their own conversation partner. We checked everything and we were then ready for the classroom activity.
In stage two of the activity, student pairs were told that they had 10 minutes to chat with their AI partner. During this time, other students in the class worked on a separate activity and awaited their turn as we only had one machine available. Each pair was asked to have unstructured, free conversation – the topics and questions for discussion were not decided in advance, though we encouraged each pair to ask their AI chatbot partner questions related to the personality that they had created. We also encouraged students to practice conversation strategies that we were practicing in our speaking course. These strategies included: remembering to ask questions, avoiding silence, and changing the topic when necessary. The hope was that students would practice speaking skills in a novel way. After the activity, students shared their thoughts in a short survey.
Overall the activity went quite well, and students seemed to enjoy the novelty of engaging with an AI that they themselves had helped create. From the survey results, one student noted, “I think the AI is good for me to practice and study English because I can have a conversation more natural [sic] than other AI such as Siri and Google.” When asked if they could sense their AI’s personality, most students agreed, with one student saying that they talked about “…his personality, hometown, hobbies, thoughts to [sic] Japan, and girlfriend.” Another student responded, “We gave questions to AI such as ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’, ‘Why did you come to Japan’, and ‘What is your favorite movie?’ He told me not only the answers that we set but also his original answers. For example, the title of the movie, his family name in Japanese, and his girlfriend’s name..”
Students asked questions frequently and appeared engaged in trying to see what effect their customized personalities and life history had on the AI. There were a number of interesting outcomes from this project, which we will cover below.
Topics and Personalities
As can be expected when interacting with a new person for the first time, the conversations centered mostly around small talk, covering topics such as hobbies, jobs, food, and travel. The students would often ask simple questions, or respond to the AI’s questions with short answers. As a result, this led to not only the students having issues maintaining conversations, but the AI as well. Since the students’ questions and statements were often very brief, it made it difficult in turn for the AI to provide detailed coherent responses that could keep the conversation flowing naturally.
However, some students were able to maintain extended conversations. Pairs who had crafted more unusual or entertaining personalities were unsurprisingly more engaged in their conversations, as they tried to elicit amusing responses from the unique AI personalities. Here is one example from a group of students who loved comics and created an action hero/fashion model personality (see Picture 2):
Student: What do you do for a living?
AI: I work in Izumo, Japan. I am an action hero in a Japanese comic. I am also a fashion model for Safari.
Student: Do you have a girlfriend?
AI: Yes I do, but I have never told her about my work.
Student: Why have you never told her about your job?
AI: I have to keep my work a secret from everyone around me to protect them.
Another group chose a monster avatar to create a yeti who lived in human society (see Picture 3):
Student: Why are you happy?
AI: Because I’m a yeti!
Student: What did you do yesterday?
AI: I went to the beach with Jessica.
Student: Who is Jessica?
AI: She’s my girlfriend.
Student: What do you do for a living?
AI: I eat people and animals.
Student: Which animals do you like the best?
AI: I like cows.
Student: Why [do] you like cows?
AI: Because they’re sweet.
As can be expected, when speaking with the AI, some students faced issues because the speech recognition sometimes inaccurately transcribed what they said. The students’ pronunciation was mostly handled well but there were times when differing vocabulary was submitted to the AI than what the students had actually uttered. As a result, the AI responded differently than expected. For example, at one point students were talking to the AI about New York City and tried multiple times to ask the AI about its favorite places there. However, their pronunciation of the word “place” was misinterpreted repeatedly, resulting in confusing responses:
Student: Do you have any favorite priest in New York?
AI: Yeah, the priest in the church of New York.
Student: Do you have any favorite prey in New York?
AI: Yes, there are a lot of pigeons.
This student reflected in the survey that, “I could understand what she said, but it was very difficult to talk with correctly [sic] pronunciation to be understood by her.” While this student found it difficult to make themself understood, this reflects the reality of needing to negotiate meaning regardless of whether or not your partner is an AI.
Students also appeared to have the most fun probing the edges of the AI’s capabilities, seeking out different ways to confuse or mentally “break” it. While this kind of curiosity should be encouraged, for the benefit of the activity it would have been better if students had had time to get over this novelty stage by having some time to play around with the AI prior to the activity. Finally, students reflected that they would have liked to have interacted with other students’ AIs. They felt they would have had more to talk about as they tried to learn more about the personality and personal history of an unknown AI conversation partner.
If you want to try this out in your own classroom, you can actually use ChatGPT to create a conversation partner for your students to practice with. While it won’t have the same 3D avatar and voice as our own project, using the following steps will allow your students to engage in a text chat with their own personalized AI chat partner:
1. Go to https://chat.openai.com/ and create an account (currently has a free tier as of early 2023).
2. Paste in the following prompt text into the text box with the text in [square brackets] replaced with your students’ own personality, life history information, and first question.
The following is a conversation roleplay. You are a character named [Name]. You like to talk about yourself and ask questions too, but your responses are short and to the point. Your occupation is: [Occupation]. Your life history is that: [Life history]. Your hobbies include: [Hobbies]. Some other information about you includes: [Other information]. User: [Your first question].
3. Finally, add a starting question to get the conversation going. If your students find the answers are a little too long, they can directly ask the AI to give shorter responses or to use less challenging vocabulary.
E.g. The following is a conversation roleplay. You are a character named Brenda. You like to talk about yourself and ask questions too, but your responses are short and to the point. Your occupation is: flight attendant. Your life history is that: you were born in 1995 and grew up in London, England. You attended university in Sydney, Australia where you studied hospitality and tourism. In 2018 you graduated and started training and working for Qantas Airways. Your hobbies include: traveling, hiking and reading murder mysteries. Some other information about you includes: you love to chat and love to give people advice about how to become a flight attendant and good places to travel on vacation. User: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a flight attendant like you?
Note that if you would like your students to chat in a language other than English, ChatGPT supports almost 100 world languages. You would just want to specify in your script above that the chatbot should respond in that language.
Taking everything we learned into consideration, we have already made a number of changes to improve the AI chatbot. We made it a better listener and we made the AI chatbot ask contextual questions to the students. Additionally, we would like to explore different strategies for student-AI chatbot interactions such as having the students interact with an AI chatbot created by another student. It would also be great if eventually we could place the AI chatbot out in our university’s student language practice center. There it could provide students with the opportunity to practice their foreign language skills when real human partners are busy or otherwise unavailable. If possible, we would also like to add a few more languages so that students studying languages other than English could benefit as well.
We feel good about how the activity went and we are optimistic that our students were able to benefit from interacting with an AI chatbot of their own creation. We think that with the power of modern artificial intelligence, these kinds of affordances for language practice are only going to increase in the future. The more we can encourage students to take advantage of these affordances, the more they will be able to build their language skills and confidence. This experience has also opened up new opportunities for us as teachers to explore new ways of engaging and empowering our students in their language learning journey. We look forward to seeing the impact of AI-powered language education in the years to come.