May 8, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
Bridge or Barrier – Does generative AI contribute to more culturally inclusive higher education and research?
This post by Dr Dimitrinka Atanasova was initially posted on the LSE Impact Blog on 4 May, 2023. It is cross-posted here with permission.
Dr Dimitrinka Atanasova is a Lecturer in Intercultural Communication at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on health & science communication (particularly the topics of obesity, mental health, climate change, sustainability, nitrogen pollution) and developments in news journalism.
Whilst the ability of generative AI to produce text in English has been widely covered, the implications of its ability to translate and act as a cultural broker into English have received less attention. Considering use contexts in education and research, Dimitrinka Atanasova, suggests higher education policymakers should adopt a cultural lens when developing policy responses to generative AI.
The implications of AI-enabled writing tools for higher education and academic publishing have been much discussed following the release of ChatGPT, leading some to proclaim the student essay dead, and an uptick in its use for writing journal articles. Academics have gone on to express various, sometimes conflicting responses, from outright bans, to showcasing how ChatGPT can help create authentic assessments. As AI tools are set to be integrated in Microsoft Office and key learning platforms like Moodle, generative AI will be even harder to ignore. However, one aspect that has been neglected in recent discussions is its connection to and ability to bridge cultures.
ChatGPT and culture
This is not to say that the connection between ChatGPT and culture has been ignored. Academics have started to call for more research to explore cultural bias in ChatGPT-generated responses. Inevitably, studies of this type are starting to emerge. Researchers have also recommended the use of more linguistically and culturally diverse training data as part of the ongoing improvement of ChatGPT.
Recent debates around the implications of ChatGPT for higher education have also included views that a key benefit of the tool could be to assist foreign language learning, often described as a gateway to intercultural competence, or the ability to understand and respect each other across linguistic and cultural barriers. Early research additionally shows that ChatGPT is already a good translator across various languages, which holds promise for intercultural communication.
From the very early days of ChatGPT-4’s release, it also became evident that not all cultures have the same views on AI-enabled writing tools. Italy recently banned ChatGPT along with China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. In other countries like the UK, the government has adopted a more liberal view and instead called on regulators to ‘come up with tailored, context-specific approaches’.
These divergent responses to ChatGPT are not unexpected. The Global AI Narratives project, for example, shows how perceptions about the risks and benefits of AI are shaped by cultural norms and values.
ChatGPT and culturally inclusive higher education?
The different cross-country treatment of ChatGPT – bans vs openness – can have implications for UK higher education and other countries characterised by more open national policies on ChatGPT. Divergent treatment might exacerbate inequalities between home and international students. While UK home students may have had the opportunity to work with ChatGPT, international students coming from countries where such tools are banned would lack pre-existing experience.
As with any new technology, this highlights the importance of implementing sufficient support to help students from all backgrounds to make well-informed use of such tools. When the plagiarism detection service Turnitin was launched, universities debated whether to make it available for use to students or not. As universities started to appreciate the educational potential of allowing students to use Turnitin, the focus has shifted on offering students support in interpreting their Turnitin reports.
ChatGPT can also be useful for international students, who often report struggling to express their thoughts in a foreign language, such as English, but, at the same time, clarity of expression, grammar and style are assessed components of written assignments. Students could copy their writing into ChatGPT with the prompt to improve the grammar and style of the posted text. In this way, ChatGPT can function as a helpful copyediting tool. However, it also suggests a need to re-evaluate the way in which these aspects of academic writing stand in for elements of cultural learning in assessments.
ChatGPT and culturally inclusive academic publishing?
ChatGPT could similarly help researchers polish their manuscripts before submission to journals. While bibliodiversity is essential for preserving research in a wide range of topics in locally relevant languages and there is some evidence that an open and bibliodiverse publishing ecosystem is already in existence, English still dominates the highest ranking academic journals.
Early career academic researchers in particular report significant pressure to publish in prestigious English-language journals but find it especially challenging to do so. This potentially imposes a barrier on the next generation of researchers with lower levels of English proficiency. Generative AI could help lower this barrier by serving as a copy-editing tool.
However, such potential uses of ChatGPT raise difficult questions for protecting and encouraging bibliodiversity. By enabling researchers adapt to an anglophone publishing system, tools such as ChatGPT could help reinforce and accelerate trends that position English as the lingua franca of global scientific research and place English at the apex of the existing hierarchy of scholarly publishing.
ChatGPT can be a helpful tool for international students and researchers struggling to write eloquently in English. But, its implications for cultural inclusivity are more ambiguous. As a powerful cultural broker into English, it lowers barriers to entry, but at the same time re-values how we understand cross-cultural learning. For higher education policymakers this points to a need for a cultural lens when developing responses to generative AI.
Image Credit: Nag via Unsplash.
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