An apple for Mrs. Avatar?

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American teachers may fume that the scripted curricula they are asked to use makes them into nothing more than robots, but the kindergarten teachers in Daegu, South Korea delivering English instruction are robots. There, a platoon of yellow-and-white, three-foot high mechanical avatars (called "Engkeys") driven by teachers based in the Philippines, are the prototypes for an army of 8,000 such robots that may soon help meet Korea's huge demand for English teachers.

The engineers touting the Engkeys stress their tractability as a workforce: 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. Yet the economic benefit escapes us: Each Engkey costs around $8,700, and takes two teachers, one remote and one in the classroom, to be operational. Perhaps the initiative is more a prop for the Korean robotics industry than a means to address the English teacher shortage.

All bets are off, however, when the more independent Engkey, a robot that doesn't demand a human driver, becomes fully functional. Though still buggy, these independent Engkeys can already "read" books, sing songs, and track how well their charges are mastering simple lessons. Down the road, one could imagine this sort of robo-aides making instruction more effective by letting human teachers work with small groups while their mechanical partners take care of the rest of the class. So perhaps it is Korean edubots that will help the U.S. meet the challenge of competing with Korea's strong educational system.