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ROBOT ENGLISH TEACHERS


SEOUL –  Robots are now teaching English to students in South Korea.

Education officials that Engkey, white, egg-shaped robots developed by the Korea Institute of Science of Technology (KIST), has begun teaching classes Monday at 2,000 elementary schools in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The 2,900 robots, about 3.3 feet high with a TV display panel for a face, wheel around the classroom while speaking to the students, reading books to them and dancing to music by moving their head and arms.

The robots, which display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines – who can see and hear the children via a remote control system.

Cameras detect the Filipino teachers’ facial expressions and instantly reflect them on the avatar’s face, said Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist at KIST.

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” he told AFP.

Apart from reading books, the robots use pre-programmed software to sing songs and play alphabet games with the children.

“The kids seemed to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting. But some adults also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person,” said Kim Mi-Young, an official at Daegu city education office.

Kim said some may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea shunned by foreign English teachers.
She said the robots are still being tested. But officials might consider hiring them full time if scientists upgrade them and make them easier to handle and more affordable.

“Having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers,” Kim said.

The robots are replacing human teachers. “We are helping upgrade a key, strategic industry and all the while giving children more interest in what they learn.”

Sagong stressed that the robots, which currently cost 10 million won each, will ultimately replace all teachers in all subjects.

The machines can be an efficient tool to hone language skills for many people who feel nervous about conversing with flesh-and-blood foreigners, he said.

“Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”