South Korean Schools Go Paperless. Can Others Follow?

| July 7, 2011 | 1 Comment
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South Korea’s Education Ministry announced last week that it plans to replace all printed textbooks with digital versions in the next four years. It’s part of a larger effort to integrate technology into all aspects of the South Korean education system, including moving all nationwide academic exams online and offering more online classes.

The Education Ministry says that it plans to have elementary-level content digitized by 2014, with high school level content ready by 2015.

But making textbooks available in an electronic format isn’t a simple undertaking. Nor is it as easy as just offering digital versions of existing books. All of the supplementary material that often accompanies textbooks — handouts, quizzes, study guides, and so on — must also be digitized. A move to e-textbooks opens opportunities for new kinds of content as well, with more multimedia and interactivity available.

But there are also new challenges: how will this material be stored? Which format will it be offered? Will it be accessible to all students? What infrastructure needs to be in place — for schools, for teachers, and for students — to make sure that print textbooks really can be replaced?

According to Chosunilbo, the government wants to build a cloud-based computing system for all schools that will store a massive database of all digital textbooks. It also plans to help boost the WiFi infrastructure there, so that students and teachers can all access and download the materials. Furthermore the government says it will give tablets to low-income students.

“We don’t expect the shift to digital textbooks to be difficult as students today are very accustomed to the digital environment,”said an Education Ministry official in the Chosunilbo article.

As we covered on MindShift earlier this year, South Korea has been on the cutting edge with adoption of a number of educational technologies and is experimenting with telepresence and robot instructors. As e-schoolnews points out, students in South Korea have scored higher than those in any other country on the Digital Reading Assessment exam — part of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. The Digital Reading Assessment exam measures students’ ability to use and critically evaluate Web-based sources.

The commitment on the part of South Korea to go digital with its textbooks is part of a growing trend. The State of Florida, for example, has also expressed its interest in moving to a paperless classroom, and California is moving in that direction, as are other states. The South Korean plan will involve some W2.2 trillion (approximately $2.1 billion) of investment — a hefty price tag for a school system that is already more “wired” than many U.S. classrooms. That begs the question, of course, as to the realities of which education systems will be able to follow the South Korean initiative.

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