In Hagjeong Primary School in South Korea, children are learning English from a robot named Engkey.
Part robot and part video conferencing module, Engkey is connected online to the Phillippines, where an English teacher is actually conducting the class.
Shaped like a penguin and standing around 3 feet tall, Engkey wheels around the classroom and stops in front of each of the six fourth graders, who can see the teacher's face on the LCD screen and asks them to repeat English phrases and leads them in song.
Engkey’s creators say this robot is much more than just a video screen on wheels though.
“We can detect the motion of the English teacher," Kim Mun-sang, director of the Intelligent Robotics Program at the Korea Institute for Science and Technology in Seoul, told PRI. "As soon as the teacher moves his or her hand, the robot raises its hand. If the teacher laughs, we can detect a laughing expression. So the robot can do just what the English teacher does.”
In autonomous mode, Enkey is programmed to help students with their English pronunciation, and it plays a tune when they get a word right.
"Learning English is all about repetition and that makes a robot an ideal teacher," Jang Byoung-ok, the principal at the Hagjeong School, told PRI. Jang said it costs around $40 thousand a year to support a foreign English teacher in Korea; it’s about half the price to build an Engkey and contract with a teacher in the Philippines.