Robotic Teachers in South Korea

141572492Technology has taken a new turn in South Korea with the implementation of robotic English “teachers”. It seems to be taken straight out of a science fiction novel, but to the students, this is no imaginary scenario. The robots were developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). The robots were sent to “21 elementary schools in the southeastern city of Daegu.” This pilot project was “designed to nurture the nascent robot industry”.All 29 robots are about 3.3 feet tall. Their “faces” are TV display panels, they have wheeled mobility, and they also have flexible arms. The robots can speak to the children, read them books and dance to music, all of which aid the young children in learning English.The actual teachers that control the robots are not even in South Korea, but are actually located in the Philippines. “Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” said Sagong Seong-Dae, the senior scientist at KIST. Strangely, the “avatars” on the robotic face are Caucasian females. The Filipino teachers can see and hear the children remotely, and expressions captured by sensors on their faces will instantly appear on the avatars face.

All of the robots are pre-programmed to “sing songs and play alphabet games with the children”, and any added lessons are given by the Filipino teacher through the electronic channels. The robots may be sent to the more rural areas of South Korea that normally shun foreign English teachers.

As Kim Mi-Young explains, not only do children like the robots way of teaching, calling them “cute and interesting”, adults have found them less intimidating when learning English, and “they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person.”

She stressed that the robots are still getting tested and that they are not out to replace human teachers with robots. However, “having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers,” said Kim.

As more testing is done, and making the robots more affordable as well, there might be more robots in the classroom in the near future. Right now the cost of the four-month pilot program stands at 1.58 billion won, or 1.37 million US dollars. For now, Sagong insisted that the robots “largely back up human teachers but would eventually have a bigger role.”

The goal now is to get affordable robots that are pre-programmed for English, math, science and other key subjects. KIST inventors and marketers want them to be “an efficient tool to hone language skills for many people who feel nervous about conversing with flesh-and-blood foreigners.”

This invention has taken virtual learning to a whole new level for the next generation. Even for those that are learning later in life, like adults learning to speak English for the first time, this is a huge development, not only for education, but for robotics as well.

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