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Robots Teaching English To South Korean Students

December 28, 2010

Education officials said Tuesday that 29 robots have started teaching English to children in a South Korean city in a pilot project designed to nurture the nascent robot industry.

The Korea Institute of Science of Technology (KIST) developed ‘Engkey,’ which started teaching classes Monday at 21 elementary schools in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The 29 robots wheeled around the classrooms while speaking to the students, reading books to them and dancing to music by moving their head and arms.

The robots are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines, who can see and hear the children through a remote control system.

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

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

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,” Kim Mi-Young, an official at Daegu city education office, told AFP.

Kim said that some may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea shunned by foreign English teachers.

She said that the robots are still being tested, but officials may consider hiring them full time if scientists upgrade them and make them easier to handle.

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

She said the experiment was not about replacing human teachers with robots.

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

The four-month pilot program was sponsored by the government, which invested $1.37 million dollars.

Scientists have had pilot programs in schools since 2009 to develop robots to teach English, maths, science and other subjects at different levels with a desired price tag.

Sagong stressed that the robots largely back up human teachers but would eventually have a bigger role.

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

“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.”

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