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It's a technology ripe, perhaps, for horror-filled headlines: South Korea is testing robot teachers in the classroom. But rather than tap into the fears of robots-stealing-our-jobs and teachers-replaced-with-YouTube, I think it's worth thinking about telepresence (somewhat) calmly. After all, many people (myself included) responded positively to Sugata Mitra's TED talk on telepresence and "child-driven education" in India.

As Mitra argues, the best teachers and schools don't often exist where the need is greatest, and telepresence tools can address that, by bringing teachers into students' worlds virtually.

In the case of South Korea, that need is specifically for English-as-a-second-language teachers. The country already employs a huge number of teachers, many of whom are recent college graduates imported from the U.S. and Canada for those "teach English abroad" jobs. And while the South Korean robot are hardly cheap (currently about 10 million won, or roughly $8700), neither is paying for travel and housing for ESL instructors.

As Singularity Hub reports, 29 robots have been deployed recently in 21 schools in the city of Daegu to help human children learn English. These EngKey robots are meant to serve as telepresence devices, bringing educators into the classroom via a small screen in the robot's head.

The EngKey robot is about one meter tall, with an egg-shaped body and short arms. Not quite bird, not quite egg, I guess. There's a video screen in lieu of a face, and the current model has an avatar projected there, whose features mimic the instructor's. (It's "interesting" that the avatar, in the photos I've seen, has a Caucasian female face, even though the instructors in this trial are from the Philippines.) According to Singularity Hub, "Children see the avatar react in a human way. As such, the Korean students can receive higher quality and more subtle instruction than the EngKey can provide on its own. At the same time, they are still interacting with an advanced technological device."

According to the story, most of the robots' scripts are designed to work in one-to-one scenarios with children, and can only handle interactions with up to 8 students at once.

I'm not sure what I think about an egg-robot elementary school teacher. The children seem amenable to the robot's presence, but honestly, it seems like the efforts are more about "OMG ROBOTS!" than "OMG LET'S IMPROVE EDUCATION!" In the case of Korea, it does seem as though this is part of a plan to automate the classroom, with the country aiming to have a robot in every kindergarten classroom by 2013.

OK, enough with being calm. We can freak out about this now.

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Audrey Watters


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