Robots to Replace Native English Teachers
EngKey (English Jockey) robots started the year in 21 schools in South Korea. This is a part of an ambitious program which hopes to “ be able to replace native English speakers in 3 to 5 years.” The current English education system employs over 30,000 teachers from native English speaking countries such as the US, the UK, Australia and others. The problem according to the South Korean government is that it’s too expensive to hire these teachers and it’s often difficult to find teachers for rural areas. Some may speculate that it may also be because of the nation’s supposed foreigner “problem” Some groups view the foreign population as drug users and sexual deviants.
The current version of EngKey being tested is not the first. Previously there was a version which used interactive software with installed scripted lessons. These proved to be rather inflexible and very strict on the students’ pronunciation. Students had to stay within the limits of lesson only using the current vocabulary and phrases.
To give the robots a more human touch, a telepresence system is now used. The robots are controlled remotely by trained English teachers in the Philippines. The Filipino teachers interact with their students thousands of miles away using microphones and speakers embedded on the robot. The students see a realistic avatar which mimics the expression of their human teacher using cameras that track the teacher’s facial movements. It’s interesting that although the teachers are Filipino, most images of the EngKey robots show a Caucasian face.
The use of telepresence in this program could be the start of many more interesting ways to integrate robotics into society. I really envy these kids, none of my teachers were ever this high tech.
[image credit: Gong Jeonk-sik]