My last post was supposed to be my last one for 2010, but I found myself with a rare bit of extra time today (after our youngest's birthday party today and before taking off into rural Victoria for our customary family New Year's bash), and happened upon an article in my local newspaper that got me slightly worked up...
It seems the "robot English teachers" are stalking me in South Korea, if only retrospectively. I spent ten years teaching English there, starting in a small city on the south coast called Masan. The very same city where the Korean Ministry of Education first trialled its so-called "robot teachers" sometime earlier this year. Later, I taught in a university department in the larger city of Daegu -- which is where the second roll out of robots appears to be taking place.
It's almost as if these robots are appearing in places that are very personal and vivid to me... making my reactions to them even more poignant.
But the latest report on the robot roll out featured comments and reasoning that I found nothing short of extraordinary. Far from being an exciting example of cutting edge technology making up for shortcomings and improving access to education, I found various aspects of the reasoning just plain backward -- or even evidence that the robot policy is basically reinforcing or worsening existing problems.
I'll go through what really bothers me in the report in order from "mildly worrying" to "downright outrageous" (though I should point out this differs from the order of information as it is presented in the original article)...
1. Robots creating opportunities to learn English in remote rural areas
Kim said some may be sent to remote rural areas of South Korea shunned by foreign English teachers.
Hey, I'm a big believer in finding ways to improve access to quality education for children in rural areas. But aside from the fact that it might be worth actually investigating what it is about working as a teacher in remote rural areas that makes foreign English instructors shun the idea, I can't go past the fact that a 10 million won robot is a hugely expensive solution compared to the costs associated with a basic Internet connection, a computer and an overhead projector. As you read on, you might come to understand that the connection and the projector basically do the same job as the robot, but without any subterfuge, and at a fraction of the potential cost...
2. Robots catering to learners who don't want to talk to people
"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.
"Having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers," Kim said.
This is an interesting issue, but I can't deny my instincts and experience here. Language is about people, and needs to happen between people. Teaching is a dynamic and hugely human-oriented endeavour, too. Shifting real people out of the equation, to cater to shyness or a need for "cute and interesting" things, doesn't -- in my mind -- do much at all to improve the prospects for genuine communicative language development. A human teacher in a classroom is an immensely precious resource in so many ways, and to claim that robots make students more active in participating, by catering to their shyness around people (by removing them), strikes me as being a bit silly, really.
3. Robots making up for shortfalls in a country's approach to teacher salaries and conditions
"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."
So, let me get this one straight: Instead of taking a good hard look at our country's approach to basic rights and entitlements for human teachers (health insurance, sick leave, severance package and competitive pay), let's fix the problem by replacing them with machines?
But, bad as that is, the following one takes the cake as far as I am concerned...
4. Robots to reinforce a discriminatory and deeply hypocritical attitude to English teachers based on nationality
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.
Filipino teachers, despite their often outstanding level of English and great teaching qualifications, are currently prevented from teaching in Korea under existing laws. However, it would appear that if they stay in the Philippines and teach through a robot, using an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, then this is entirely okay -- even beneficial, considering how "cheap" they are compared to teachers from other countries (including even Koreans).
I still can't get over that one... we won't let you come here and teach, won't even attempt to acknowledge your level of English or teaching qualifications, unless you stay there in your own country and agree to teach for peanuts and hide behind a cardboard cutout of a Caucasian...
Seriously, South Korea, are you absolutely sure that you are using the wonderful technology emerging in robotics to actually help you progress?