Robot TeachersAre the Latest E-Learning Tool

Chronicle photograph by Jeffrey R. Young

Two South Korean students, Yesle Hahn (far left) and Ui-Yeol Yang, learn English from a robot during a demonstration at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology.
October 31, 2010

Robots now build cars, defuse bombs, and explore distant planets, but can they teach?

Researchers at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology think so and are building an army of robots to deliver English instruction to schoolchildren. It might be the most elaborate online-learning effort yet.

The unusual project here is supported by more than $100-million in grants, mostly from the South Korean government, and involves more than 300 researchers, says Mun Sang Kim, director of the institute's Center for Intelligent Robotics.

Mr. Kim and his team are designing the robots from the ground up—attempting to give them realistic facial features, arms that let them gesture, and sensors so they can keep their distance from students.

As an engineering achievement, they are a feat. Brightly colored and shaped like penguins, the roughly three-foot-tall robots can roll around, recognize speech, and display facial expressions as they broadcast audio. They are designed to help with pronunciation, among other tasks.

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The robots can teach in one of two ways: either by leading students through preprogrammed exercises or by having a human operate them remotely using the Internet.

South Korea has a shortage of native-speaking English teachers, Mr. Kim says, so the robots are meant to be an improvement on local teachers with poor English skills. "We need some alternatives, otherwise we cannot meet the demand in the market for English," he says.

Rather than bring in teachers from other countries, the system will allow schools to outsource the teaching to the Philippines, where fluent English teachers are prevalent. The plan is to employ roomfuls of overseas instructors to operate the robots. "It works just like a call center," says Mr. Kim.

Why not just let the remote instructors communicate by Webcam? The researchers argue that the students will pay more attention to the robots because they look like toys. Mr. Kim stresses that the machines are not meant to replace teachers, although in some cases a robot will become the main teacher in a classroom, while an assistant will be on hand to monitor student behavior and help out.

"The role of robots will go up steadily, and the role of human teachers will shrink," he says, but will not vanish.

The prototype cost about $40,000 to build, but Mr. Kim hopes to get the costs down to $10,000 each for a new model that is now being manufactured.

Forty robots will go into service for a pilot test in December, teaching at 18 elementary schools for three months to see how well they do.

Researchers hope that in the long term, the robots will be cheaper than hiring English-speaking teachers from abroad.

Another benefit is that the robots don't break the law or have "moral problems," says Mr. Kim. The country has seen several cases in recent years of foreign teachers and professors of English allegedly molesting children, which Mr. Kim listed as a reason to invest in the robots. "There are some problems and some accidents in hiring native speakers at the schools right now," says the researcher. "For example, the immigration system in Korea is not good enough to examine whether the foreign visitors are clean or not, or they did some crime," he added. "That's the reason why the government thinks about such robot systems—they don't have any such social problems, they don't do the drugs."

Researchers  at the lab at the Korea Institute organized a demonstration of the robots with a few schoolchildren one recent afternoon. At times the students seemed involved, but other times they stared off into space or looked distracted as the robot asked them questions. The robot tended to give broad feedback, with quips like "snap out of it, you made a mistake on the pronunciation," or "you have a good command of English." That didn't offer much guidance for how to improve.

So as teachers, these robots still need some training. (Mr. Kim insists that the model coming in December corrects some of the prototype's flaws.)

One of the students, 11-year-old Yesle Hahn, says she thinks the robots are up to the job, though. "If they were in school, I guess it could help because if they were in each classroom, we could learn English maybe at lunchtime," she says.

South Korea is the most-wired country in the world, a place where people regularly walk around watching TV and movies on their smartphones or other portable devices, and where video games are immensely popular. Robotics is a major target of research support by the government, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has predicted that a robot will be in every household in the country between 2015 and 2020, helping with chores, entertaining and teaching children, and serving as a security system, among other tasks. And maybe robotutors will soon be helping students with their homework around the world.

See highlights from the demonstration