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Can technology narrow the equity gap in English language education?

The use of technology in English language teaching has a history as long as ELT itself, but technology can mean different things in different contexts. If we take technology to mean anything that could be used by teachers to aid teaching and learning, for many, even today, this could be the humble blackboard. For others it might mean TV and radio. For millions, particularly since Covid 19, it has meant online platforms for teaching and learning. Increasingly now, and in the future, it is likely to mean AI systems such as ChatGPT, simultaneous systems of translation for writing and speaking, and intelligent assessment systems.

Our primary research group for “The Future of English: Global Perspectives” – the 14 regional roundtables conducted around the world – stressed the importance of considering these varying contexts, and the need to fully exploit and develop the technologies available in each of them. Roundtables expressed the enormous potential of technology to allow English language learning to become more self-directed, of social media to give students and young people a more democratic voice, and of AI to support teaching and learning, particularly in assessing speaking skills at an affordable level and at scale.

But the roundtables also stressed that while the manifold advantages of technology are available to many, others are being left behind; this digital divide must be tackled as there are serious implications for social, economic and educational well-being. Covid 19 has accelerated the move to online learning, and teachers have demonstrated remarkable flexibility and ingenuity in dealing with this unexpectedly sudden change. Nevertheless, many regions pointed out that teachers and other stakeholders are not ready or equipped to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by online or blended learning and there is an overwhelming and global need for digital literacy to be integrated into teacher training, and for other stakeholders (parents, schools and education systems) to have appropriate knowledge of educational technologies in order to take advantage of the huge possibilities they have to offer.

Historically, technology has always played a dual role in the equity gap, with those that already are best placed to be in a position to take advantage of technologies to have more, and those that are marginalised in danger of being further excluded. But modern technologies have become increasingly ubiquitous: mobile phones are now in the hands of many of the world’s marginalised peoples, who, theoretically, can now access a wealth of English language content and training through this medium which was formally denied them. But to really benefit from this, they need to have the digital and critical skills to be able to sift through the vast amount of resources available.

AI is likely to bring about an exponential acceleration in language learning opportunities. We are already seeing artificial intelligence applied to areas of assessment that could make mass testing much more affordable. UNESCO believes that AI has the potential to address some the biggest challenges in education today. But we are also hearing many warnings about AI, and how regulatory frameworks and policy are not keeping pace with innovation. It seems certain that AI has the potential to greatly narrow the equity gap in English language provision, although it is far from inevitable that this will happen. Some might argue that to some extent the future of English is AI, but it is too early to say what effects on the equity gap this will have.

Image courtesy of Mat Wright
Mike Solly
Mike Solly
Mike Solly is Head of English Research and Insight at the British Council. He is one of the authors of the Future of English: Global Perspectives.
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