Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Time magazine names Korea's English-teaching robot one of the year's best inventions.


One of several designs for an English-teaching robot; from 연합.

Top-whatever numerical lists are totally lame, but it might be worth passing along that Time magazine named South Korea's English-teaching robot as one of its 50 Best Inventions of 2010.
Call it the job terminator. South Korea, which employs some 30,000 foreigners to teach English, has plans for a new addition to its language classrooms: the English-speaking robot. Students in a few schools started learning English from the robo-teachers late last year; by the end of this year, the government hopes to have them in 18 more schools. The brightly colored, squat androids are part of an effort to keep South Korean students competitive in English. Not surprisingly, the proposal has worried a few human teachers — and with good reason. Experts say the bots could eventually phase out flesh-and-blood foreign English teachers altogether.

When I wrote about these robots in March, looking at one of several recent articles on the topic, I noted that these things seem to exist simply to show that South Korea can produce them. From a Korea Times article on a few trial runs, with special attention to the second paragraph quoted below:
"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.

They may very well be a remarkable invention or concept, then, but not a useful classroom tool. Other blog posts at the time share some teacher experiences with "Engkey" and its cousins. From a comment linked to by a February Gusts of Popular Feeling post:
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.

And a New York Times profile, linked by a July Extra! Korea post, shows the limitations of robots in conversation:
“How can I help you today?” Engkey said.

“Do you have any fruits on sale?” the student said.

“Wow! Very good!” Engkey exulted. She sounded a fanfare, spun and raised her left arm for a high-five. A screen on her chest showed stars grading the student.

. . .
When Yang said, “I don’t like apples” instead of “I love apples,” as he was supposed to, Engkey froze. The boy patted her and said, “Hello, are you alive or dead?”

My March 2010 entry lists several other blog posts that detail the struggles these foreign, native speaker English teachers experience within this Korean experiment. Deploying gimmick robots won't do much good when their handlers---the administrators and Korean English teachers who have thus far proven ineffective leaders of "flesh-and-blood" foreign teachers---have limited English abilities and technical know-how themselves.



If "English Fever" is as exceptionally high in South Korea as we observe and foreign correspondents note, and if communicative competence is as high a priority as the national curriculum has dictated for nearly a decade, it would behoove policy-makers to finally stop rash spending on gimmicks---like robots, expensive English-Only Zones, or inexperienced white people by the thousands---and start developing real solutions that produce results in the classroom, or at least ones that are suitable stand-ins until a generation of domestic English teachers can catch up to the roles in a communication-based English classroom for which they are currently unprepared.


Better English through robots, racing models; from 파이낸셜뉴스.

29 comments:

3gyupsal said...

I thought the more interesting part about the NYT article was about the robo soldiers.

I would hate for an EngKey to get mixed up with a robosoldier that starts to shoot at students with its never sleeping night vision technology, if they get an answer wrong.

kushibo said...

You beat me to it, Brian. I'll be blogging on that later, including the couple other Korean inventions that made the list.

Dan.Eliot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Breda said...

Yeah this list from Pop Sci is a little more credible: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-05/june-2010-inventions-year

Turner said...

Think I will blog on this as well - nice touch with the underpants gnomes' approach

Mark said...

I suppose it wouldn't be a Korean article without an attractive racing model to show it off. Nice catch on the pic. Helps keep things in perspective...

Walter Foreman said...

Hey all... long time no comment!

Two-and-a-half major problems that I see with this plan:

1) English in Korea is already too disassociated from the people that speak it (ie. it is treated as something of a novelty rather than as a tool of expression); having children talk to cute wheeble-wobble-looking robots will only help to reinforce that disassociation!

1.5) The Korean English curriculum purports to emphasize the communicative aspect of language. Talking to a glorified ATM which has only a handful of canned responses is miles away from being communicative.

2) Many Korean teachers of English cannot operate such basic multimedia equipment as CD players (I know this from personal experience); how on earth can they be expected to to operate a frackin' robot?!

My shrink to me that I was becoming too negative and that I should try to be less critical; that's why I only commented on two-and-a-half problems with this plan instead of three. LOL

3gyupsal said...

If the Korean government decides to get rid of the NETs in favor for robots, who is going to be the person who figures out how to make lesson plans with the robots?

Dan Luba said...

I agree with Walter. The English language and its speakers are already somewhat of a sideshow in the popular Korean imagination...

Look at that robot, man! I can't see how that's going to help Korea to rationalize English or become more International in its outlook.

Kind of a vicious circle, really. I guess it's that outlook on English that has produced this robot in the first place. I'm not going to hold my breath until the first robot Korean teacher appears.

Eugene said...

The robot teacher idea is comically absurd and self-satirical.

By way of comparison, a computer program was designed to do psychotherapy. The program's name is ELIZA.

http://ronaldjaydavidsonmd.com/Obsolete.aspx
...
Here is an example of an interaction with ELIZA:

Patient: “I feel depressed.”

ELIZA: “Tell me more about these feelings.”
...

Turner said...

Done and done:

http://onceatraveler.com/english-teachers-robots

주윤 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...

Hey..To one of you up there..I agree with some of your opinions..But don't write biased comments about Koreans..Because I know "Many Korean teachers of English" who CAN operate basic multimedia equipments!!! I don't know how much you really do know about this country..But if you really do, I don't think you would write such things..And one more thing..Yeah, English Education is a major problem in Korea..But you know what..I think all the people who don't have college degrees coming to Korea is making the problem worse..Why do you think the Korean government is trying to make an English teaching robot anyway??

Brian said...

So the rest of us can read what Juyun / Karen wrote, five times:

"Hey..Walter Foreman..I agree with some of your opinions..But don't write biased comments about Koreans..Because I know "Many Korean teachers of English" who CAN operate basic multimedia equipments!!! I don't know how much you really do know about this country..But if you really do, I don't think you would write such things..And one more thing..Yes, English Education is a major problem in Korea..But you know what..I think all the people who don't have college degrees coming to Korea is making the problem worse..Why do you think the Korean government is trying to make an English teaching robot anyway??"

Darth Babaganoosh said...

I think all the people who don't have college degrees coming to Korea is making the problem worse.

I don't know, how many would that be? It can't be the 20,000+ with E1, E2 or E7 visas, as a university degree is one of the requirements to get one.

If people are coming to Korea without college degrees, it wouldn't be a problem at all if schools would STOP illegally hiring them. Who is more at fault, the illegal worker or the school which knowingly hires him to work illegally?

Why do you think the Korean government is trying to make an English teaching robot anyway?

I don't know. Is it because robots don't have AIDS?

Walter Foreman said...

Brian: Thanks for the repost on the deleted comment.

I can't tell if that person is trolling or not, but in either case, I'll take a few minutes to respond.

Dear Juyun/Karen,

What did I write that is biased? I wrote something that I observed personally over five years as a teacher trainer at one of Korea's top national universities of education. It is not bias, it is observation. Anecdotal perhaps, but biased, no!

In fact, the problem is worse than just basic multimedia equipment like CD players; Korea's schools are full of 영어 전용실 and 영어 체용실 that are unused because teachers have not been trained how to use them. As these rooms typically cost anywhere from 50 to 75 million won each and over 80% of Korea's 13,000 schools have them, it is a horrendous waste of resources!

Believe me, these proposed English teaching robots are the same thing; a complete waste of time, money, and energy that will be left completely unused!

Walter Foreman said...

oops, change 영어 체용실 to 영어 체험실.

Damn Blogger doesn't allow for editing of comments.

karen said...

Thank you dear Brian for deleting what I wrote..And rewriting what I deleted ^^

And Walter Foreman..I am not “trolling..But do please reread what you wrote..Carefully..
One more thing..I plainly wrote that I do agree with some of your opinions..
But what I wasn’t comfortable with was..(From what you wrote..)

1.5) Korean English curriculum purports to emphasize the communicative aspect of language. Talking to glorified ATM which has only a handful of canned responses is miles away from being communicative.

2) Many Korean teachers of English cannot operate such basic multimedia equipment as CD players (I know this from personal experience); how on earth can they be expected to operate a frackin’ robot?!

The Korean English curriculum does emphasize the communicative aspect of language! It is not putting up a false appearance!! But, it’s not working! Why? Is it just the English teachers? The English teacher trainers? The Universities of Education? The system? What?
It’s everything! Then, don’t you think you should have mentioned all this, too? Not blaming the “Many Korean teachers of English” who cannot operate such basic multimedia equipments?

And what did you truly mean anyway? That “Many Korean teachers of English” are too stupid and incompetent to “operate such basic multimedia equipment?” That’s how I understood it.

If you really understand what English Education is like here in Korea, you really couldn’t have written about this complicated situation in such a simple manner!

Tell me, Walter! You said you have observed for many years. But what did you really see? And did you truly understand what you saw? From what you wrote, you seem to understand only the problems that can be seen on the surface. But what about all the complicated reasons that are making our English Education fail? Can you see all that, too?

Brother Boomerang said...

hey walter, nice to see you in cyberspace. Hey karen, this article is about robots.

karen said...

Hello, Brian..
The article itself was about robots..But what Walter wrote..was not about robots..Why don't you read again what he wrote and what I wrote!

Walter Foreman said...

Dear Juyun/Karen,

You have asked me twice (once here and once on my personal site) to reread carefully what I wrote. Having done so, I still feel as though it is you who misunderstands my words; especially when you mention that while the original article was about robots, what I wrote was not. This claim is false. All three of my points are about the proposed English-teaching robots. What is it that you expect me to find in my post after rereading it carefully?

Furthermore, it is you who raise the issue of the English curriculum in Korea not working. At no time did I raise that issue. The explicit message in my comments was that English-teaching robots in the classroom are a poor idea because 1) they would reinforce the idea that English is a novelty; 2) talking to a machine which has preprogrammed responses (ie. a robot) contradicts the communicative focus in the current revised English curriculum in Korea; and 3) as many teachers cannot use existing classroom technologies (YES, including, in many cases, CD players) that further government investment in classroom technology would be inefficient. I did NOT, as you say, blame anyone for the “failure” (your word, not mine) of “our English Education.” In fact, my comments were not about Korea’s English Education at all! My comments were about the use of English-speaking robots in classrooms.

Finally, you even admit that you are uncertain of my meaning when you ask, “And what did you truly mean anyway?” Not only do you admit your lack of understanding, you then assume, which is always a dangerous proposition as it can make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”, that I meant that Korean teachers who cannot use basic multimedia equipment are “stupid and incompetent” (again, your words, not mine). Again, this claim is false! THIS IS NOT WHAT I THINK, NOR IS IT WHAT I WROTE.

Let me try and put this into a different context to help you understand. Many people in Canada cannot read or write (ie. they are illiterate). In writing this comment, do you think that am I suggesting that the one percent of Canadians who are illiterate are “stupid and incompetent”? I am not making any judgment of those people whatsoever. Nor was I making any judgment about Korean teachers of English. I was simply stating facts. In the case of Canadian literacy, those facts come from UNESCO. In the case of Korean English teachers, I offered my personal observations. I DID NOT PASS ANY JUDGMENT ON ANYONE! YOU CLEARLY MISUNDERSTOOD!

Once again, I would like to invite you to move this conversation to a more private forum, ie. email, as we have hijacked this thread on Brian’s board (ie. our discussion is no longer about the original post) and as it is too difficult to discuss on my message board because of the 60-word-per-post limit. Furthermore, I’d be happy to speak on the telephone or even to meet in person if it helps clarify this terrible misunderstanding. My contact details can be found in my Blogger profile or on my personal webpage.

Sincerely,

Walter A. Foreman

Brian said...

Blogspot is having issues with disappearing comments. Walter Foreman has left a few but they aren't showing up here. Here is the last one he posted:

Dear Juyun/Karen,

You have asked me twice (once here and once on my personal site) to reread carefully what I wrote. Having done so, I still feel as though it is you who misunderstands my words; especially when you mention that while the original article was about robots, what I wrote was not. This claim is false. All three of my points are about the proposed English-teaching robots. What is it that you expect me to find in my post after rereading it carefully?

Furthermore, it is you who raise the issue of the English curriculum in Korea not working. At no time did I raise that issue. The explicit message in my comments was that English-teaching robots in the classroom are a poor idea because 1) they would reinforce the idea that English is a novelty; 2) talking to a machine which has preprogrammed responses (ie. a robot) contradicts the communicative focus in the current revised English curriculum in Korea; and 3) as many teachers cannot use existing classroom technologies (YES, including, in many cases, CD players) that further government investment in classroom technology would be inefficient. I did NOT, as you say, blame anyone for the “failure” (your word, not mine) of “our English Education.” In fact, my comments were not about Korea’s English Education at all! My comments were about the use of English-speaking robots in classrooms.

Finally, you even admit that you are uncertain of my meaning when you ask, “And what did you truly mean anyway?” Not only do you admit your lack of understanding, you then assume, which is always a dangerous proposition as it can make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”, that I meant that Korean teachers who cannot use basic multimedia equipment are “stupid and incompetent” (again, your words, not mine). Again, this claim is false! THIS IS NOT WHAT I THINK, NOR IS IT WHAT I WROTE.

Let me try and put this into a different context to help you understand. Many people in Canada cannot read or write (ie. they are illiterate). In writing this comment, do you think that am I suggesting that the one percent of Canadians who are illiterate are “stupid and incompetent”? I am not making any judgment of those people whatsoever. Nor was I making any judgment about Korean teachers of English. I was simply stating facts. In the case of Canadian literacy, those facts come from UNESCO. In the case of Korean English teachers, I offered my personal observations. I DID NOT PASS ANY JUDGMENT ON ANYONE! YOU CLEARLY MISUNDERSTOOD!

Once again, I would like to invite you to move this conversation to a more private forum, ie. email, as we have hijacked this thread on Brian’s board (ie. our discussion is no longer about the original post) and as it is too difficult to discuss on my message board because of the 60-word-per-post limit. Furthermore, I’d be happy to speak on the telephone or even to meet in person if it helps clarify this terrible misunderstanding. My contact details can be found in my Blogger profile or on my personal webpage.

Sincerely,

Walter A. Foreman

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...

Thank you Walter for your reply..I don't want to go on like this, here. So, I wrote my reply to yours on your site. I never thought I would go on like this..But with all that I read(all your postings) and heard(from your/my associates)..

Brian said...

karen wrote:

Thank you Walter for your reply..I don't want to go on like this, here. So, I wrote my reply to yours on your site. I never thought I would go on like this..But with all that I read(all your postings) and heard(from your/my associates)..