Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Building on the successes of its fast-developing ICT sector, Korea is using digital technology to stimulate a creative approach to learning that gives students access to education materials wherever and whenever they want.

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Using ICT to make a successful education system even better

Over the past half-century, Korea has transformed from a developing nation into a leading industrial economy, thanks largely to its success in raising educational standards. In Korea's highly competitive society, families place high value on education and students show strong commitment to learning. A dynamic private sector complements public schooling with rapid responses to students' individual needs.

Government policies support education with above-average spending. After making elementary education mandatory in the 1950s, the Korean government took steps to widen educational opportunities for middle and high school students during the 1960s and 1970s, thus ensuring that more students could benefit from quality public education. In the 1990s, Korean authorities were quick to recognize the potential of ICT in education, launching a master plan to develop ICT infrastructure with one PC per teacher and Internet access in all classrooms. Subsequent strategies have set out to enhance education quality by providing open access to content and by training teachers to integrate ICT into classroom teaching.

A major objective of successive administrations has been to reduce inequalities in access to education, and ICT is seen as key to achieving that goal. In 2005, complementing services provided nationwide by Korea's Educational Broadcasting System, the government launched a Cyber Home Learning System that gives students home access to digital tutoring. In 2011, building on pilot projects launched in 2007, it announced a $2.4 billion strategy to digitize the nation's entire school curriculum by 2015.

At the core of this ambitious project, dubbed 'Smart Education', is the implementation of 'digital textbooks' -- interactive versions of traditional textbooks that can be constantly updated in real time. Digital textbooks contain a combination of textbooks, reference books, workbooks, dictionaries and multimedia content such as video clips, animations, and virtual-reality programmes that can be tailored to students' abilities and interests. Students can underline sections, take notes, reorganise pages and create hyperlinks to online material.

Taking advantage of Korea's strong digital sector, the project will involve the installation of wireless networks in all schools and the creation of a digitized education system that will run on a range of equipment including PCs, laptops, tablet PCs and smart TVs. Policy makers say it is designed to respond to 21st century education challenges by moving from uniform and standardized education to diversified, creativity-based learning.

Korean students already have extensive familiarity with digital devices for social and recreational purposes, and their aptitude for handling digital material was demonstrated by their top-ranking performance in the PISA 2009 digital reading test. By making access to new learning modes available to all, 'Smart Education' will help to bridge the education divide between families who can afford to pay for private tutoring and those that can't. Pilot tests are said to have shown measurable improvements in the performance of students from less well-off families and students in remote areas.

There are still some areas of uncertainty. Some school administrators express concerns about the cost of installing equipment and the need for additional teacher training. Teachers worry about students' ability to concentrate if smart phones and other digital devices are used in class. Parents express concerns about the effects on students' health of studying materials on a screen for long periods of time.

But education authorities say they are keeping a close watch on the project in its pilot phase and no adverse effects have yet been identified. Students' use of ICT devices for social and recreational purposes helps them to develop reactivity and response capabilities useful in academic contexts as well. To mitigate possible equity issues, the government has promised subsidies for equipment purchases for families that are less well-off.