Robot teachers invade South Korean classrooms

It's a typical classroom scene: Students working at their desks as the teacher calls out instructions. But, unlike your average teacher, this one is made of plastic and computer circuits. 

This isn't a sci-fi movie; it's an English language class taught by Engkey, a robot teacher, in the coastal city of Masan in South Korea. 


Part of a pilot program launched by the South Korean government, students in two elementary schools in the city are being taught English by robot teachers. 

In high-tech South Korea, robots serve a variety of educational purposes and the government is pressing ahead with plans to expand its robot learning, or "R-learning," program. 

Mun-Taek Choi is a senior research engineer at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, the government-funded research institute that developed the Engkey.

He told CNN that government evaluation has shown that "the educational robot system indeed helps increase students' interest and self-motivation in studying English and improves their English skills." 

Thirty-six Engkeys are due to be implemented in 18 elementary schools across the Korean city of Daegu by the end of this year, according to KIST. 

The Engkey is linked to and controlled remotely by a human teacher outside the classroom, whose face appears on the screen of the robot. The robot links students to teachers located as far away as Australia. 

Besides being popular with children, the telepresence robot also helps address South Korea's shortage of qualified native-English speaking teachers, Choi said.

Using telepresence robots can be beneficial to students, according to Tucker Balch, associate professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

"This type of technology can bring many types of teaching that would otherwise be unavailable into more classrooms," he said. 

"It may be better to have a telepresence robot from a highly skilled teacher than to have just an average teacher in the classroom," Balch added. 

Robots haven't replaced human teachers in South Korean classrooms. Instead, they currently serve more as assistants. 

Another version of the Engkey, which doesn't connect students to a human, uses voice recognition technology to help students practice their English pronunciation and dialogue. 

Robots are a cost-effective way to help teachers when relatively simple and repetitive training is required, Choi said.

"We do not intend to substitute real teachers with robots," he said. "Rather it is important for us to develop robot systems that provide satisfiable assistance to teachers." 

The Engkey isn't the only type of robot being used in schools. 

Pre-school teachers in the city of Daejeon have received a helping hand (or wheel), thanks to iRobi and a robot dog named Genibo. 

iRobi marks students' attendance and uses a face recognition program to ask children about their mood. Genibo, originally invented to be a pet robot, was redesigned to teach dance and gymnastics moves. 

South Korea aims to introduce 830 of these types of robots into pre-schools by the end of this year, and its goal is to have them in kindergartens nationwide by 2013. 

"Children feel the robot is their friend," said Bum-Jae You, head of the Cognitive Robotics Center at KIST. "Robots are very helpful to enhance the concentration capability of children in class."

For now, teachers don't have to be worried about being replaced in the classroom. 

"Due to the limitations on the current robotic technologies, robots cannot completely supplant human teachers in the educational field," said Choi. 

And there are doubts about whether they will ever be capable of doing that. 

Robots aren't bad as add-ons in the classroom, says Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England. 

As long as there's a teacher involved, children can find them interesting and it can inspire their learning, he said. 

But if children are looked after by robots for too long, in almost exclusive care, it would give them attachment disorders. Sharkey told CNN: "There is no understanding in robots, there is just processing." 

Robotic technology is still developing and it'll be a long time -- if ever -- before robots are capable of leading a classroom on their own, Balch said. 

"I don't think a robot will ever be better than a person," Balch said. "Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. 

"It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you're teaching. It requires a real fundamental leap in ability before we can get there."


By Susannah Palk for CNN