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Asia

Lean, mean teaching machine

At many of South Korean schools, foreign native speakers are flown in to instruct English courses. But at one school, students have been studying with the help of a different kind of teacher.

What only was sci-fi fantasy not long ago, robots today can do an array of different things

What only was sci-fi fantasy not long ago, robots today can do an array of different things

Meet Engkey, she’s Hagjeong Primary School’s newest English teacher. She’s about 3-feet tall and shaped kind of like a penguin.

Engkey wheels around the front of the classroom and stops in front of each of the six 4th graders taking part in this educational pilot program. She asks them to repeat English phrases and also leads them in song.

Engkey is similar to this robot, which helps out at hospitals

Engkey is similar to this robot, which helps out at hospitals

Engkey is a robot. Her voice is not her own, nor is the face of a Caucasian woman that appears on her retractable, LCD panel head.

Remote teaching

Engkey is hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher there conducts the class through a monitor. But Engkey’s creators say this robot is much more than just a video screen on wheels: "The robot just what the English teacher does." Kim Mun-sang, the director of the Intelligent Robotics Program at the publically funded Korea Institute for Science and Technology in Seoul adds that Englkey is most like an avatar. "We have some perception technology. We can detect the motion of the English teacher. As soon as the teacher moves his hand, the robot raises its hand, if the teacher for example laughs, we can detect his laughing expression."

Engkey works with students on their pronunciation and helps them practice the word book. The robot plays a little tune when a student pronounces a word right. Or lets them take another shot.

The German robot named Stuart can play football, but can he play cricket?

The German robot named Stuart can play football, but can he play cricket?

Money saver

Engkey’s creators also point out that the robot will cost schools about half the price it takes to support a foreign English teacher for one year in Korea. But some observers say if the government is so concerned with saving money, there are better ways to spend it while improving education.

Yu Do Hyun lectures in English education and pedagogy at Seoul’s Kookmin University. She says not all teachers should be foreign. "We also need Korean teachers, for beginners, or for intermediates. They know how to learn English easily and they know the problems Korean students have with English."

R2D2 and C3PO might just be the world's most famous robots

R2D2 and C3PO might just be the world's most famous robots

In addition, Yu believes English teaching robots deprive students of the most basic reason people learn foreign languages, that is, human interaction. "Communication is between humans, so they need to practice with native speakers, human teachers. They would be very nervous when meeting human native speakers, even if they practiced a lot of English with the robots, because they would not have had the chance to converse with real speakers."

But so far, students at the Hagjeong School give Enkey high marks. One 10-year-old boy, whose English name is Tony, says he was a little nervous about the robot at first, but that he liked its singing and dancing. 10-year-old Charlotte goes even further - she says she likes the robot teacher better than human teachers.

Nonetheless, robots are still a ways away from a full academic takeover.

Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Sarah Berning

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