Robots Wheel Around Classrooms Teaching South Korean Students

Machines are Controlled Remotely by Teachers in the Philippines

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Controlled remotely by English teachers in the Philippines, the 29 robots wheeled around the classroom while speaking to the students, reading books to them, and dancing to music by moving their head and arms.

About one meter high with a TV display panel for a face, the robots have started teaching English to youngsters in South Korea, in a pilot project designed to nurture the nascent robot industry, according to education officials.

The robots display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, and the Filipino teachers 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 the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, or KIST.

"[The robots] won't complain about health insurance, sick leave, ... or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan."
Sagong Seong-dae
Senior Scientist, Korea Institute of Science and Technology

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” Mr. Sagong told Agence France-Presse.

Engkey, a white, egg-shaped robot developed by KIST, began helping classes last month at 21 elementary schools in the South Korean city of Daegu.

Apart from reading books, the robots use preprogrammed 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 the Daegu city education office.

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

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

Scientists have held pilot programs in schools since 2009 to develop robots to teach English, math, science, and other subjects at different levels.

Mr. Sagong stressed that the robots, which currently cost $8,700 each, largely backed up human teachers but would eventually have a bigger role.

“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. ... [A]ll you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while,” Mr. Sagong added.

Different U.S. Approach

Such use of technology is far from common in K-12 schools in the United States, said Mark Urban-Lurain, the director of instructional technology research and development at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that stage,” he said.

Mr. Urban-Lurain said the use of technology to identify problems and instruct students has had some success in vocational training, such as in the military, but not in teaching subjects such as science and math.

Although few K-12 classrooms incorporate robots to assist teachers, developing technology to deliver customized instruction for students is gaining wide attention, said James Lester, a computer science professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.

“The difference between the emphasis in our country and really advanced learning technology in Asia is ours tends to be delivered via software” instead of robots, he said. “It’s a real split in the vision for how these things will be ultimately delivered.”

Vol. 30, Issue 18, Page 8

Published in Print: January 26, 2011, as Robots Wheel Around Classrooms Teaching South Korean Students
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