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I, Robot: Robots Teach English in South Korean Schools

Feb 02, 2011

Robotic voices and educational computer programs are relatively old news in our modern world so filled with innovative technologies, but what about robot teachers? In one South Korean city, robots with lifelike, virtual human faces are helping teach English classes to young students.

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By Sarah Wright

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Robots in the Classroom

Engkey is a robot that can sing songs, play games, dance and smile at its students. In Daegu, South Korea, Engkey is being used to teach classes to primary students at 21 different schools. In the education program, 29 robots in all serve as English teachers to young children.

Rather than being nefarious automatons of sci-fi legend, Engkey robots are directly controlled by humans. English teachers from the Philippines operate robots; the human-like face displayed on the robot screens mimics the facial expressions of these real teachers. Students aren't alone with the robots, though. Adult human teachers are present in classrooms while students interact with robot instructors.

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Robot Teachers for Adults?

Kids typically feel pretty comfortable around new technologies, and a talking robot may be no different to them than a computer or interactive toy. But what about adults? Given that some older people are wary of technology, might they want to avoid interacting with robots - preferring instead human teachers? One South Korean official overseeing the robot teaching program suggests otherwise.

Just as robot teachers might be a comfort to shy, socially awkward students, interacting with robots might also help mature learners open up in ways they wouldn't with a human. Self-conscious or embarrassed adults might not feel so nervous about getting an answer wrong if a teacher is literally incapable of passing judgment on them for mistakes.

Development Plans

Officials in Daegu are so pleased with the robot teaching program that they plan to expand it. Though robots currently act as teachers' aides, the hope is to make their role more prominent. Daegu officials find the robots to be cost-effective, and that is important in a city with a relatively small budget. Educators' salaries must be paid by the city, after all; with robot teachers, there is no worry of staff leaving a school for a higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Another aspect of robots' appeal is the minimal maintenance they need. Unlike human teachers, robots don't require healthcare, paid time off or retirement pay. Though they must be maintained mechanically, robots are thought to yield educational results that justify that cost. If other educators across South Korea agree, this education phenomenon might just lead to an international revolution in classroom technology.

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