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English Speaking Robots Become South Korea's Newest Teachers

Government invests 1.58 billion won (1.37 million dollars) into the test program.

Twenty-nine egg-shaped teachers are the wave of the future in South Korea. As part of a four-month pilot program sponsored by the South Korean government, 3-feet high telepresence bots have started teaching English to elementary school children in the country.

Developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the Engkey robots are handled remotely by English-speaking teachers in the Philippines. The robots sport an avatar face on a TV display panel and are wheeled around each classroom as they speak, read books, dance and interact with the children.

According to KIST senior scientist Sagong Seong-Dae, cameras detect the facial expressions of the English speaking teachers in the Philippines, who can see and hear the students via remote, which then reflect them on the face of the avatar.

"Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea," said Sagong.

Kim Mi-Young, an official at the Daegu city education office said that some robots may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea shunned by foreign English teachers. Both Kim and Sagong indicate that the robots will be used as reinforcements. Kim added that the experiment was not about replacing human teachers with robots.

"We are helping upgrade a key, strategic industry and all the while giving children more interest in what they learn."

Kim also noted that having robots in the classroom makes the students, especially shy ones, more active in participating.

"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.

The South Korean government plans to expand the program in all 8,400 kindergarten classrooms by 2013.


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