How AI is Changing the TEFL Industry

Everyone is talking about AI. But why should you as a TEFL teacher care? Your EFL students get good grades, your boss thinks you’re doing a good job and you’ve got plenty of qualifications. Why would you want to spend more time learning how to use this new technology?

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Why should you care about AI?

  1. Your students are already using it. Last week I ran a one-day class about writing clear emails. At the end of the workshop, I asked the EFL students to write an email to a colleague explaining what they had learned over the course of the day. As I wandered to the back of the room, I saw a student absentmindedly copying and pasting an answer from ChatGPT into a Word document. While this saved her time, it also short circuited the learning process. This learner didn’t need to reflect on what she’d learned; she just got ChatGPT to do it for her. If my EFL students are already using AI, I’m sure some of yours are too. If they’re not using AI in class, then they’re using it for homework. Maybe your favorite tasks aren’t generating as much learning as they used to.
  2. AI can help students when you’re not there. Just as AI can harm learning, it can also enhance learning. EFL Students can get help outside of class from AI with personalize materials, interactive reading, and a hundred other things. How are students going to know the difference between how to use AI responsibly and recklessly? If teachers aren’t going to teach them, then who will?
  3. It can let you spend more time on tasks that encourage learning. For years, teachers have been crying out over a lack of time. Now, AI can help us write lesson plans, create and edit texts and materials, generate new ideas and activities, summarize videos, and give feedback to students. If AI can do all of these things as well as you (or better), you can now spend the time saved doing something else.
  4. AI won’t take your job, but someone using AI might. AI isn’t going to replace teachers. At least, not any time soon. But if you’re the only teacher in your school not using AI, it’s going to show. Imagine it’s the year 1997, and you’re the only teacher in your school using a typewriter instead of a word processor. It wouldn’t be difficult to see why your boss would want to replace you. AI is no different. If you want to keep up, learn how to use this new tool. It’s not going away anytime soon.
  5. It’s an exciting new development in education. AI is a transformative technology. If used appropriately, it can revolutionize the way we teach and learn. TEFL Teachers who embrace AI will be able to create more personalized and engaging learning experiences for their students. If that’s not exciting to you professionally, then what is?

Types of AI

There are two main types of AI. General AI and narrow AI. General AI describes systems that can understand, learn, and use knowledge across a range of tasks, just like a human. Think R2-D2 from Star Wars or Ava in Ex Machina. At the moment, General AI does not exist. Narrow AI on the other hand does exist. Narrow AI can perform a narrow range of tasks or solve particular problems. Alexa, Siri, Chat GPT, and self-driving cars are all examples of Narrow AI.


Types of Narrow AI

There are different types of narrow AI. Some of these, like ChatGPT, are already having an outsized impact on education. Others, like self-driving cars, are not. We’ll now look at four types of narrow AI related to education.


AI ChatBots (or text-generators)

Most of the fuss about AI has been about AI text generators (that is, AI that writes text). The potential of AI text generators for language teaching is huge. These can engage in conversations, write content for classes, suggest teaching activities, give students feedback on language use, write lesson plans, and simulate real-life language interactions with learners. Many of these AI models are free (or have free versions). Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. As with any teaching tool, it’s a good idea to select the right tool for the task. Here are some of my favourite AI text-generators and what I like to use them for.

  • Bard can access the latest information on the internet. This makes it a great choice for project-based learning in class.
  • ChatGPT can accept audio input, allowing you and your students to talk to AI. This can allow students to practice a conversation at home before having to speak in front of peers and teachers at school.
  • Claude can cope with input in the form of PDFs. This makes it ideal for helping to summarize longer texts, which is great for professional development. Claude also tends to use simpler language than other AI models, making it useful for writing content for students.
  • Huggingface can be used without creating an account. This allows students to access an AI model quickly and conveniently in class. Huggingface is available in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
  • Perplexity can answer questions with citations. This is a great feature for teachers looking to further their own knowledge, or for students in EAP classes.
  • Poe lets users access other AI text generators (like ChatGPT and Bard). Poe also allows users to create and use specialist bots for other purposes, like telling jokes and creating images. Poe is also available in Hong Kong.


AI Image Generators (or art-generators)

AI image generators use artificial intelligence to create images. They can generate art, photos, avatars and even edit existing images. I find these hugely useful. While AI text generators save me time, AI image generators allow me to create content that I could never make otherwise. Images are a great material for language classes, especially with mixed ability groups. Some ideas for using AI images in class are:

  • Information gap tasks like Spot the Difference. Creating these images is quick and easy using AI. Without AI making these images is very difficult.
  • Creating images to go with texts. Teachers can use these images to encourage students to predict before reading.
  • Opinion gaps. TEFL Teachers can create art and get students to share their opinions about these. As the art are created by AI, they will not be subject to copyright restrictions.
  • Creating flashcards. Learners can use AI art generators to create their own images to help them remember new vocabulary they have learned.

Just as with text generators, there are dozens of AI art generators available. Some of the best are:

  • Adobe Firefly can create high quality images for free and edit photos.
  • Craiyon is free and generates nine image options to choose from each time. It is accessible in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
  • DALL-E2 is made by the same people who created ChatGPT. It generates quality images that include an unobtrusive watermark. Users can create or edit up to 15 free images per month.
  • Hotpot allows users to create 10 images for free each day and works in both Hong Kong and Mainland China.
  • Nightcafe users can create five watermark-free images every day. Nightcafe is also accessible in Hong Kong.
  • Poe (yes, the same one as earlier) users can create images using specialist bots (for free). Poe is available in Hong Kong.

These are just a few of the many free AI image generators available. Before investing time in learning to use one of these, consider:

  • The quality of the images: Some AI image generators are better at creating realistic images than others.
  • The variety of images: Some AI image generators can produce images in different styles, while others cannot.
  • Ease of use: Some AI image generators are easier to use than others.
  • The cost: All the generators above have a free version, but with different limitations.
  • Availability: Your choice of AI image generators may be restricted depending on where you live.


Other Kinds of AI

Text-to-speech AI changes written text into natural-sounding speech. Many text-to-speech AI models give users a choice of voices with different accents. Natural Reader allows free users to create up to 20 minutes of audio each day and is available in Hong Kong and Mainland China. CereProc similarly offer text-to-speech voices in over 30 languages including regional accents and is available in Hong Kong and Mainland China.

Speech-to-text AI transcribes spoken language into text. The technology has already been around for a few years and is used in dictation, voice commands, and other hands-free applications. This technology can also be useful for students. Students can use speech-to-text AI to generate transcripts of audio. Speech-to-text AI can also be used to practice pronunciation. Students can read aloud, then look at a transcript created by AI and note any mistakes. Otter allows users to generate up to ten hours of transcripts per month for free. Other models include Speechnotes, Converse Smartly and Google Docs Voice Typing.

AI Content Detectors claim to be able to distinguish between texts written by people and texts written by AI. I say “claim to” because these are not 100% accurate. Use these with caution. They might identify texts that your students wrote by themselves as AI produced. A professor in a Texas university recently used one of these tools and then failed every student in his class for using AI. It later transpired that they didn’t use AI. Tools like as GPTZero and AI Detector can still be useful, as long as they’re not used to make important decisions. Both are free and available in Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Learn More

In this post, we’ve looked at some of the things that teachers need to know about AI. We looked at some of the different kinds of narrow AI, and talked briefly about which AI models to use, and what to use these for. If you want to unlock the full potential that AI can offer, dive into our 30 hour AI for Language Teaching course. Look out for more blog posts in the coming months, where I’ll share with you how to use AI in class, out of class, to create lesson plans and even to lighten the load of giving feedback.

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

AI for Language Teaching

Master AI, save time and transform your TESOL teaching with our 30-hour course.

AI for Language Teaching

AI for Language Teaching

Master AI, save time and transform your TESOL teaching with our 30-hour course.

AI for Language Teaching


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