Media, Politics

South Korean textbooks to go fully digital by 2015

By Sipho Hlongwane 27 July 2011

Quick question: Between South Africa and South Korea, which country is dead serious about education? The one with the ruling party that has education as one of its top-five priorities? Baaap! Wrong answer. It’s the country about to invest billions in digitising its school education tools. By 2015, you won’t find a single paper textbook in use in a South Korean school. It’ll all be tablets, PCs and e-books. The future is already here, and it’s in a small Asian country. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

By 2015, every school in South Korea will be using digital textbooks. That’s the R14 billion plan of the South Korean ministry of education, science and technology.

The Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean daily, said the plan was to phase in the digital textbooks gradually, and eventually migrate all textbooks for all subjects onto a cloud computing system, using multiple servers linked via a digital network and used as one computer.

The paper said, “The digital textbooks will contain ordinary textbooks and various reference resources such as multimedia and FAQs to help students understand the material better. The government also wants to build a cloud computing system in all schools, so that users can access a database of all digital textbooks and choose what they want from their tablet PCs.

“This will require a massive server where all digital textbooks will be deposited to be set up at the Korea education and research information service as well as wifi networks in schools. The ministry plans to provide free tablet PCs for students from low-income families,” the South Korean daily said.

Replacing textbooks in schools with tablet PCs represents about a quarter of the ministry’s budget for the programme.

Once the schoolrooms become digitised, the educational possibilities are endless. There is talk of uploading entire lessons onto the cloud to enable students that can’t attend lessons to catch up. One school principal interviewed by The Washington Post dreamt of including interactive features into school lessons. “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,” the Post said. “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.”

South Korea isn’t the first country to try digitising the classroom. France, Japan and Singapore have all tried pilot programmes. South Korean education officials were enormously confident they would soon catch up to the frontrunners. A study conducted in 2009 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that South Korean students were the best in the world by an enormous margin at absorbing information from digital devices.

The study also found students who read online more frequently also read a greater variety of print material and report higher enjoyment of reading itself. South Korea enjoys a literacy level of 98.3%.

Let us take a moment to review the state of South Africa’s education. A recently released annual national assessments study by the department of basic education shows that South Africa is failing its students at the most basic level. According to the study, the national average performance in grade 3 for literacy was 35% and 28% for numeracy. Keep in mind that education receives 21% of non-interest allocations and receives the largest share of the additional allocations in the national budget. The total educational spend in 2012 is projected to be R190 billion. When you’ve stopped trying to wrap your head around that, consider what the output is for all the billions thrown at this problem: the matric pass rate hovers around the 60% mark, while only 23% get to go on to study at tertiary institutions.

According to basic education minister Angie Motshekga, the target for the department was a 60% rate in mathematics and literacy by 2014.

For South Africa to try the same trick – digitising every classroom – would cost a lot more. South Korea has about 7,760,220 students in all schools, compared to our 12,142,857 just in public schools. Plus there’s the question of how much the department of basic education spends on textbooks every year (information that was impossible to extract from the barrage of DoBE staff and the avalanche of PDF documents put on the department’s website – if you can find the statistic, we’d be very interested to know) and whether or not the department is seeing any windfall from this industry.

To be fair, South Korea has had a huge head-start to South Africa in terms of developing education programmes. And this new tablet PC programme means they will roar even further ahead of us while we seem to be doing our damndest to keep us in the Third World tier. But it doesn’t mean South Africa can’t take some lessons from South Korea.

The most important one is that South Korea is fanatical about its education. We may have it as a Polokwane resolution, for them it’s the overriding concern for children. Education isn’t a political football – it’s a holy grail. And they recognise that education goes hand in hand with development (see how they group education, science and technology under the same ministry?). Consequently, every school has the necessary infrastructure, like high speed broadband Internet and now, tablet PCs, to sufficiently educate its children to face the challenges of the 21st century

More than 80% of South Koreans have access to broadband Internet, and they also enjoy the highest connection speeds in the world. South Africa’s looser density and relative lack of wealth doesn’t help, but our government could start by not arsing about with our telecommunications infrastructure as well as our public education.

South Africa already has a good mobile network. There are an estimated 42,300,000 cellular phones in the country. At an estimated 27 million users (spread out across Africa) Mxit is the largest social network on the continent.

It’s not like we don’t have the tools to use technology innovatively for education. What is it that we lack, then? Is “political will” the phrase that we’re looking for yet again? DM

Read more:

  • Schools face transition to digital textbooks in the Chosun Ilbo;
  • South Korea moves to replace paper with digital textbooks for its tech-savvy students in The Washington Post;
  • South Korea dumps textbooks for tablets in PC Mag.

Photo: High school students, who are North Korean defectors, smile as they take part in a Korean language class at the Hangyeore middle and high school in Anseong, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul, November 21, 2008. Picture taken November 21, 2008. To match feature KOREA-DEFECTORS/SCHOOL REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak


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