Parents, Not Tech, Fuel South Korea's Education Success

South Korea embraces technology but it’s a myth to say it’s predominant and these are early days for e-education

South Korea embraces technology but it’s a myth to say it’s predominant and these are early days for e-education

South Korea is continually held up as an example of a ‘hi-tech’ nation. OECD data, for instance, shows that in 2011, 97.2% of households in the country had access to the internet, compared to 82.7% in the UK and 73.2% in the EU and 71.1% in the US (2010 figure only).

South Korea’s government is using this high level of internet penetration and the country’s technology knowledge to drive forward an ambitious plan to digitise its state education system. Termed ‘Smart Education’, the project includes initiatives such as digital textbooks in all classrooms by 2015, and ‘ubiquitous-learning’ classrooms (in essence, cyber-classrooms that students can access wherever and whenever they want). Digital textbooks are meant to make learning more interactive, immediate and accurate – as they can be instantly updated – consigning print media effectively to the dustbin, and giving students their entire curriculum on a laptop or tablet.

This high-profile union of education and technology in South Korea shouldn’t take anyone by surprise: the nation has one of the most competitive and successful education systems in the world. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which carries out a study every three years on 15-year-olds’ ability in English, Maths and Science from over 70 countries worldwide, found, in its most recent assessment in 2009, that South Korea was in the top three performing countries along with Finland and Shanghai-China.

Relative to other education systems worldwide, there’s no doubt South Korea has the technological prowess to streamline learning for its student population. But it is still early days for this partnership, with many obstacles (not least, the financial outlay required to provide a low-cost and reliable device for every student in the country) still to be overcome. Undeniably, the work of KERIS (Korean Education and Research Information Service), among other government agencies, is paving the way for a rollout of these learning gadgets and truly virtual learning. This will hopefully help children from poorer families to access a similar quality of teaching as their more affluent counterparts, who benefit from the private tutors that supplement school and college provision in the country.

However, ubiquitous learning is still just a term, not reality. Lee Farrand, a research scientist in Seoul who has been both a teacher and post-grad student in Korea, and who recently completed his PhD, says, “I graduated a couple of months ago, but really there wasn’t anyone who brought a laptop to classes. Korea is wired, but it’s not all tech-overload as you might imagine.’

While the government has hi-tech aspirations to revolutionise the classroom and widen the options for young people’s learning, it’s also important to acknowledge the cultural and social foundations for this education success – and it’s not down to whizzy gadgets or ‘tech-overload’. Parental involvement in their children’s academic progress in South Korea is arguably the single most important factor in advancing learning in the country. Private tutoring facilities (‘hagwons’) remain wildly popular, and the desire and expectation to achieve academically remains incredibly high.

Because of its global reputation as a leader in technology, there is a temptation to pigeonhole South Korea as a futuristic, state-of-the-art society where everything – and everyone – is wired into technology in all aspects of life, from education to employment and entertainment. ‘Digital dementia’ in young people in the country has recently been highlighted, for example. People affected were unable to carry out simple offline tasks because they spend so much time on screens – something the Korean government may want to think about before switching completely over to e-learning devices.

However, Farrand (who grew up in Australia and returned to Korea to complete his studies) paints a different picture of how much technology is impacting on people’s lives. “I don't think Korea is leaps and bounds ahead of most other developed nations,” he says. “There're a few things here and there that you notice, but most of the hype seems to be based on outside perspectives. People use their phones a lot to browse the internet on the subway and while sitting in coffee shops but apart from that, it's just like Australia. People don't worship technology. There are lots of dazzling billboards and most people know how to use a phone but, apart from that, it's just like any other place.”

And, in a salutary lesson to all those who insist on living in the virtual world, he says, “There are all sorts of government acronyms sponsoring things, but you never really notice it make a difference in daily life. Yes, we have fast internet and high ownership of mobile phones, but it hasn't really changed society much more than the big cities of Japan, China, the US and the developed world in general … I never really think about it much except for the articles that get written about this place from outside.”


Soraya Moeng is a London-based journalist and editor with over 15 years' experience across a wide range of sectors. Formerly deputy editor of Financial World, she has also worked as a radio journalist, charity editor and copywriter for a number of blue chips. Follow Soraya on Twitter @moeng_s