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.