"Tiro," or teaching robot, in Daejeon in 2007. I wonder if it will be any more effective teaching English conversation to 35 students than humans have so far been.
The story of South Korea soon using robots to teach English is one that won't go away. In January the Korea Times had an article, "Robots to Replace Native English Teachers," using the projections of a single economist as the basis for an ominous headline. I didn't touch it at the time because I was taking most of January off, but the news came up again a few weeks later when western media picked up on it. The Korea Times has another article today, looking at the results from a few trial runs.
Classes using robots developed for educational purposes have proven to be effective in enhancing English classes, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy said Thursday.
Students of English classes using robots as teaching assistants showed better learning achievements in speaking, as well as greater confidence and motivation, it said, citing a survey carried out by the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS).
The eight-week project was conducted from late December last year at three elementary schools in Daejeon and Masan, South Gyeongsang Province, as part of an initiative to make South Korea a leading robot developer by 2018.
Using robots to teach English in Korea isn't news. You can find articles from 2005 talking about it, and even further back if you're looking at Japan. Foreign media, always eager to pick up on a "news of the weird" item out of East Asia, reported on it in February. The blog Gusts of Popular Feeling did a nice job last month looking at some of the robots in use today, and the social climate created by some in the media that might make robots a safer alternative to foreign barbarian teachers.
Today's Korea Times article gets closer to the reason these robots are
"Using teaching robots in classes is expected to raise the quality of public school education, thus leading to less dependence on the private education," said Kim Hong-joo, a ministry official.
Also, an early start in teaching robot projects will be helpful in leading the new global market as the nation aims to be one of the top three global leaders in this field by 2013, he added.
Decreasing spending on private education is something you see in the papers all the time---Koreans spent 1.12 million won per household per month in 2008, and the country spent three billion more last year---though it's not clear how robots in the classroom will improve English education or make parents not want to seek out an actual human being for instruction.
The second part seems to make more sense, and is in line with South Korea's goal to become a worldwide leader in practically everything. South Korea will use English-teaching robots because it wants to demonstrate it can. As I'll try and show below, native speaker English teachers are basically lame ducks anyway, so sacrificing a little quality for the next couple years isn't really a concern.
Getting back to the January article, I'm not sure if you can believe "a good number" of native speaker English teachers will be replaced by robots by 2018, necessarily, because projections for the use of NSETs change all the time. I recall reading articles years ago that said NSETS would be out by 2012, and 2013, and 2015, and 2016. Before the 2008 presidetial election here you had one candidate advocating English taught by NSETs, another who wanted more money spent on training Korean English teachers, and others who wanted NSETs phased out.
At first glance the progression shown in the January article confirms my suspicion that the NSET experiment is nearly over in public schools. But the source for the January Korea Times article, "an economist at the Hyundai Research Institute," isn't a guy in the Ministry of Education, isn't a guy in place to shape policy, and certainly isn't a guy whose forecast warrants a headline "Robots to Replace Native English Teachers," but this is the Korea Times. Nonetheless he says:
"Before such sophisticated English-speaking robots debut, teaching by native English speakers will be conducted by video-conferencing with teachers in their home countries," he said.
This is something we've seen happen the past couple years---I wrote about it in 2008 and again last week---on a small scale with students on islands and in remote counties who otherwise wouldn't have regular meetings with a native English speaker.
There are other signs that schools and policymakers are looking to move away from native speaker English teachers, just a few years after they were imported in large number. The government has been hiring thousands of Korean "lecturers" to teach practical and conversational English in public schools. The government has created "Teach English in English" certificates for Korean English teachers who can conduct an entire English class in English, a departure from today where most classes are grammar-based and have little to no target language use. And, the government is looking to replace the TOEFL with a domestic English exam that tests "practical English," rather than the inappropriately difficult material you find on standarized exams now (take a look at last year's college entrance exam).
I can't say native speaker English teachers are by and large efficient or effective, but I do know little preparation or thought has gone into their implementation, and little planning goes into how they're used in school, practically setting them up to fail. It's remarkable that all the interest in "practical English" comes at a time when NSETs are projected to be on their way out, because "practical English" and English conversation of course certainly play into the strengths of native English speakers, and right into the weaknesses of Korean English teachers. Currently NSETs are used in schools where English is taught entirely because of standardized exams, where the actual use of the language is an obstacle to the test material, where conversation classes are of no importance and receive no significant grade, and where native English speakers exist at best as a novelty and at worst as a nuisance. When foreign teachers arrive in school their principals and co-teachers often have no idea what to do with them, give them little guidance beyond "teach speaking," and have no goals for their use or ways to measure success or failure. You often have Korean English teachers who don't do their jobs as co-teachers, don't assist in lesson preparation, don't attend the mandatory English workshops, and don't even show up to class.
It doesn't really matter because there's no incentive or accountability, and this is something I wrote at length about in a December post about a government blacklist of "incompetent" foreign teachers. NSETs aren't given the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their Korean co-teachers---except on blogs or Facebook---so nobody really knows if Mr. Park doesn't show up for class, or Mrs. Kim doesn't participate, or Ms. Lee beats the students. It's up to these co-teachers to decide if NSETs have their contracts renewed, but you have to question the qualifications of evaluators who don't attend or participate in class, or don't know anything what NSETs are brought in to do. Teachers are required to attend training sessions in language and methodology, but since everyone passes regardless of ability, attendance, or effort, there is again no accountability. And, since all we hear about in the papers are that foreign teachers will be out by 20__, there's really no reason to change to accommodate a temporary intrusion.
None of this is new to readers of my site, but to first-time visitors I'll direct you to other posts where I've addressed the problems NSETs face:
* (12/3/2009) "Are native speakers part of English here? Your thoughts on the 2009 GETA International Conference."
* (12/2/2009) In the Korea Herald, writing about mandatory culture classes for foreign teachers.
* (6/26/2009) Korea Herald: Just what makes a teacher "qualified"?
* (6/15/2009) Not enough applicants for those "English Lecturer" jobs.
* (6/5/2009) Seoul wants English classes to be taught in English, will give TEE certs out.
* (5/13/2009) Korea Herald: The media bias against foreign teachers.
* (5/6/2009) 12% of native speaker teachers in Ulsan not retained.
* (5/1/2009) Korea Times: Foreign teachers wrongly portrayed in Korea.
* (4/7/2009) Korea Herald: Stop the scatter-shot approach to English.
* (12/30/2008) Half of foreign teachers leave after one year? GREAT! That's an article that should be brought up every now and again, because a MOE official in charge of native speaker English teachers says``They are neither regular teachers nor lecturers who can conduct classes independently. They are `assistant teachers,' hence their teaching experience doesn't matter much,'' he said. ``Rather, it's better for students to have more new teachers so that they can meet various kinds of foreigners,'' he added.
* (12/10/2008): Poor guy.
* (11/24/2008): EPIK in the news some more.
* (11/21/2008): 4,000 "English Lecturers" coming in 2010.
* (11/14/2008): A must-read: an account of teaching English in South Korea in the sixties.
* (10/6/2008): More money going into English education next year.
* (9/11/2008): More English-Only classrooms, more gimmicks.
* (6/23/2008): Pronunciation matters.
* (11/28/2007) A reaction to Kang-Eun-hee's "Korean English Teachers."
Those posts all have links to other posts and articles, and the "English in the news" category has more information as well.
In that Gusts of Popular Feeling post last month he links to an interesting comment on another site:
I'm currently teaching in South Korea (and yes, there are always job openings... though less than usual, with the recession on). I teach at two public elementary schools, one of which is on the extreme outskirts of the city and only has 46 students. For some reason, this tiny school got an English robot called the Cybertalker, which uses voice recognition and some kind of face recognition to tailor pre-made conversations to students. The only time I've seen the thing turned on was in the frantic lead up to a school inspection, when my English classes were cancelled in favour of registering all the students in the system and trying to make it perform for the school board officials. Even with days of practice, the students couldn't make it respond - even the almost fluent teachers couldn't make it recognize their English. These are the crappiest teaching robots in existence. A Speak and Spell would be more useful.
Indeed when I first heard about the robot story and how they were cast by the Korea Times as a replacement to native speaker English teachers, I thought about something my former school tried.
In October 2008 I wrote about my school getting a brand new AMC-200, a piece of machinery that, as explained to me, works like what you'd find in a 노래방 (singing room). It came with dozens of books, on a wide variety of topics, and when you select the lesson you'd like to do, you punch in a particular number and it calls up a small video, or a recording of a dialogue, or a particular language activity, or a song, or a number of other little tasks.
I never saw it used, and matter of fact it wasn't even plugged in during the spring semester. I liked the use of such technology, and also the overuse of powerpoint and multimedia in the language classroom in Korea, as using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. There's no need for fancy displays and expensive equipment when students just need to learn and practice the basics, how to construct sentences and basic meaningful utterances.
South Korea teaches English exclusively toward standardized tests, yet achieves some of the lowest scores on the world on them (a function of every student in the country taking them, but still). Spoken English and "communicative competence" has never been a priority, and it shows. You'll never have improvement there without an overhaul of the goals and methods of English education, and whether you have a native English speaker, a Korean English teacher who can speak some English, or a robot with a funny voice, you'll still have the same results unless you change how English is taught and what it's taught toward. Korea talks about using robots in school just to demonstrate it can, unlike many other countries in the world. However there's nothing to indicate a fancy robot will achieve any more than this piece of equipment: