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Korean schools welcome more robot teachers

December 28, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
school_telepresence_robot.jpgBy Tim Hornyak vic Cnet

Teacher's pet? An Engkey robot educates kids in Korea
(Credit: Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET)

If you thought your English teacher was a robotic bore, spare a thought for kids in South Korea. They're being taught by real robots.

The city of Daegu introduced 29 robot teachers in 19 elementary schools as part of a large-scale project to robotize teaching. The ambitious effort envisioned robots in all 8,400 kindergartens in Korea by 2013.

Kids at Hakjung Elementary School seemed thrilled to interact with robots like the globular Engkey (above and in the vid below). It's about 3.2 feet tall and rolls around the classroom on wheels, asking questions in English and dancing to music.

Developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) at a cost of some $1.39 million, Engkey is a telepresence bot, controlled by teachers in the Philippines. It has two-way video and audio for interaction with students, and can move its arms around to make a point. The LED shows the teacher's face or an animated CG face.

The machines will mostly be used in after-school programs as they can only handle about eight kids at a time. Last month, however, TIME magazine suggested the machines may threaten the jobs of some of the 20,000 to 30,000 foreign English teachers in Korea. It also named the robots one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.

"We will continue to study to improve its teaching ability until it's very close to that of real human teachers," Kim Mun-sang of KIST was quoted as saying by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Why not just use humans? According to a New York Times report, state education budgets have been strained by importing thousands of foreign teachers, who are increasingly unwilling to live in remote areas and on islands. I don't think a telepresence robot can really replace a human teacher, but then again I nearly nodded off a few times in class during my teaching stint in Korea. A robot would never do that.

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