Having lived in South Korea myself a year ago, I couldn’t help but notice my news feed becoming cluttered with articles on Korea’s push to develop robots to teach English in rural communities. Last week I wrote about the use of artificial intelligence in writing feedback, and now this week, I would like to extend that discussion from web-based applications to robotics.
It seems that in Asia, especially given the heavy emphasis and breakthroughs in the field of robotics in Japan, the receptivity to mechanized workers is greater than that in America or Europe. In fact, IEEE printed a research report back in 2009 finding that Korean parents have the most liberal attitudes towards having their children taught by robots. Surprisingly, Japanese parents were more conservative in their acceptance of robotic teachers.
How will this affect teaching as a whole? Specifically, English language education?
To be clear, the robots are far from perfect, but it is a start in the eyes of many. The robotic teachers will not be without human help, as the pilot programs have Filipino English teachers behind the controls of the robot, operating them remotely.
Korea’s push to hire native speakers to assist in their English education programs is complicated, as many who take up the task have no previous teaching experience, nor do they hold a degree in English, Education, or Linguistics. The requirements are simply a college degree in any discipline. That being said, the government is paying big money simply for an individual’s native accent, not necessarily their teaching ability. Their hope is the robots will save money, and see that a qualified teacher from the Philippines is running the operation.
The robots are not without their critics. I, for one, cannot see such a simple machine replacing teachers anytime soon. While they can be a solution for poorer regions that cannot afford to hire many teachers, the human element needed for their success is undeniable. I also think students are served better learning from an adult teacher who is present in the class, who can be responsive to their needs and questions. Speech needs to be authentic, and learners need to be engaged in authentic tasks for a language classroom to be successful. At this point, the robots should be viewed as tools, or enhancements, to a language classroom; not something entire curricula need to be designed around.