The modern education system is based on a 1968 charter that identifies education as an important aspect of citizenship and defines the government’s role in providing all Korean children with access to education. The charter also outlines the government's mission of educating every Korean child for citizenship and participation in modern life. Educational policy is set by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which determines curriculum, commissions and approves textbooks, and enforces uniform standards for all levels of schooling throughout the country. South Korea has compulsory education through the ninth grade, with 95 percent of school-age children attending high school. Approximately 25 percent of all high-school students attend one of 350 public and private postsecondary institutions. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005; “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “South Korea’s education system has long been known for pushing the limits. It is among the world’s most demanding: Most students meet with private tutors or attend cram schools. Parents obsess over their kids’ achievement. South Korea has among the world’s highest literacy levels and highest private education spending.” [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

South Korea take a hierarchal, top down approach to education. The Ministry of Education makes most policy decisions, and sets guidelines for textbooks, curriculum, standards, testing, and finances in private as well as public schools. There is an emphasis on uniformity in Korean schools. The curriculum is the same for all students and even music teachers are told precisely which songs they have to teach in each grade. There is generally no failing or advancing a grade, nor are there slow or fast groups within a given class. If students fall behind they must attend cram school classes to catch up.

The Korean public education structure is divided into three parts: 1) six years of primary school, for children between 6 and 12 years of age; 2) followed by three years of middle school, for youth between 12 and 15 years of age; and 3) then three years of high school, for teens between 15 and 18 years of age. In 1996 only about five percent of Korea's high schools were coeducational. The proportion of coeducational schools increased by almost ten percent in the years after that but many coeducational high schools were still divided along gender lines. Now schools and classrooms are much more mixed and coeducation is the norm. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

The Education Law of 1949 provided for a centralized system under the control of the Ministry of Education and made six-year elementary schools free and compulsory. After youths finish middle school they attend either general academic high school or vocational high school for the remaining three years. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Public and Private Schools in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “In curriculum and administration, at the primary and secondary levels, there is little difference between public and private educational institutions other than their founders. Admission to high schools in equalized areas is randomized. The public educational system has experienced a shortage of financial resources due to an increasing number of students. Limited government budgets have led to an increase in private schools and an increased reliance on private lessons or tutoring. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In 1994 the Presidential Commission on Education Reform (PCER 1994) suggested basic principles and guidelines for private school reforms. The PCER recognizes three categories: independent private schools, private schools with public financial support, and semipublic private schools under the jurisdiction of MOE. The governmental subsidy will be provided only to semipublic and subsidized private schools. Independent schools will enjoy more autonomy in their admission and tuition policies.

“Under the new "School Choice Program," students and parents play an active role in choosing schools when applying to middle and high schools. In 1997, PCER noted that, despite the vital role private schools have played in Korean education, they are disadvantaged compared to public schools. While recommending increased government support for private institutions, PCER also emphasized the need for their responsible, accountable, and transparent administration.

Problems with the South Korean Education System

While educators and politicians in the United States applaud the disciplined back-to-basic approach of Korean education, and credit it with creating one of the most literate and disciplined work forces in the world, the Korean themselves criticize it for being too rigid, discouraging diversity, stifling creativity, and generating too much stress. The Korean education system provides few opportunities for gifted or talented children or late bloomers and doesn't help students that fall behind. And despite the uniformity of Korean schools, inequalities do exist. Students from the poor families generally have a much slimmer chance of attending a university than students from rich families.

Suh Nam-Pyo wrote in The National: South Korea’s educational system is teacher-centric rather than learner-centric, tending to emphasise rote learning. Private tutoring teaches students advanced topics before they have learnt them in public schools so that they can become more competitive in gaining admission to leading universities. The Korean educational system needs to make students more creative by giving them more time for independent learning, by letting students find problems and solve them on their own, and by promoting the culture of raising questions in classrooms. [Source: Suh Nam-Pyo, The National, March 21, 2013]

The curriculum is devised by bureaucrats who respond to politics and education fashions rather what is best for students. According to Okhwa Lee, professor at Chungbuk National University, “Korea has a high graduation rate, but Koreans have a low passion for education.” Too many people view educational institutions as “convenience institutes” – like convenience stores. The government’s Korea 2030 Commission is examining how to make lifelong learning an integral aspect of Korea’s continuing dynamism. [Source: Asia Society]

James Rooney, a professor of international finance at Sogang University, told the Korea Times: “Korea's education system has not kept up with its economic progress and the needs of the labor force of today. It is still far too much perspiration and rote learning instead of inspiration and imaginative thinking. This is truly Korea's most serious problem and its greatest opportunity if it were to address it properly. Also, Korea's labor supply and employment market are no longer matched and balanced in the way that they were historically, where each cohort of high school and university graduates were quickly absorbed into the workforce by industries that were hungry to employ them gainfully. [Source: Korea Times, Kim Jae-kyoung April 4, 2018]

The emphasis on education has come with some high costs. Reeta Chakrabarti of the BBC wrote: The most common form of death for the under-40s is suicide. The government understands the pressure, and in 2008 a curfew of 10pm was imposed on hagwons in Seoul. The Education Minister Nam Soo Suh said the government was trying to redress the balance: "Korea has achieved miraculous growth within a short period of time. I think no other country has achieved such rapid growth within a half century as Korea. And naturally, due to that, we focused on and emphasised achievement within schools and in society, so that students and adults were under a lot of stress, and that led to high suicide rates. "We still have a long way to go but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier." [Source: Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC News, December 2, 2013]

Prof JuHo Lee, a former education minister, and now an academic at the KDI think-tank in Seoul, told the BBC intensive education may have been right while Korea was growing its economy, but now it's time for a new strategy. "Test scores may be important in the age of industrialisation, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities," says Prof Lee. South Korea's success is built on an extraordinary work ethic that has delivered rich economic rewards, but that's exacted a heavy price from its people and particularly its children. It's a price the country is now gradually starting to weigh up.

Curriculum in South Korean Schools

According to the Asia Society: The curriculum is prescribed by law, as are the criteria for the development of textbooks and instructional materials. There have been periodic curriculum revisions, most recently in March 2000, and the trend is definitely toward decentralization in determining, diversifying, and implementing the curriculum. The well-educated person — according to the curriculum and perhaps shedding further light on what is valued in Korean society — is healthy, independent, creative, and moral. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society]

The primary curriculum consists of nine principal subjects: moral education, Korean language, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, music, fine arts, and practical arts. English-language instruction now begins in the third grade. The major objectives, as stated in a 1996 background report by the Ministry of Education, are "to improve basic abilities, skills and attitudes; to develop language ability and civic morality needed to live in society; to increase the spirit of cooperation; to foster basic arithmetic skills and scientific observation skills; and to promote the understanding of healthy life and the harmonious development of body and mind.” The seventh annual curriculum, which began implementation in March 2000, kept these basic goals but updated many elements to reflect changes in Korean society.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “South Korea's educational plan sets forth several main purposes for elementary school. The first is literacy — the ability to read and write Korean. Others include scientific knowledge, arithmetic, social studies, physical education, acquisition of an appreciation for art and music, and the development of moral knowledge. "Moral knowledge" includes a sense of social responsibility, the ability to share and seek justice, practicing self-reliance, and respecting the country's laws and institutions. In middle school, students continue studying the same subjects and add a certain amount of vocational training, including knowledge of simple mechanics and home economics. They study their own Korean heritage but they also study world history and they begin English, which is the required second language for all Korean students. Their teachers watch them and evaluate their aptitudes and play a role in helping them decide whether or not to go on to high school. If they are among the majority of those who do continue, they are steered toward "general" or "vocational" high schools. They also take achievement tests that aid in identifying their aptitudes for the "general" (i.e., college-bound) or "vocational" tracks. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

There is an emphasis on science and technology. The curriculum is standardized for both boys and girls who both study the equivalents of home economics and shop.Young-Key Kim-Renaud, wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “To further democracy, Education Law 155 establishes the standard curriculum for each level up to high school and the criteria for textbooks and instructional materials. The national curriculum and regional guidelines allow schools to implement criteria and adopt textbooks according to their individual characteristics and objectives. MOE and the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) are responsible for developing the national curriculum at elementary, middle, and high school levels. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ Education Law 155 establishes the standard curriculum for each level up to high school. The national curriculum is subject to periodic revisions (seven times since 1945). The seventh national curriculum, devised in 1997, came into use in 2000. Some of the main objectives in the sixth and seventh national curricula are democratization and local autonomy to allow flexibility to meet individual needs and to enhance character, creativity, and diversity, while imparting basic knowledge. MOE and the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) are responsible for developing the national curriculum at elementary, middle, and high school levels.” [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Textbooks in South Korean Schools

Education Law 155 also establishes criteria for textbooks and instructional materials. Young-Key Kim-Renaud, wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ The national curriculum and regional guidelines allow schools to implement criteria and adopt textbooks according to their individual characteristics and objectives. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

▪“To correct what was viewed as monopolistic textbook standardization, MOE revised its textbook publication policy in 1995. Textbooks and teachers' manuals compiled within the new framework are classified into three types: Textbooks published by MOE, called Category One (iltchong ) Textbooks; those published by private publishers and authorized by MOE, called Category Two (ijong ) Textbooks; and those published by private publishers and recognized by MOE or superintendents as relevant and usable, called Category Three Textbooks.

“Individual schools have the freedom to choose textbooks in the second and the third categories to meet student needs. Total Category One and Two textbooks published for fall 1999 and spring 2000 amounted to 137,636 volumes in 2,439 titles. Of these, 75.1 percent were Category One textbooks (KEDI 2000). Because of its open-ended nature, the exact number of volumes is not available for Category Three.

On the Japanese colonial period, South Korean textbooks focus almost exclusively on the wartime Korean resistance to colonial rule or on cultural developments in literature, with the emphasis on the national struggle for liberation. [Source: Peter Duus, Yomiuri Shimbun]

Social Studies Curriculum in South Korea

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: “Social studies education begins in the first and second grades with a course combined with science and titled “Intelligent Life.” During their 34 weeks of schooling, first-grade students receive 120 hours, and second-grade students 136 hours, of this instruction. Third- and fourth-grade students receive 102 hours of social studies instruction and fifth- and sixth-graders are given 136 hours per year. At the middle school level, seventh-grade students have 102 hours, and eighth- and ninth-graders receive 136 hours of social studies instruction. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“In high school, first-year students take a program of required courses. By their second year, students can select from among three tracks: humanities and social studies, a natural science track, and a vocational track. However, this is likely to change. The social studies track includes courses in Korean history, politics, economics, society, and culture as well as world history, world geography, and social studies. Korea has a national curriculum developed and monitored by the Ministry of Education. It is revised every five to ten years; implementation of the seventh national curriculum began in 2000. This curriculum seeks to develop democratic citizens who have strong moral and civic convictions.

There are anti-communism, anti-North Korea and anti-Japanese elements to the social studies curriculum. Textbooks depict North Koreans with monstrous faces. One South Korean man told the New York Times, “In high school we were taught that North Koreans were all Communists and therefore very bad and dangerous people.”

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ Although not actually decreed by law, the Korean government tried to instill anti-communism into children's socialization as an important ideology. Policies of President Kim Dae-jung and his dramatic encounter with North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong-Il in 2000 considerably altered the South Korean stance on this issue” for a while. “The future of the Korean peninsula is, however, still too volatile for anyone to be overly enthusiastic or pessimistic about current political developments.” See Textbooks above

Humanity Education in South Korea

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: “There have been proposals to change the nature of the educational process — from focusing on preparation for college and entrance into schools that will ensure economic success and intellectual development, over the cultivation of attitudes and abilities needed to become responsible citizens. Toward this end a practice-based approach to humanity education has been implemented, with the goals of instilling values of etiquette, public order, and democratic citizenship through experiential activities. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“Elements of this curriculum are introduced throughout the school program. From kindergarten through third grade, the focus is on etiquette, the observing of social rules, and the development of a sense of community. Fourth through ninth grade emphasizes democratic citizenship, including rules, processes, and reasonable decision-making. At the high school level, attention is given to global citizenship, including understanding other cultures and peace education.

A 1995 government report on Korean education, titled “Korea’s Vision for the Twenty-First Century,” stated that the curriculum must encourage students “to be global citizens, which includes openness to diversity, broad perspectives, an understanding of the various traditions and cultures of other countries, and sensitivity to environmental issues and conflicts among regions and races. Accordingly, there should be greater emphasis on tolerant and open-minded attitudes toward diversity and differences.” The seventh curriculum builds on this document and fosters the development of character education as well as community service.

“More important than anti-communism have been the South Korean educational ideals of democracy and freedom. Korean students, especially at the college level, have felt that they were the ultimate and just arbiters of the corrupt government and adult society. Students have been an important part of the Korean political process toward the democratization of Korea.

Foreign Language Curriculum in South Korea

All students in South Korea study English beginning in primary school and continue through high school where additional foreign language classes are offered. More and more high school students are selecting Japanese and Chinese as their second foreign language , overshadowing French and German. According to the education office, 196 out of 222 high schools in Seoul have Japanese classes and 176 offer Chinese classes; 169 schools offered both while only 41 schools taught German and French. None taught Russian or Arabic. Spanish was only offered at two schools. [Source: Bae Ji Sook, Korea Herald, May 2014]

Currently high school students in South Korean study English as their first foreign language in their second and third years. On top of this they study a second foreign language “Students prefer Japanese and China because it is practical. They are easier to learn and are useful for their futures,” a high school teacher told Yonhap. “The two language have similar cultural background for Koreans, Also the geographical proximity among the three countries gives students hope that the languages will be useful for their future careers.”

According to the Asia Society: “The curriculum has undergone major revisions seven times” between 1954 and 2000, “to “reflect the newly rising demands for education, emerging needs of a changing society, and new frontiers of academic disciplines.” The update in the late 1990s, “known as the Seventh Curriculum, aims to prepare students for the knowledge-based, globalized 21st century. To that end, it emphasizes individuality, creativity, and knowledge of Korean culture as well as other cultures. Covering grades one through ten, students are allowed to choose their own courses in their final two years of high school.” [Source: Asia Society]

English in Public School

In the early 2000s, Korean children formally began learning English in the third grade in public school. It could be earlier now. Most of the instruction — book exercises, grammar lessons, call-and-response drills and multiple choice tests — is geared towards preparing students for their college entrance exams. This means that students graduate from high school after nine years of studying English without being able to speak it very well.

Efforts have been made to improve the level of English teaching in public schools so families don't have to spend so much money on private lessons and rich families don't have an advantage over students from less affluent families.

In the mid-1990s there was an effort to hire more native English speakers for “English Only” classes in the first year of middle school. The goal was for all secondary school students to have at least one hour of English a week with a native English speaker by 2004.

According to the Asia Society: English-language instruction begins in the third grade so that children can start learning English in a relaxed atmosphere through conversational exchange, rather than through rote learning of grammatical rules as is still the practice in many middle and high schools. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

English in Korea

Speaking English is a skill held in high esteem in Korea. A surprising number of Koreans speak the language and many speak it pretty well — certainly better than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. English is taught in schools, especially junior high and high school, and many businessmen, university students and housewives study it in their free time. Most train stations, tourist information offices and department stores employ someone who speaks English. Train signs and many road signs are in English as well as Korean. Children spend many years studying it in and out of school.

English-learning is a multi-billion-dollar industry of language tapes, books schools and tutoring in South Korea. Even though it is a mandatary subject in school, parents often spend the equivalent of hundred of dollars a month to send their kids to after school English classes at institutes called hagwans. There was a very big surge in English teaching in the 1990s. The number of foreigners teaching in Seoul increased from around 4,000 in 1995 to 7,000 in 1997, brought in partly to satisfied a demand for English teacher spawned by a national effort to "globalize." Back then the translation of Intel’s Pentium chip in Korean was “chip of death.”

South Korea, China, Thailand and Taiwan have all incorporated English into their primary school curriculum. English taught in school tends to focus on reading and writing rather than speaking and listening and students approach grammar as if it were a series of mathematical formulas. English education is part of the curriculum of the South Korean education system all the way to college. President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) made the teaching of the English language a core program of his administration.

According to the “Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language”: “English has had a considerable influence on the structure of the modern language. Over the last 40 years, English has generally been assigned as many school hours as Korean for students aged 12–18, and is in the main an analytical grammatical exercise that has affected the study and use of Korean, resulting in adjustments made to some Korean constructions so as to align them more closely with English: for example, greater use of the optional plural particle -tul. Although this is not a strict equivalent of the English plural inflection -s, many think that it is or should be. After the Korean War and partition, the need for English declined in North Korea but increased in the South, where it is the main foreign language. Almost all students have three years of it, and the 80 percent who attend high school have six years. There are many private English institutes, one for students preparing for college entrance examinations the other for people who want to speak the language.” [Source: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press 1998]

Importance of Learning English in South Korea

English is regarded as an important asset for getting ahead n life. Both Presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung declared that learning English was of matter of national concern. Kim Dae Jung lived for some time in the United States and befriended Michael Jackson. Many Koreans say they feel more sociable when they speak English. Subway posters show Korean men in traditional costumes and horsehair hats speaking to each other in English.

Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: “Educational experts say South Korea has been embracing English training with aggressiveness and creativity. South Korea ranked first last year in the number of students taking the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language. More than 86,000 South Korean students took the exam last year, eight times the number in France and almost three times the number in China.” [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, November 18, 2004. Joohee Cho contributed to this report]

“The number of elementary school children sent to study English abroad has increased more than 10-fold” between 1998 and 2003, “according to government statistics. South Korean housewives in their thirties and forties are registering in record numbers to learn English in adult education programs, mostly to teach their children proper English at home, officials said. "English is the universal language, and with limited Korean speakers outside Korea, being bilingual is clearly a top priority," said Lee Eui Kap, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation. "

Importance of English in South Korean Education

Kyna Rubin wrote in the International Educator: Korean families’ push for their children to learn English — and attend a school like Harvard — fits into a larger obsession with education. Despite a weak economy and skyrocketing household debt, Korean families spent US$20 billion on private education (half of government education spending), or 2 percent of Korea’s GDP, in 2012, according to data Min presented at a Harvard talk in October 2013. That makes education the nation’s largest spending area, outshining defense expenditures, which are second, he says. Of monthly family outlays for private education, the greatest portion, US$73, goes toward English classes (math is second, at US$68). [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator, March-April, 2014]

The English frenzy begins at an early age. In the 1990s Koreans grew concerned that the nation needed to bolster its English proficiency. Then President Kim Young-sam pressed the MOE to offer English to younger children, and to this day English is required and tested from third grade through graduate school. Korean parents’ response to the third-grade English launch, , was, “I have to start my kids earlier than other kids.”Sunshik Min, who runs a large company specializing in English-language education, says his business was the first in Korea to create an English-language kindergarten program in the early 1990s. That program uses U.S.-style teaching to prepare children for the more flexible thinking and learning they will encounter, and be expected to succeed at, years later in a Western college classroom.

Beating out even those who can afford private, Korea-based, English-taught kindergartens are so-called “goose families.” These are better off households that migrate, like geese, to the United States so their child can secure footing on a good college campus by getting an on-site U.S. K–12 education. Typically, mom accompanies the child for years while dad remains in Korea. Some 300,000 fathers are living alone while their wives and children reside abroad for pre-college education, according to a 2013 article in Korea’s Joongang Daily.

“Koreans’ English craze is tied to the nation’s dramatic economic transformation from a poor nation in the 1960s to an Asian tiger and the world’s sixth largest exporter — of memory chips, mobile phones, ships, and autos. Korea’s GDP is largely dependent on international trade, and English is the common tongue of global business. As a condition for assistance during the economic crisis of the late 1990s, the International Monetary Fund required that Korea open its education, banking, and other markets to foreign entities, says Min. Who did foreign companies want to hire in Korea? Bilingual employees, he says, sparking the practice among even local Korean firms of requiring applicants to submit their English scores from the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC. That exam is an ETS-developed gauge used first in Japan and now throughout Asia and elsewhere. Today Korean universities require high TOEFL scores to graduate. And an “English divide” determines monetary success, Min, who has a doctorate in business administration from Harvard, told International Educator . “If you speak English, your income is higher than if you don’t, and if your English is good, your starting salary is higher.”

Instructional Technology in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia” in the early 2000s: “Contemporary Koreans are firm believers in and users of technology. Korea is making various efforts to provide a national information infrastructure with a view to joining the ranks of the advanced information societies in the twenty-first century. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“According to the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC), the information technology (IT) industry has become a core sector of the national economy, accounting for 11.8 percent of GNP in 2000 and 12.8 percent in 2001. There were 15.34 million Internet users in South Korea as of July 2000, representing approximately one-third of the population. As of 2000, there was 1 computer per 13.7 students in elementary schools, 1 per 10.2 students in middle schools, 1 per 11.2 in general high schools, and 1 per 3.5 in vocational high schools (KEDI). The nation's progress in the adoption and use of information technology has been remarkable. By April 2001, every teacher had his or her own PC, and every elementary and secondary school in Korea was connected to a Local Area Network (LAN) and the Internet — the first such achievement in the world. According to NetValue, as of April 2001 more than half of South Korean Internet users enjoy broadband connections, ahead of any Western economy, while 10,700,000 house-holds — almost every household — had a computer. The number of Internet users rose explosively to 27 million, or more than 1 out of 2 Koreans as of April 2001, compared to 1.6 million in 1997.

“The MOE established a computer education development plan in 1988, which supported computer assisted instruction in schools and computerization of school administration. In the same year, the Educational Technology Research Center was established under the KEDI to conduct research in computer education and develop instructional computer software. MOE has provided computers to schools since 1989. Between 1989 and 1994, KEDI developed and distributed about 600 computer assisted programs to schools (OECD 34).

“To meet the demands of a high-tech industrial society in the 2000s, several policy measures have been adapted, which include recruiting bright students into science and technology via scholarships and other privileges. Faculty members are also encouraged to conduct joint research, promote internship programs, and conduct seminars. Scholarly exchanges with other technically advanced countries are encouraged. Resources have also become available for research facilities, and the government facilitates cooperation between schools and industry (MOE).

“In 1999, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) was established, combining the Korea Multimedia Education Center (est. 1997) and the Korea Research Information Center (est. 1996). KERIS has been developing high quality software and an electronic platform to support the research activities of teachers. It also operates the Cyber School for student self-instruction and a certification system for excellence in commercial educational software.

South Korea Opts for Digital Textbooks Rather Than Paper Ones

In the early 2010s, South Korea began an ambitious plan to replace traditional paper textbooks with tablets and other digital and online media and hardware. Sam Kim of Associated Press wrote in 2011: “South Korea is taking a US$2 billion gamble that its students are ready to ditch paper textbooks in favor of tablet PCs as part of a vast digital scholastic network. France, Singapore, Japan and others are racing to create classrooms where touch-screens provide instant access to millions of pieces of information. But South Korea believes it enjoys an advantage over these countries, with kids who are considered the world’s savviest navigators of the digital universe. A 2009 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-headquartered grouping of wealthy nations, found 15-year-olds in South Korea scored highest in their ability to absorb information from digital devices, beating runners-up New Zealand and Australia by a large margin. [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, July 20, 2011 ^^]

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, In 2007, South Korea mapped out a plan to transform its education system into the world’s most cutting-edge. The country would turn itself into a “knowledge powerhouse,” one government report declared, breeding students “equipped for the future.” These students would have little use for the bulky textbooks familiar to their parents. Their textbooks would be digital, accessible on any screen of their choosing. Their backpacks would be much lighter. By setting out to swap traditional textbooks for digital ones, the chief element of its plan for transformation, South Korea tried to anticipate the future — and its vision has largely taken shape with the global surge of tablets, smartphones and e-book readers. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

Kim wrote: More than 60 primary, middle and high schools are now using digital textbooks as part of their curriculum, according to the state-run Korea Education and Research Information Service, which provides technical support for the program. Seoul believes it can finish the US$2.1 billion program to build a single computer network packed with high-quality digital content by 2015. Replacing textbooks with tablet PCs will account for a quarter of that budget. ^^ Kim Doo-yeon, a South Korean official leading the project, said South Korea is one of the most wired places on earth. His country envisions a digital scholastic network for students to go beyond digital textbooks and national boundaries. “In the future, all our students will be connected to a single computer network that allows them to also learn from teachers in other countries,” Kim said. Loaded with video, animation, photos, voices, songs and Web documents created by experts and by teachers and students, digital textbooks allow students to enjoy a custom-made learning experience, Kim said. Kids who fall behind in a regular curriculum can start from levels they feel comfortable with. Young North Korean defectors struggling to adapt to South Korea could also benefit from having tablet PCs. More than 21,000 North Koreans, including children, have come to South Korea since the two countries’ 1950-53 war. Many choose to study in special schools to catch up before they attend regular ones.

“Those who study digital technology and education have been generally positive about introducing digital textbooks, but there have also been warnings that Internet addiction may deepen among South Korea’s teenagers. “What is essential in digital learning is to promote as much interaction between teachers and students as possible, rather than just leaving the students to themselves,” said Kwon Jung-eun, a senior researcher at the state-run National Information Society Agency.

Students Using Digital Textbooks in South Korea

Reporting from Goesan in rural South Korea, Sam Kim of Associated Press wrote: , July 20, 2011] — Outside the classroom a hot summer day beckons, but fourth-grade teacher Yeon Eun-jung’s students are glued to their tablet PCs as they watch an animated boy and a girl squabble about whether water becomes heavier when frozen. [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, July 20, 2011]

At Sosu Elementary School in Goesan, principal Jo Yong-deuk speaks of a future in which his students interact in virtual reality with Ludwig van Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln. In the classroom, the children scribble answers in their tablet PCs with touchscreen pens as they watch the video clip explaining the scientific properties of frozen water. “I liked this chapter, but my favorite clip is one where they show how flowers blossom and trees bear fruit in spring,” 11-year-old Jeong Ho-seok said with a wide grin.

Lee Sang-hyeob, a student at Sosu Elementary School, spends a lot of time at home playing online games and chatting with schoolmates. Another Sosu student, Jang Woo-dam, often surfs her school’s website to see messages from friends. Enchanted with games, Jeong Yu-jin, 16, has been teaching himself programming since he was a child and is now developing a game that warns of the consequences of global warming as a player clears stages filled with challenges like angry polar bears and crumbling glaciers. “Technology is a way for me to turn my imagination into a reality,” said the student at Korea Digital Media High School, one of many technology-oriented schools that have proliferated as electronics giants like Samsung have thrived.

“The 2009 OECD study says there’s a positive relationship between students’ use of computers at home for leisure and their digital navigation skills. “Proficient digital readers tend to know how to navigate effectively and efficiently,” the study said. The study said students who read online more frequently also read a greater variety of print material and report higher enjoyment of reading itself.

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “At Seoul’s Guil Elementary School, where fifth- and sixth-graders participate in the trial, every student in the digital classrooms has a Hewlett-Packard laptop. Students toggle between their digital textbook and the Internet, which they use like an encyclopedia for fact-checking and research. On this particular day, students are learning about pinhole cameras — a simple device that captures images upside-down. When teacher Lee Yeon-ji asks her 24 students how the device works, she sends them to the Internet. “I think I found something that sounds true,” one student says. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

“Minutes later, she asks them to double-click on a video, embedded in the digital textbook, illustrating the process. Students watch the video either on their laptops or on a high-definition monitor at the front of the classroom, in place of a chalkboard. The Guil principal, observing in the back of the classroom, marvels at the way the students follow along, speeding between searches and simulations. “The students are focusing,” Yoon Taek-joong, the principal, says, and that sort of focus requires a digital brain. “My brains and their brains must be totally different,” Yoon says.

Digital Textbook Revolution Does Appeal to Everyone in South Korea

About a year after the digital textbook initiative was rolled out, Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post,: “Education leaders here worry that digital devices are too pervasive and that this young generation of tablet-carrying, smartphone-obsessed students might benefit from less exposure to gadgets, not more. Those concerns have caused South Korea to pin back the ambition of the project, which is in a trial stage at about 50 schools. Now, the full rollout won’t be a revolution: Classes will use digital textbooks alongside paper textbooks, not instead of them. First- and second-graders, government officials say, probably won’t use the gadgets at all. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

“The newest thinking, in the eyes of some education experts here, calls into question South Korea’s long-held tenet that technology automatically brings progress. The JoongAng Ilbo, one of Seoul’s major daily newspapers, warned in an editorial about the country’s “exaggerated trust” in digital education and the wrongful assumption that wireless education means better quality. “The concern about the digital textbook,” said Kwon Cha-mi, who runs the digital program at one of the pilot elementary schools in Seoul, “is that young students won’t have as much time to experience real life and real things. They’ll just see the whole world through a computer screen.”

“At first glance, some of the trepidation sounds like the typical concerns of an older generation that doesn’t understand the new. But South Korean students are showing the downside of uber-stimulation. About one in 12 students between ages 5 and 9, according to a government survey, is addicted to the Internet, meaning they become anxious or depressed if they go without access. Some experts suggest a similar problem in the United States, where between 8?percent and 12 percent of children show signs of Internet addiction, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Education officials here fear that if tablets and laptops become mandatory in the classroom, students could become even more device-dependent. They might also suffer from vision problems. Some parents, officials say, have expressed the concern that their kids will struggle to keep their focus on studying when using an Internet-connected device. Before making a complete transition to digital books, the government should study the “health effects” on students, said Jeong Kwang-hoon, chief of the online learning division at the Korea Education and Research Information Service, a government-sponsored institute that is working with private companies to create digital textbooks.

“From surveys of the pilot schools, government officials here say digital textbooks help the attitude of students. But there’s no evidence that they help or hurt grades or retention. Digital textbooks do, though, change the very nature of the classroom. Teachers who embrace the digital textbooks, education experts say, become more like “companions” in the education process, not just lecturing, but also helping students to conduct their own Google searches and to make sense of simulations featured in the e-textbooks.”

Scaling Back South Korea’s Digital Textbook Revolution

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “South Korea’s education ministry never said explicitly that paper textbooks would disappear. But the 2007 plan spoke in sweeping terms about “overcoming the limit” of traditional learning, so education experts here assumed as much. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

Only last summer did the government unveil the specifics. South Korea said it would introduce the first set of e-textbooks nationwide by 2015 at the latest. The content would be accessible on any device — on tablets or laptops, in classrooms or at home, on Apples or Samsungs, the homegrown electronics company whose rise corresponds with Korea’s economic emergence. But the plan was scaled back, too, with officials saying paper textbooks still need a prime place in classrooms. “There have been some changes in ambition,” said Ra Eun-jong, the deputy director of textbook planning at the education ministry. “In some way, paper and digital textbooks will be used together. But we still haven’t figured out the best mix. .?.?. It might just depend on the teacher’s personal style.”

Students in classes using digital textbooks — at the beginning, they might be used only for a few subjects, such as science and social studies — will be able to retrieve their homework from a “cloud” computing network, the education ministry says. Conceivably, they will be able to access their homework in any place with Internet service or cellphone service; they could even finish up their assignments on their smartphones while riding Seoul’s subway, where the service network reaches underground.

Company Involved with Digital Textbook in South Korea

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “ At least 10 South Korean publishing companies are building digital textbooks. The crudest versions are much like copied pages of a traditional textbook; the pages are digital, but you can’t play around with them. The more advanced versions, though, are packed with 3-D animation and video clips. There’s also the possibility that the textbooks can be updated in real-time — although textbooks here are government-approved, and any changes would require a bureaucratic review. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 24, 2012]

“Most of these publishing companies have their background in traditional textbooks, and for the moment, their developers find themselves torn between an old model and a new one. Despite higher upfront development costs, e-textbooks, stripped of the costly printing process, are typically cheaper than traditional ones. South Korea’s government has always insisted on affordable textbooks, unlike in the United States, where the market is more lucrative (South Korea’s paperbound textbooks cost about US$9). But the fear among publishers is that the move to e-textbooks will cause the entire industry to shrink. “For now, one publishing executive says, companies are developing e-textbooks only because the shift is inevitable.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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