English Teachers Might As Well Be Robots…

November 22, 2010

I’ve been getting a little frustrated with teaching lately. Part of the reason is my students’ growing disrespect:

– One boy in my blue class actually pulled out a Harry Potter book (in Korean) and started to read in the middle of a lesson.
– A gold class student lied right to my face about something my boss said, then tried to play it off as a “white lie” when I called him on it.
– Students in all classes have a habit of just walking right out of the room when they have a questions for the “Korean teacher”, as if I’m not in charge of anything. They don’t even bother to tell me what they’re doing… just walk out.

Not that there haven’t been some good lessons. I’m learning to go with the flow in teaching my gold classes, as their textbook gives me the most flexibility. I enjoy dispelling myths about English and travel when the language barrier isn’t too much of a problem.

Still, after facing off with the kind of behavior mentioned above, I played out a really nasty situation in my head, that of just shouting at all my students (even the girls, who don’t really cause any problems), dragging them forcibly out of the classroom, and showing them how I, a stranger in their land, use a foreign language to survive. How they, possibly living in other countries in the future, would find themselves in situations in which people would not be nearly as tolerant; rather, they would get angry or laugh at their efforts. Why should I not laugh at their efforts when they show so little respect?

But I don’t do that. And maybe things will get better.

Last Thursday was the day for the university entrance examinations (수능) in Korea. It is a day everyone here knows well; some businesses are shut down, traffic is redirected to prevent noise pollution for the students, and, unknown to me at the time, lower-level students cheer for their classmates in the hours before school (thanks to Eat Your Kimchi). With a such a big day in education, I thought I’d comment on one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 according to Time: the English-speaking robot teacher, currently being used at a few private language schools, hagwon, in Korea.

To some who have never taught ESL, let alone in Asia, this might come as a shock. Surely, you think, a robot can’t replace a real teacher?

The whole idea didn’t surprise me in the least.

1. This only helps remove any final doubts as to how little Koreans value English education. Rather, how little they truly want to find methods to learn English effectively.

“It may be better to have a telepresence robot from a highly skilled teacher than to have just an average teacher in the classroom.”
Source: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/10/22/south.korea.robot.teachers/index.html

2. Ahh… so if a highly skilled teacher were physically in the classroom, there wouldn’t be a need for robots? Whose fault is that? Korea has absolutely no requirements for English teachers, save a degree and native speaking skills. No recruiter challenges it, no school questions the teacher they’re given for a year unless something big comes up. And regardless of this fact, what makes a “highly skilled teacher”? Charisma, classroom presence, voice… 99% percent of which can’t be used effectively when communicating through a machine.

“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.”

3. I seriously doubt it. If students could learn pronunciation that easily, they could stay at home and find the right voice samples online. There’s something to be said for a live voice, and a trained ear to hear mistakes.

“Children feel the robot is their friend… Robots are very helpful to enhance the concentration capability of children in class.”

4. Stop, I’m laughing too hard. Anyone who’s taught children in Korea should be doubled over by now. The article in question is referring to kindergarteners, 6-year-olds. They have a hard enough time sitting still in front of a human English teacher; either a Korean teacher has to yell at them to be quiet and pay attention, or a foreign teacher lets them run wild. I’ll grant you, the robot might focus the students’ attention, but not encourage to concentrate on studying English. More of a “Ooooh! Cool!” mentality.

“Due to the limitations on the current robotic technologies, robots cannot completely supplant human teachers in the educational field.”

5. I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Points 1-4 are meant to describe ideal teaching situations, but, obviously, that’s not what English teachers face in Korea. From what I’ve seen, foreign teachers might as well be robots: we’re mainly used for “listen and repeat” drills when it comes to children; as ALTs (assistant language teachers), we’re only used for pronunciation practice at the Korean teacher’s discretion; there’s little deviation from the course book, something that could easily be programmed into a robot. But going back to my first point, if the goal of the English education system is to show the face of progress without actually producing results, robots are the way to go. After all, they wouldn’t have to pay to fly in and accommodate native speakers, or put up with cultural differences. And, let’s face it, robots just look cool, even if they’re completely impractical.

Just make sure they obey the three laws

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One Response to English Teachers Might As Well Be Robots…

  1. Kelsey on December 3, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Koreans only pay lip service to their education in order to get good scores and thus a good job. They don’t really care. Once you accept that and move on, it will make your job considerably easier.

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