Dec 29, 2010
Teaching in a robot fashion
South Korea's remote teaching scheme scores with pupils
Robots with human faces started teaching children English at elementary schools in Daegu city on Monday, in a pilot scheme bankrolled by the Korean government to the tune of $1.7 million. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
SEOUL: Avatar has come to the classroom.
A South Korean city has begun a pilot project in which robots controlled by teachers based in the Philippines are teaching English to youngsters.
The white, egg-shaped robots called EngKey, developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (Kist), began teaching classes on Monday at 21 elementary schools in the south-eastern city of Daegu, in a project designed to give greater prominence to the nation's nascent robotics industry.
The 29 robots, each about 1m high, have a screen displaying the likeness of a Caucasian woman where the 'face' should be. They wheel around classrooms speaking to pupils, reading books to them and dancing to music by moving their heads and arms.
They are controlled remotely by English teachers 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 avatars' faces, said Kist senior scientist Sagong Seong Dae.
'Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including in South Korea,' he added.
Apart from reading books, the robots also sing songs and play alphabet games with the children, in accordance with pre-programmed software.
Ms Kim Mi Young, an official at the Daegu City Education Office, said: 'The kids seem to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting. Some adults have also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to a robot than to a real person.
'Having robots in the classroom makes the pupils more active in participating, especially the shy ones who are afraid to speak out.'
'It is awesome and interesting,' said Sim Geun Hae, a third-grade pupil who was in the demo class. 'I felt that I could learn English better.'
Ms Kim said some of the robots may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea, which are shunned by foreign English teachers. She said the robots are still being tested, but officials might consider using them full time if scientists upgrade them to make them easier to handle and more affordable.
She stressed that the experiment was not meant to replace human teachers with robots: 'We are helping to upgrade a key, strategic industry, while boosting the children's interest in what they learn.'
The four-month pilot programme was sponsored by the government, which invested 1.58 billion won (S$1.7 million) in it. The robots cost 10 million won each.
Since last year, scientists have been holding pilot programmes in schools involving the development of robots to teach English, mathematics, science and other subjects at different levels.