By Kim Tae-gyu
During the second decade of the New Millennium, robots are expected to replace a number of English-speaking teachers here, who come from such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
At a robotics forum, which brought together 150 experts from across the country late last week in Seoul, participants predicted that English-speaking robots would fill the shoes of native speakers in the future.
"By around 2015, robots should be able to help teachers in English classes. By 2018, they should be able to teach on their own while communicating with students," said Kim Shin-hwan, an economist at the Hyundai Research Institute.
"Before such sophisticated English-speaking robots debut, teaching by native English speakers will be conducted by video-conferencing with teachers in their home countries," he said.
Kim said that the numerous native English speakers at Korea's language institutes - estimated in the vicinity of 30,000 - will lose their jobs in the not-so-distant future.
"At first, the English-speaking robots will be used in a similar fashion to e-learning, or study via the Internet because the robots would be controlled by humans across the Pacific," Kim said.
"However, they will evolve into stand-alone teachers, which do not need human guidance."
He said that assistant robots are already available in the English classes in a pair of elementary schools in Masan, South Gyeongsang Province, a pilot project aimed at testing the viability of robotic teachers.
Other educational robots are ones designed to help toddlers learn how to walk or geared toward developing the intelligence of children.
"Robots have a part to play in education. The consensus is that research will be conducted in various areas to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching," Kim said.
"For example, robots will help teachers operate not only in English classes but also in other classes where they can offer a helping hand in the years to come," he said.
Many participants in the forum projected that robots will be able to provide customized education suited to personal abilities and interests, which is difficult in today's schools where dozens of students pack a class.
Over the long haul machines are predicted to reduce the discrimination suffered by the underprivileged, who currently cannot experience quality education services.
"In rural areas or remote islands, few English-speaking teachers are ready to work there. But when the English-speaking robots come to town, students will be able to benefit," Kim said.
"In the beginning, the high prices of robots may be a hindrance in offering more equal opportunities to every student. But I think that the problems will be tackled in the long run. For example, the government could subsidize their purchase," he said.