Student use of machine translation ‘a debate we have to have’

Assessment rationales have not kept pace with AI translation and writing support tools, conference hears

七月 14, 2023
Viersen, Germany - June 30. 2020 Close up of isolated mobile phone screen with collection of translation and dictionary apps for travel
Source: iStock

Universities are being forced to reassess requirements for international students to compose their assignments in English, amid rapid improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

Helen Gniel, head of the integrity unit at Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, told a Melbourne conference that students’ use of machine translation technology was “a debate we have to have”.

Dr Gniel said students were using tools such as Google Translate to convert work from their first languages into English, then polishing it with proofreading apps such as Grammarly – practices they would undoubtedly continue in the workplace after graduation.

But such behaviour was problematic while they were still at university, she said, because of the expectation that they were educated in English. If courses had been delivered in other languages, institutions were legally required to note this on testamurs.

Dr Gniel said professional bodies also wanted reassurance that foreign graduates had “adequate language”, should they remain in Australia and work in places such as hospitals. “There’s a bigger question about what it is that we’re saying students can do at the end of our degrees,” Dr Gniel told the Australian Technology Network’s Future Learning Summit.

“How much is English language a part of that? What are we trying to assess, and why? I don’t think we’ve really given deep thought to what that means now, in a world of such ready translation tools.”

Phillip Dawson, associate director of Deakin University’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, criticised an “underlying” assumption that international students should be as capable in English as in their primary disciplines.

“If students think better in their own first language, what are they gaining out of hand translating rather than machine translating?” he asked.

Professor Dawson speculated that students submitting assignments on decolonisation could find themselves “in trouble” for not drafting their work in the coloniser’s language. “We have a lot of rhetoric around things like decolonising the curriculum, but we’re pretty strict on [how students] engage in it,” he said.

Ant Bagshaw, a higher education policy adviser with LEK Consulting, asked whether universities would find it acceptable for students to use live translation apps during oral examinations. Professor Dawson said it was a live question, amid the increasing use of interactive oral assessment to assess students’ learning outcomes.

He said international students’ “anxiety” around communicating in English could mask their mastery of their subjects. “To what extent can we assist students in those interactive oral assessments to better demonstrate how they’ve actually met the outcome?” he asked.

A recent literature review by Canadian PhD candidate Kate Paterson found that the “ethical and pedagogical implications” of students’ use of machine translation had not been “coherently addressed” by academics or tertiary institutions.

“Human-machine relationships…have the potential to destabilise traditional pedagogies and transform how we teach and learn languages and academic content,” she wrotes in the TESOL Journal. “The challenge…is to re-envision educational policy and practice in ways that maintain academic integrity and promote greater educational equity.”



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Reader's comments (2)

Teaching students whose native tongue is something other than English, I've been known to encourage them to formulate their thoughts in their native language and only once they know what they want to say, to address themselves to writing in English. It is, after all, their ideas I want to hear. It's of lesser importance which language they express them in to start with. Yes, I still expect the assignment to be submitted in English. (And yes, I still think in Welsh and translate to English at times, & I'm bilingual.)
If students are going out into an English-speaking workforce and are unable to communicate effectively without a translator at hand, are we preparing them adequately for rich and full careers? What about relationship development with their co-workers and employers? If we are accepting students who cannot comprehend or communicate in the language that is being taught - what are their degrees worth? If they are not planning to stay in Australia (or whatever country), wouldn't it be fairer to them to licence the program to a university local to them and have it delivered and supported in their native language? And what about teaching academics who do not speak English well or comprehend the colloquialisms and nuances of language their students use because they were not required to learn English to get their degrees? If we take their money and promise them they'll either be job-ready or ready for further academic study that will enable them to contribute to bodies of knowledge, lead others, or teach -- can they do that when they are tied to a translation machine? It depends on what you think the goal of a university education is, I suppose.