In South Korean classrooms, digital textbook revolution meets some resistance
Ahn Young-joon/AP - Teacher Yeon Eun-jung, right, helps student Jeong Ho-seok study on a tablet PC during a lesson at Sosu Elementary School in Gwesan, South Korea in July. The country is now scaling back a plan to digitize classrooms by 2015.By Chico Harlan, Published: March 24The Washington Post
SEOUL — Five years ago, 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.
Of the 10 cities in the world with the fastest internet connections, the top five are in South Korea. The top two cities, Taegu and Taejon, averaged speeds above 20 Mbps, fast enough to download high-definition video with ease. Across the world, internet speeds are rising, averaging 2.7 Mbps at last count.
But South Korea, among the world’s most wired nations, has also seen its plan to digitize elementary, middle and high school classrooms by 2015 collide with a trend it didn’t anticipate: 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.
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.
Other countries are watching closely, because no other nation, according to government officials here, has a similarly ambitious digital plan. The nearest comparison might be in Florida, where officials last year proposed phasing out traditional textbooks by 2015
But 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.
“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