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Harnessing AI for Language Learning: Empowering BYU–Hawaii’s International Students

In an era where technology continues to reshape the educational landscape, artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly emerging as a promising catalyst for huge changes. For international students at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, the integration of AI is presented to be an innovative way to advance their proficiency in the English language.

Female student sitting inside the Aloha Center sitting down using a laptop.
Photo by Bilguun Enkhbaatar

At BYU–Hawaii, English proficiency is a requirement. It is a gateway to higher education, global career opportunities, and cross-cultural understanding. This is evident for all international students of BYUH, who are all required to take the English Language Admission Test (ELAT) in order to gain admission to the university. Depending on their ELAT score, they are placed in tiers or levels to take English as an International Language (EIL) classes on campus for one to three semesters.

The potential to revolutionize English language learning for international students has increased with AI technology. We drew expertise from three professors who have embraced AI as a pivotal tool in this ever-changing educational landscape: Juan Escalante and Austin Pack, EIL teachers and assistant professors in the Faculty of Education & Social Work, and Aaron Curtis, associate professor and dean of the Faculty of Math & Computing.

Why Artificial Intelligence?

Professor Escalante is conducting several studies on AI generative tools such as ChatGPT. As an EIL teacher, Escalante continues to explore how these tools can be used in English language learning and teaching.

“It’s a source for generating ideas,” Escalante remarks. “A lot of students struggle to generate ideas about assignments they have like vocabulary, source, and organization. When used effectively, AI can be a personal tutor for students.”

Escalante also says it’s important for teachers to be acquainted with AI in order to teach their students how to use it effectively. He also says that students need to be trained in how to use AI so they can integrate it as part of their student life.

Professor Pack, also an EIL instructor, believes that AI has the capability to do the mundane aspects of our daily work for us and, at its current level, enables people to be more productive. “AI, especially chatbots, can act as a personalized tutor to students,” Pack remarked. “I think it’s going to be of great benefit and will become widely used in the future. Now would be a great time to learn how to leverage it.”

As AI continues to evolve, it holds the promise of simplifying the boring part of work by allowing students to get to the learning and creative part of it, increasing students’ capabilities in their schoolwork and allowing them to manage time more efficiently.

AI for Language Learning and Teaching

International students at BYU–Hawaii often face challenges when learning English, especially as they encounter English 101, a college-level course that introduces complex vocabulary and literature, making it more difficult for them to grasp. Professor Pack shares how, as a language educator, AI has helped him to become proactive in assisting students in the learning process. “AI existing means that we might have to rethink what we do for our work,” Pack explains. “Because of AI, my focus can now be more on mentoring, guiding, motivation, and emotional support for my students rather than providing feedback on the dos and don’ts of language itself.”

Professor Curtis then explains the mechanics of how AI can be used in the simplest way, that even a non-native speaker of English—especially one whose native language does not use the alphabet—can interact with AI chatbots like simulating a friend. “If you ask AI chatbots questions in English, it’s very likely that those responses are going to use accurate English grammar and syntax. There are so many ways to prompt chatbots. Start by asking a simple question like ‘How are you?’ and then maintain a continuous conversation where you can practice English by talking about a variety of topics.” Curtis said.

Professor Escalante emphasizes the crucial role of prompt engineering in AI-assisted language learning, stating, "Most importantly, we need to learn about prompt engineering. A lot of the things AI does for us depend on how well we develop our prompt. Faculty members and students need to be trained in prompt engineering. That’s one way to use AI in an ethical manner and stop plagiarism. The best piece of advice is to develop prompt engineering skills."

Female student sitting down typing on a laptop with the web browser opened to ChatGPT.
Photo by Bilguun Enkhbaatar

Learning to Embrace AI

While incorporating AI into language learning at BYU–Hawaii offers a transformative approach to education, there are some who are hesitant to try it because of a lack of knowledge about its technological aspects, lack of human interaction, and complacency in creativity. The professors gave some advice:

“Any new form of technology can be confusing to most. I would encourage students to look for resources on campus regarding AI. Those resources could either be other professors or workshops discussing it.” Professor Pack addresses, “AI overall is just a tool. It’s neutral. It depends on its user whether it can be for good or bad. It’s like any other form of technology. It really depends on what you want to do with it.”

More recently, workshops have been held at the Joseph F. Smith Library (JFS) titled “AI Listening and Sharing Party.” Hosted by Zoia Falevai, associate professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, the workshop aimed to help students and faculty members understand what AI is and how using it can be beneficial in enhancing human productivity.

Professor Curtis, on the other hand, wants beginners of AI to interact with it in a fun and entertaining way. “For things like chatbots, I recommend that you sit down, play with it, and have fun with it. Choose a topic and ask it to do something for you. There’s strong entertainment value here, and by the end, you’ll be a little acquainted with AI.” Curtis said.

In light of these perspectives and guidance from the professors, the future of AI is looking bright here at BYU–Hawaii as professors strive to demystify AI and make it a valuable, accessible, and enjoyable tool for both educators and students.

AI Can Help Us Become Better Disciples of Jesus Christ

Although AI is an innovative new technology that enhances education, it can also be a newfound opportunity to grow faith and become better disciples of Jesus Christ.

“Heavenly Father wants us to learn as much as we can in this mortal life, and that means getting knowledge from all kinds of sources. AI is just another source.” Professor Escalante states. “It all comes down to righteous desires. If you intend to use AI in an ethical, positive, and honest way, then yes, you are furthering God’s plan here on Earth. Everything we get here will be with us in the next phase of the eternal plan.”

Professor Curtis, who also serves on-campus as the Bishop of the Laie YSA 8th Ward, shares, “We learn from the scriptures that there are things that ‘act’ and are ‘acted upon.’ In any form of technology, whether it be Google, Facebook, or ChatGPT, we can ask ourselves the question: ‘Is my use of this making me more capable of acting, or is it going to make me something to be acted upon?’”

Professor Curtis also cautions against the potential pitfalls of using AI or any type of technology: “Is my use of AI allowing me to invite the Spirit into my life and enabling me to be of greater service to others? If the answer’s yes, then you’re on the right track. If not, then reevaluate yourself and get back to that straight and narrow path and hold on to that rod of iron.”

In the end, AI is paving the way for international students to enhance their English proficiency while also helping educators improve their teaching materials and methods. BYU–Hawaii continues to change the landscape by emphasizing the responsible and ethical use of AI. But beyond the classroom, we are also reminded that AI is a tool that can aid us in our quest to enrich education and support student growth.