By Charleen Chiong (@CNCharleen), University of Cambridge
The tides are turning in classrooms in South Korea. In the 1960s, a wave of industrialization swept the young republic, causing rapid economic and educational growth. The roots of Confucian philosophy remain: the community places a high premium on education, and the system is rigid and hierarchical, known for its high-stakes examinations and infamous hagwon (cram schools), as well as its high PISA ranking and students’ extraordinarily strong work ethic. Incidentally, South Korea is also known for its low ranking of student interest in subjects and high youth suicide rate. Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family reported that suicide was the biggest cause of death among people aged 15-24 in 2011. Career and academic performance concerns were reportedly the most common reasons youths commit suicide.
However, there is evidence that South Korea is remodeling their system to begin seeking students’ holistic development. The Ministry of Education has emphasized that their primary goal is to work with stakeholders to provide education aimed at “happiness” and “[nurturing] dreams and talents.” The future of learning, as portrayed by the Ministry of Education, is one of creativity, collaboration and celebration of individual talent.
The integration of technology in classrooms is a harbinger of this emerging utopia. KERIS (the government’s main education research institute) has devoted the largest portion of its budget to modernizing classroom facilities and maintaining infrastructure to support technology in schools. In 2007, South Korea commenced its comprehensive ‘Smart Education’ project to integrate technology in education. Careful government planning and sufficient investment in infrastructure and teacher training (teacher training in ICT-competency began as early as 1988) has led to 82.3% of schools in South Korea now using e-learning systems to teach official curricula in 2011.
The introduction of technology can potentially disrupt power relations seen as extremely hierarchical and rigid, in South Korea’s education system.
Properly delivered, integrating technology in pedagogy personalizes education and so encourages students to take charge of their own learning. The E-University initiative, for instance, allows students to take college-level courses so they can sample courses, pursue their own interests and deepen their understanding beyond class textbooks. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education plans to increase online classes from 2013, via the Educational Broadcasting Services on the Internet (EBSi). This potentially supplements classroom learning by allowing students to learn English and other foreign languages and attend college entrance examination preparation and job training classes at their own pace. It is also particularly beneficial for the disabled and those who cannot attend school due to illness. Such measures also help to reduce the cost of supplementary educational resources.
An even more ambitious measure is of the Ministry of Education’s efforts to digitize textbooks for all primary students by 2014 and for all middle and high school students by 2015. While it is still too early to observe progress in academic results, the link between digitizing textbooks and improved student motivation has been established, particularly for rural, low-achieving students. Some of these digital textbooks are customized for the mentally disadvantaged.
Power relations are thus made more egalitarian when technology is used to personalize education and help those at the margins. As long as the government persists in championing and providing infrastructure, equipment and access for all students, digital textbooks possess significant potential to narrow equity gaps and lessen the prevalence of hierarchy in Korean school culture.
Taking advantage of its robust technological infrastructure, the South Korean government launched EDUNET, an online educational information service. Used by over 6.1 of 7.7 million students in South Korea, EDUNET contains a vast amount of images and videos, arranged by curriculum topic. KERIS has also launched a cyber home-learning system. This system promotes self-directed learning by encouraging students to study at home rather than at cram schools. These initiatives allow students to learn in more creative, engaging ways, although the initiative’s continued success is dependent on the continued training of teachers to teach in new ways.
Even with teacher training in place, whether initiatives such as E-University and EDUNET can foster creative and critical thinking is, thus far, significantly hindered by a rigorous university admissions system. While the current system is gradually being revamped by broadening admissions criteria beyond the high-stakes KSAT (Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test) score, performance pressure remains the most significant obstacle to policymakers’ efforts to encourage creativity and reduce stress-related self-harm.
Public policies should therefore tackle the problem of high-stakes testing to achieve the Ministry of Education’s overall purpose for education. Any manmade hierarchy, if it must exist, should exist for the interests of those it governs – even if this entails negotiations and reductions of its own power. In light of student mental health statistics, the end of industrialization and the start of the age of the global knowledge economy that prizes creativity over rote-learning, it is well worth considering more seriously how to derisk the hierarchical South Korean education system.
Policy Challenges that Persist
Other countries may learn from South Korea’s energy, optimism and drive in creating a system that prepares students for the 21st century, while practicing caution in expectation—as South Korea is unique in its robust infrastructure and investment in integrating technology in education. These elements have formed the crucial backdrop to the success of the large-scale initiatives the Ministry of Education has attempted over the years.
Still, the weight of history and habit rests heavy on the nation’s educational reform. It seems South Korea’s strategy to break free from deadening habit into the vibrant, collaborative and creative educational space policymakers envision is to integrate technology in bigger, bolder ways than ever before. But, whilst this represents a positive step forward, reform success is constrained insofar as high-stakes testing retains its dominance in schools. This is because it ultimately is not only bold imaginations of the future, but also a clear understanding of the shackles of our past and present, that most effectively guide tomorrow’s reforms.
About the Author
Charleen Chiong is a PhD student at University of Cambridge. She is researching the acquisition of 21st-century skills for children of disadvantaged backgrounds.
PISA, or the Programme for International Student Assessment, is a triennial international assessment for 15-year-olds in Reading, Math and Science, led by the Paris-based Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the most recent 2012 assessment, South Korea placed 5th in the world for Reading and Mathematics.
 In further tests by OECD, South Korea placed below average (even below high-performing Asian counterparts such as Shanghai and Taiwan) for student interest in subjects, tested by students rating statements such as: “I am interested in the things I learn”.