Meet Elias: a patient and kind language teacher in Finland. He listens attentively as a student repeats a phrase in English. He gestures with his hands, nods his head, and his eyes flash different colors. Elias is just over a foot tall, and he is a robot.

 

A New Kind of Teacher

Elias is the language teaching robot put out by the L2TER program (pronounced el tutor). The program, with the backing of the EU, is targeted at pre-school age children at risk of falling behind in language acquisition. Elias uses microphones and cameras to evaluate student performance. His facial-recognition software evaluates whether the student is bored, frowning, crying, smiling, or laughing. Elias can further tailor his teaching to the student’s abilities as he gains information about a particular student. And at the end of the day, he can then report the student’s progress to a human teacher.

It is easiest to see how this type of teaching might be successful by watching Elias interact with students. Here, in a Dutch preschool setting, the three year old children are hesitant at first. Ultimately, their curiosity wins out. Proponents of the robot teachers say that it allows shy children to come out of their shell. Not only is this teacher not an intimidating adult, he is only a foot and a half tall and stands on the table at eye level.

 

Elias, Keeko, and More

One country already expanding the presence of robot teachers is China. As a country, China has been quicker to roll out robot teachers. Their teachers are not limited to languages and math, but are piloting a wider variety of subjects. Their robots are also quite cute. Keeko the robot has large eyes that turn into hearts when students answer questions correctly.

A precursor to this fully robotic teacher has been seen before. In 2010 a robot / human hybrid was deployed in South Korea. A roughly human-shaped robot was controlled by a remote teacher. Instead of a head, this robot had a screen with the teacher’s face live-streamed in. This model, of course, relied on having a human at the other end. Increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence software and machine learning capabilities have made the new, non-human-dependent robot possible.

Although most of us have yet to encounter a robot teacher in real life, we are more than familiar with some of the software side of such learning.  Language apps are one of the most downloaded categories for today’s phones.The web is full of best-of lists for those looking to download a language app. 

 

Why Language

It is interesting that language learning has been specifically earmarked as suitable for robot teachers. The creators of Elias  note that during initial language acquisition there is a lot of vocabulary drilling. The infinite patience of a robot might be well suited to such repetitive tasks. Human teachers, however, know that all students learn differently. Experts have heralded the end of many professions, teaching among them. For now, we watch and wait.