ESL instructor helps students with robot project

By Alejandra Carrillo

Professor Ron Chang Lee, Ph.D.  strives to help people learn English with computer technology.

Lee was born and raised in China. While living in China, he graduated from Suzhou University with a bachelor’s in English.

He then started teaching English as a foreign language to science and engineering college students in 1980.

“There were not many English teachers in China at that time and there were too many people wanting to learn English,” Lee said.

Lee came to the United States with a goal in mind, which was to create an electronic English tutor that people around the world can access for free.

He attended the University of Illinois and graduated with a master’s in ESL and a Ph.D. in educational  technology in 1998.

After graduating he worked at a company that developed English learning software. He began teaching English a a second language at ELAC in 2006 and still continues to do so.

Lee’s ESL Robot project began in 2006 after he became the recipient of a $30,000 grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Lee’s ESL Robot placed third in the Online Robots Contest, “2010 Chatterbox Challenge” and a year later took first place in the 2011 Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence Junior Challenge.

He tied for first place in the Junior Contest and won second place in the general contest during the International Loebner Prize Contest 2013.

The ESL Robot “English Tutor,” otherwise known as “Mike,” is an application that can be downloaded into mobile devices.

People can also use “Mike” by visiting Lee’s websites, and

“It is a conversation system. If a person does not have someone to talk to, to practice English, they can use this,” Lee said.

“Most of the other contestants make programs for entertainment, not for learning. People were surprised that I won because I was new to this and they had not heard of me,” Lee said.

Lee’s program allows him to check each and every question or conversation people have with it so that he can learn what people struggle with the most.

“I put time and effort into this program and find ways to make it more efficient. I think my linguistic knowledge helps me and because I have that knowledge I can always make the program work better,” Lee said.

Lee feels that technology will keep evolving over time and it will continue to reshape education.

He hopes that people take advantage of this free program not only for the benefit of learning English, but also to reduce errors in writing and improve skills in typing.

Lee encourages his students to use the program and has had positive feedback from students that have used it.

Shawn Png and Li Chen, two of Lee’s students this semester, have started using the program and have found it to be helpful.

“It has helped me in many ways like in my grammar and speaking. It is also very interesting to chat with. It keeps me entertained. I will continue to use it even after the semester ends,” Png said.

Chen who also uses the “Mike” said that it has helped him improve his writing, typing and conversation skills.

“In the past you had to have a teacher in the classroom to learn, but I think the Internet has been revolutionizing education. With the help of computers, learning will become more individualized,” Lee said.

According to his website statistics, about 6,000 users visit the website weekly for his ESL Robot. Aproximately 30,000 visit for both of   his websites daily.

“I feel good about helping that many people learn English and I can feel that my students do improve by the end of each semester,” Lee said.

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