Weekend Tangent: The future of Eikaiwa: AFP: Robots replace english teachers in SK

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Hi Blog. As a Weekend Tangent, here is what I see as a glimpse of the future: Robots teaching foreign languages. We already have tape recorders. Why not embody them. Robots are cool enough. Anthropomorphize them and who needs to import foreigners you have to feed, pay, respect, be polite to, or fret about them adversely affecting domestic culture through numbers and immigration? South Korea shows it’s possible.  Arudou Debito


South Korea schools get robot English teachers | Raw Story
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 28th, 2010, courtesy TS


Almost 30 robots have started teaching English to youngsters in a South Korean city, education officials said Tuesday, in a pilot project designed to nurture the nascent robot industry.

Engkey, a white, egg-shaped robot developed by the Korea Institute of Science of Technology (KIST), began taking classes Monday at 21 elementary schools in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The 29 robots, about one metre (3.3 feet) high with a TV display panel for a face, wheeled around the classroom while speaking to the students, reading books to them and dancing to music by moving their head and arms.

The robots, which display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines — who can see and hear the children via a remote control system.

Cameras detect the Filipino teachers’ facial expressions and instantly reflect them on the avatar’s face, said Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist at KIST.

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” he told AFP.

Apart from reading books, the robots use pre-programmed software to sing songs and play alphabet games with the children.

“The kids seemed to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting. But some adults also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person,” said Kim Mi-Young, an official at Daegu city education office.

Kim said some may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea shunned by foreign English teachers.

She said the robots are still being tested. But officials might consider hiring them full time if scientists upgrade them and make them easier to handle and more affordable.

“Having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers,” Kim said.

She stressed the experiment was not about replacing human teachers with robots. “We are helping upgrade a key, strategic industry and all the while giving children more interest in what they learn.”

The four-month pilot programme was sponsored by the government, which invested 1.58 billion won (1.37 million dollars).

Scientists have held pilot programmes in schools since 2009 to develop robots to teach English, maths, science and other subjects at different levels with a desired price tag of five to eight million won.

Sagong stressed that the robots, which currently cost 10 million won each, largely back up human teachers but would eventually have a bigger role.

The machines can be an efficient tool to hone language skills for many people who feel nervous about conversing with flesh-and-blood foreigners, he said.

“Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”


18 comments on “Weekend Tangent: The future of Eikaiwa: AFP: Robots replace english teachers in SK

  • And this is why I will never be a English teacher. The nerd side(which arguably is a very large side) of me thinks that this robot is awesome, but the other side of me thinks that this will only cause more unemployment and fiercer competition in the english business. I really gotta feel sorry for the English teachers…the nails are getting hammered in.

  • Interesting to see that the face on the robot is a caucasian woman, not the true native speaker.
    So not only do not really have to not relate to a real live person because they may be scary, but you don’t have to learn to relate to people who are not caucasian. Far easier to build a robot than to fix the real problems, “Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”
    Maybe they are really looking at the otaku market….

  • I think this is just another example of how the eikaiwa market is actually two separate markets:

    1. the low-cost, low-quality, ‘chain’ sector with unskilled teachers
    2. the professional, expensive, boutique sector

    I think for businesses and teachers in sector 1 things will continue to get tougher as prices fall and competition increases, while those in sector 2 will do quite well for themselves, provided they continue innovating and providing value to their (discerning) customers…

  • Lots of hidden (or not so hidden) backward attitudes exposed here, it is sad.

    1. The robot has Caucasian features but it is controlled by Filipinos”-the Gaijin attractive at a distance syndrome. We want foreign looking teachers (but not Asian looking), but don’t want them to come and live here. We want our cake and eat it.

    2. “Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,”
    -At pains to stress these are Filipinos, but, wait, before you turn up your nose, these are the BEST Filipinos!

    3. “The kids seemed to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting.

    The Kawaii factor, just looks again, as above. Though I ‘m hopeful the kids (the future) aren’t afraid of Caucasian features (or are they?)

    4 “But some adults also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person,”
    -the fear of foreigners syndrome.But come on, get real. It is a ROBOT.

    5. “Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”

    And of course, they have to bring up the Japanese rivalry at some point. Its ALL JAPAN’S FAULT!

    Korea’s government has recently enacted the progressive laws Japan cannot seem to bring themselves to do, to attract immigration, but at the grass roots there seems to be a long way to go.

    The ATTITUDE of education officials is a problem in both countries. Stop treating foreign people as disposable labor, give them the health insurance etc they deserve as human beings, and then they might be happy to go and teach these kids in Inaka.

    Just stepping back for a minute and looking at this from a sane perspective, robot teachers are a complete joke and a gimmick to amuse kids at best. it really does recall that spoof in The Negi where Lulu the Chimp-though technically not a native speaker-became a teaacher at an eikaiwa.
    She could communicate “Lulu want Banana” by pushing buttons. These robots aren’t so far from that ridiculous scenario.

  • Actually, this does not surprise me at all, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t do it here, especially if you’ve seen the elementary school English curriculum in Japan. Many elementary school classrooms are already using computer programs that go with the “Eigo Note” text to save money on foreign teachers. A robot would just be more “fun”.

    English is never used in a meaningful way in most of the elementary schools I’ve seen. Just to play games which only have one basic grammar point repeated over and over and over. “Do you like apples?” “Yes, I do.” “No, I don’t.” x 1000

    Even these simple points are often translated word for word into Japanese and all instructions are given entirely in Japanese. How students are supposed to “pick up” any useful English for actual communication in between all the “games”, I’m not sure. Maybe that is why after two or three years of elementary school English, all students can confidently say is “Ha-ro!” (Hello!).

    So I say, great, bring in the robots. It’s actually funny that Japanese homeroom teachers couldn’t teach a lot of these classes themselves and need to bring in a foreigner at all. Everything is in the Eigo Note text, not more than two or three sentences, and no real communication in English goes on anyway. Why not just eliminate the foreigner and then it could be totally disconnected from what real communication looks like in English? “We Japanese no speak English. Mr. Robot cute.”

  • RealityBites says:

    This is simply a poor reflection on the bigoted Korean mindset of those whose job laughably is to do with foreign languages and ‘internationalisation’, nothing more. The fellow who made the usual Korean slurs against foreigners is nothing unusual among those who populate government bodies and education offices.

    This is the country that recently decided that ‘entertainers’ – ie mostly prostitutes from 3rd world countries, or Russia, where HIV is a significant problem do not have to have an HIV test for a visa. Yet native English teachers must have an HIV test for a limited term contract of one year (there are no contracts of more than 1 year at a time given to NETS on E-2 visas because the visa is only renewable 1 year at a time).

    Why? Apparently Korean parents think we could give their children Aids because of a small minority of foreigners who have been accused of molesting Korean children, with even less having the case go all the way to court. Meanwhile the age of consent for girls in Korea is 13 and sexual activity with Korean teachers is by no means rare.

    Robot teachers are just another way of removing foreigners from the Korean physical and mental landscape. Koreans generally are more bigoted and discriminatory than Japanese in social attitudes and cultural norms despite what you might think from Japanese police gaijin-carding practices etc.

    Korea is not more internationalised and open to foreigners despite statements made by their government at different levels. This is simply doublethink and a reflection of the nationalistic desperation to be taken seriously as a player on the world stage. Koreans use such words as internationalisation far more than Japanese do and all the international events Korea holds seems to point to greater openness.

    However, Korean society generally cannot find much that is positive to say about foreigners as we are ‘a disruption’ to their way of life as pure blooded Koreans (yes I’ve actually heard this from educated people and this attitude is common just about everywhere in Korea at all levels). Koreans want to be globalised without actually following up on it. Now they want to learn English minus native English speakers.

    They will shoot themselves in the foot of course with the robot teacher because Koreans generally are not internationally-literate and are very insular and xenophobic in key ways. They seem to think they can learn English in phrasebook fashion, in bits and pieces, while rejecting the cultures which are connected to the language.

    Many good foreign English teachers won’t stay in Korea much longer. Conditions and wages have declined rapidly and Korean resentment of and prejudice against foreigners seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. Let them go back to their Hermit Kingdom ways with a 21st century twist. Getting rid of native English speakers will simply ensure future generations of Koreans alienating foreigners even more and defeating their goal of being taken seriously by the world.

  • This is a gimmick, pure and simple. It is a telephone attached to something that looks human.

    With South Korea’s demographic crisis, you’d think they’d spend time creating robotic elementary school students to fill the classes. (SK is depopulating faster than Japan.) They could even create a software to see if a robot can teach itself, based on android instruction…

  • Gimmick! I doubt this will have much impact after the novelty has worn off.

    What English teachers should worry about is the imminent arrival of universal translators which may reduce the need for some people to study English, especially those who study casually.

  • Realitybites – In regards to the English teachers not staying in Korea much longer, I would take a good look at forums like Dave’s ESL cafe. The Korean offers usually include free airfare there and back, free housing, visa sponsorship for those who aren’t already there, and they are pretty numerous; none of these can be said for the vast majority of ESL jobs in Japan.

    Also, I think part of the reason they’re turning to such a terrible option like this is the unmeetable demand for ESL teachers in rural Korea. Most teachers want to be in Seoul or Busan, as opposed to getting dropped off in some farming village. That’s not to say that xenophobia isn’t involved; for all I know they might see it as a two birds one stone solution.

    — Let’s not go on too long about the situation in Korea. Please keep it expanded to the situation in Eikaiwa.

  • Sendaiben wrote.
    I think this is just another example of how the eikaiwa market is actually two separate markets:

    1. the low-cost, low-quality, ‘chain’ sector with unskilled teachers
    2. the professional, expensive, boutique sector

    I couldn’t have put it better. I go freelance every March and although a lot of my customers rollover into the next year, the amount and quality of the work has improved over the last few years.
    There is becoming a real sense of urgency in some sectors of the Japanese economy that the lack of English skills is hindering present and future prospects.I’d say that it was always there, but this is the land of ‘too little, too late’
    This glorified tape recorder thing is no threat to me, but I can see why some of the less enlightened members of Korean/Japanese society see an attraction in it replacing those troublesome furiners

  • Arguably, the reason Koreans offer free accomodation (tho how good it is varies) and compensated airfare on completion of one year contract (if you re not fired one month before the end) because people just have preferred to go to Japan, or China. So they have had to work harder to entice people there. We ve heard comments from rightists in Japan that “foreigners will always come to Japan anyway”.

    Having worked in HR, there is a huge glut of teachers in Japan, and a shortage in Korea. Most teachers leave Korea after a year. Every single one that we have interviewed for other work in Japan has claimed of either being ripped off in Korea, or the difficult culture.Thus they came to Japan, which is seem as a bit better or at least not so aggressive.

    Korea seems to recognize the need for English, even to the point of getting a robot, it is just that despite of some seemingly progressive legislation, the mindset remains essentially xenophobic and elitist, and it is much more blatant as this article confirms.

    — This is the last comment I will allow through comparing Japan and Korea. That is not the point of this blog entry.

  • So what is the next step if the robots fail to improve English ability? Cybernetic neural implants? now THAT would truly erase the need for robots or humans to teach anyone anything!

  • I suppose NOVA’s ex-boss is kicking himself that he hadn’t thought of this.

    On a related note, Japan Today had a piece on their Technology page, now no longer available, on May 16 2010, showing a robot performing a wedding ceremony in Tokyo. The blurb under the picture read as follows:

    “A humanoid robot named I-Fairy officiates at the wedding ceremony between Tomohiro Shibata, left, and Satoko Inoue in Tokyo on Sunday. The couple decided to use the robot, which conducted the ceremony with its audio functions, from Inoue’s company to perform the witness’ duties as they first met due to common work interest related to robots. See story in Technology.” (Link is dead)

    The html code for the accompanying photo, showing happy newly weds bowing in the presence of their ordained robot minister is:

    So, Eikaiwa jobs and Wedding ‘Minister’s’ jobs being lost to robots. What’s an enterprising young International Resident of Japan to do now?

  • …My questions would be, “why languages and not something that computers are actually good at, like mathematics?” Why not replace local teachers of other subjects too? Basic music might be another field.

    Yes, I see it is more of a telephone on wheels than computerized robot, and it is suitable for a nation with the densest fibre optic network, but does the system have a filter to remove accents or correct Tagalog grammar too?…

    I guess the big plus is they pay the Filipinos local Filipino rates …Do I think it will happen here at a higher technological level? Yes, I can see it happening for the lower levels of education and why not? I guess you folks know what it feels like to be skilled C 18th weavers now!

    What is really the difference between conference call type teaching, why not just have a few cameras and a big LCD screen … and a low paid security guard to make sure everyone sits down and does not break the tech!


  • my Japanese class said they would (robots)solve Japans immigration problem
    no need to import people
    Thats good I said

    But ROBOTS do not pay TAXES

    I could not get an answer to that

  • Ive read a few iterations of this article, from the first Yonhap one to the spite laden AFP rag and I thought it was about public schools not eikaiwa/hagwon. Anyway, on the ground this is seen as laughable, just another hollow mediascare to “keep the natives scared and in line” Even in Daegu. Every few months another snake oil vendor is pimping out their “hitech” tape rec~ sorry, robot. Korean kids and parents are VERY big on English and demand natives not robots. Out of curiosity, I wonder if the Filipino professionals know about the whitewashing, or whether theyre given a webcam hooked up to a digital wastebasket?

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    If Japan decides to use robots to replace Eikaiwa teachers…
    It’s only a short step to decide to use them to replace ALTs…
    And then the “token” foreigners…

    Then I guess that there will be no-one except the robots left to blame for rising crime, bad manners at Tsukiji and poor TOEIC scores…

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