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Here Come the Robots – Again

The Korea Times is reporting that newly placed robots in test elementary school classrooms have proven “effective.” According to the article:

The students showed notable improvement in speaking ability…

If the students who come to my hogwon, after having been learning in public schools, represent the general level of learning, any improvement would be notable. I don’t know what or how they teach, but those kids, some of whom have studied for over a year in the after-school English classes, can’t put together a single sentence in English. As the only foreigner at my hogwon, I am given the responsibility of testing them – in front of their mothers – to determine ability and potential class placement. Many a mother has been chagrined to find their precious little snowflakes can neither understand nor respond to simple questions such as “where do you live?” or “did you go to school today?”  I’m not saying all elementary English programs are worthless, but every single child I’ve tested who has studied at an elementary school, sucks. Therefore, I wonder about the claimed improvement the students experienced.

The article goes on to say that:

…along with increased interest and motivation in learning English. … The robots had a positive effect in giving students an equal learning opportunity and producing a higher level of engagement during classes… They also contributed to more creative and lively classes.

Sure, bring a robot to class and the kids will perk up. Bring a frigging Nintendo DS to class and they’ll perk up, too.  For that matter, I have a litter of puppies at home. I’ve brought them to class – you’ve never seen a more rapt bunch of students. “Want to pet the puppy, Jun Ho? First you have to correctly speak the sentences.”  The robot testing lasted a mere eight weeks.  Give it a few months and the robots will be just as passée as the cassette player. Let’s see then how well the little nuggets learn when the newness wears off.

As a former technologist, I am also qualified to write on part of the equation left out of the article: maintenance. Who updates the robot’s lesson plans? Who repairs the hardware when the little angels have somehow shorted it out with a paperclip? And for the robots who have speech recognition ability, presumably they would record answers for testing and trending purposes. Who backs up the data?  All of these issues add to the overall cost that is not addressed in the KT article. But as a man who came of age in the 70s and 80s when we were all told computers would replace humans I can tell you it only adds people and costs.  There’s no denying that replacing Native English teachers like us would be the ultimate goal of such a program – we’re such a pesky bunch after all. But looking at the total package and not just the emotionally charged issues of dealing with foreigners is required.

Despite the glowing recommendation that the Korea Times gives the project, I’m not polishing up my resume in search of another career any time soon.

Brian in Jeollanam-do has a lot more history on the subject of robots in classrooms for your reading enjoyment.

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