Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Update on the English teaching robots

Today the Joongang Ilbo reported on Daegu's English teaching robots, saying that "the bots strutted their stuff at a demonstration at Hakjung Elementary School yesterday, with about 150 government officials coming to get a look at the technology employed." According to the school's site, winter vacation has begun, so one would imagine those kids were there for the winter camp. The teacher chosen to lead the class must have been thrilled to receive the news.
The 1-meter (3.28 feet) egg-shaped robot, named “Engkey” (an abbreviation of English key), spoke, asked questions and conversed in English with students, and even entertained the crowd by dancing to music.
(From here - it seems there was more than one.)

Of course it danced. If there's no dancing, it's not English education.
Within each of them, in a sense, is a real human teacher controlling the machine by remote from the Philippines. The teachers in the Philippines have cameras to record their faces - which show up on a flat panel screen that forms the robo-teacher’s face - and they can also see the Korean students through a camera installed in the robot. Basically, the robot is a rolling Internet link between students and teacher, although the human teacher can also command the robot to make human gestures with its arms and wheels.
Rolling forwards, backwards and from side to side is what separates humans from other animals, that's for sure.

Were's then told that “The robots will teach students in after-school programs, not in regular classes,” Kim Mi-yong, an official at the education office, said. “The robot can handle only a small number of students per class, about eight students.” How useful! No wonder they are being considered helpful for children living in rural areas where "foreigners [or anyone else, for that matter] are reluctant to live." Those kinds of schools would be the only ones with class sizes small enough for the robots to be effective. We're also told that
The English-speaking robot has already made headlines in the foreign media. Time magazine dubbed it one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.
Time also declared, back in 2006, that then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak was a green warrior dedicated to the environment, and is responsible for this poorly written article, so I don't know how far Koreans should go in listening to Time (the latter article has already gotten attention here).

According to the Korean language version of the article, Lee Eun-suk, who is in charge of after school education, said that, "There are no significant differences between this and direct instruction by a native speaking teacher." She also noted that their correct pronunciation would be a big help for English education for children.

The English language article ends by saying that, “We will continue to study to improve its teaching ability until it’s very close to that of real human teachers.”

Golly, I wonder if that means Korean teachers' jobs will soon disappear?


Roboseyo said...

If there's no difference between having a robot in the classroom, and a native speaker, then it's grotesque how badly the curriculum is under-using the abilities of native speakers in classrooms. If public school teaching amounts to hitting play and stop on a tape player, I got nothing to say.

Bob said...

If that white girl on the robot's "face" is a Filipina, I am Sammy Davis Jr.

Lee Farrand said...

I, for one, welcome our new English teaching overlords.

Stuart said...

The face on the screen is an avatar. The person on the other side of the internet connection is most likely a Filipino.

matt said...

As Stuart notes, to be fair, there is someone supposedly in control of it, from afar. At the same time, one wonders how much control they actually have, or if they are ever able to remember the kids' names or learn what kind of marks they're getting; I doubt there's much of a personalized touch, especially when you don't actually get to see the faces of the Filipino teachers - something that solves the problem of needing 'white' teachers but wanting to hire cheaper labour.

Lee Farrand:
"I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blogging personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground cram schools."

Stuart (and Bob):
Several Korean language article make reference to the robots being 'avatars' in reference to the movie.

NHJ said...

...removing the cultures from the language is one of the worst way to teach it...Anyway it won't change the inability of the students to use what they learned in real life situations!

Exit86 said...

Our office just got one of tose vacuuming disc "robots" that drves around the office and cleans the floor all damn day.

After seeing it in action for the past few weeks, I can confidently say that it is a worthless piece of (very expensive) trash.

I am sure it is the same motivating force behind this
push for the English robots in the classroom: fools with lotsa money entrusted to them, making very foolish choices, wasting lots of money.

I'm sure these robots will work as well as my cleaning robot.
(My office is the dirtiest its ever been, partly because the cleaning robot sucks, partly because the janitors won't clean
now that we have this robot, and partly because the secretaries won't let me clean since we have this wonderful robot to do it for us all. In the meantime, everyone is walking around the office knee-deep in dirt, dust, and trash.
How wonderful our lives have been made because of robots . . .)

Stuart said...

I think that this memory from my child hood would just as easily fill the place of one of these robots.


Teddy Ruxpin worked with a regular tape cassette stuck up his jacksy.

I'm sure if the board of education scoured ebay long enough they could probably pick some up for $30 a piece.

Stuart said...

On second thoughts, after watching the last video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsWA1VaOr5k&feature=related

I think that Teddy Ruxpin would just cause more scandals for native English teachers with the press.

Exit86 said...

Great idea! My little sister had a Teddy Ruxpin, and I'd always put punk rock or thrash metal in his player to make him freak out--though he usually just got confused and stared into space.

His pronunciation was wonderful, and he always had something nice
to say.

Let's put a formal proposal together and present it to the MOE.
We could make a few Won if we put ourselves in as the middleman/Teddy Ruxpin recruiters.

Stuart said...

I can say with 100% certainty that a Teddy Ruxpin recruiting agency would be money much better spent than throwing it at these jokers making these "robots"

I'm from an IT background myself and from what I've seen from these robots from the last year is a phenomenal waste of tax payers money.The first models incorporated a basic voice recognition program with a very basic inference engine (if there ever even was one), which was very linear.

To actually create a good AI for the robot would mean they would have to hire a specialist with a background in IT and linguistics,a lot of money and years of development.

Instead, they've spent very little time on development and just used readily available technology and thrown it all together to make this robot and then forwarded the production and research costs onto the buyer, which is why each unit costs 20 million won each.

The AI which they used in the first models was a dismal failure, which is why they've scrapped it all together now and are just hiring Filipinos to stand in in it's place.

The media reporters are just being told a heap of BS from the production company and are just regurgitating it in their articles.

It's going to be another 15 or 20 years yet before the AI in development would be good enough to even begin to do the job of anything more than a glorified Teddy Ruxpin.