Thoughts on education and digital learning in Korea
For the past 11 months I’ve been working as an English teacher at Hosan Elementary School in Gangwon-do, in the Republic of Korea. With the end of my time here firmly in sight, I’ve started to reflect about my feeling towards the Korean educational system.
The Korean educational system has been in the news as of late due to President Barack Obama statement that America should model it’s educational system after Korea’s. And while I’ve only seen one aspect of the Korean educational system, I feel it far from a model for 21st century education. From what I’ve seen of the system, it does very little to instill students with the kinds of digital literacy skills they will need to thrive in our contemporary society.
Korea is renowned as a technological leader. As a nation it has the faster, most accessible broadband access. It has more bloggers per capita than any other nation. In rates of smart phone adoption, Korea ranks highly.
Recently the Korean government announced plan to use digital textbooks in every classroom by the year 2015. However in March the government announced that they would be reviewing this program, slowing the adoption of digital textbooks. Following an editorial in the national newspaper JoongAng Ilbo cautioning against the country’s “exaggerated trust” digital education, public opinion began to shift, leading to the government slowing down the adoption of digital textbooks. Recent surveys have found that 1 out of 12 Korean children between the ages of 5 and 9 are addicted to the internet. A growing number of Koreans are concerned with the role the internet and digital technologies play in Korean society.
While Korean government and its citizens are worried that schools rely too heavily on digital education, I feel that the country’s educational system does too little to equip students with digital literacy skills. From my experience in the Korean educational system, not enough people ask three simple question – why, what, and how?
These three questions should be asked by anyone wanting to introduce digital learning into a curriculum. Why do I want to use digital learning? What will my students gain from digital learning? How will I engage them in digital learning?
From my experience these questions aren’t asked often enough. All too often digital and physical resources are identical in content and presentation with the only difference between them being the form they take.
Let me refer to a few specific examples. Beth’s (my partner) school recently won a government sponsorship designating it a ‘smart school.’ This means that it received government funds to buy each of its students in grades 4-6 a tablet computer (the school decided to buy iPads). While the teachers have received extensive training on how to use the iPads in their classrooms, no one at the school really has an ideal of how or why to use the devices. For the time being, the iPads are little more than expensive, easy to break textbooks.
There seems to be the belief that the mere presence of iPads in the classroom will somehow improve the students’ education. What they seem to be forgetting is that technology by itself does not solve problems, it’s how we use technology that solves problems.
My school is not a smart school. The main building has a reasonably large computer lab and my English Zone (a separate building from the main school) has 7 computers (three for teachers and four for students). Like the iPads at Beth’s school, little thought was put into the integration of these computers in the classroom.
Four computers is a strange number. My smallest class is 11 students – even with 2 students to a computer that’s too few computers. I’ve gotten the impression that the computers are there because there’s not enough space for them in the main school. When I first tried to use the computers I discovered that they weren’t connected. None of them had power and none of the monitors were connected to power. After I set up one test computer I found that it required a password that I did not have. It took five months of constant reminders before the office remembered to give me the passwords for those computers. It appears that I’m the first English teacher to attempt to integrate these computers in my lessons.
Since these two examples could be isolated incidents, how does the national curriculum attempt to engage students in digital learning? In my experience, not especially well.
Each week I teach 23 classes, 12 of which are taught from textbooks approved by the national English curriculum. As a part of this curriculum, each student receives a textbook and a companion CD. The textbook attempts to integrate digital learning by including an appendix with a number of URL’s for further study. Some of these URL’s link to English games, others link to sites that expand upon topics covered in the main text.
This appendix feels like an afterthought. How many students are going to take the time to look up these extra links? With most of my students going to school and to private after school tutoring I doubt many students will choose to extra homework in their limited free time.
The CD that comes with the textbook isn’t any better. It includes simple games that teachers often assign as homework. Most of these games involve matching pictures and English words. Given that most of my students play video games like Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Starcraft, I doubt they find these simplistic games entertaining or engaging.
From my experience, digital learning in the Korean elementary school curriculum seem perfunctory. Not enough thought is put into how to transform education through the inclusion of digital learning. Applying new technology to old teaching methods won’t produce new results. Digital and physical textbooks with the same content are not functionally different in the minds of students.
Creating a new educational paradigm is extremely difficult, so I understand why my school is slow to apply digital learning to new ways. Each week I have two, hour-long classes that I have total creative freedom over. In these classes I’ve been attempting to engage my students in digital learning in new ways.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience. More often than not, things which I find engaging aren’t engaging at all for my students.
In a post called “Digital natives and digital immigrants – or why I’m an uncool adult,” I wrote about a failed class I taught use Google Maps and Google Street View. I thought that since I’m amazed by these resources my students would be equally amazed. I failed to realize that since my students have never known a world without Google Maps and Street View, this technology is completely mundane to them. They were bored by the lesson. I failed to engage them.
Despite my occasional failure, I’ve had a number of successes. I taught a successful summer camp called “Digital Adventure 2012″ that engaged students in digital learning and digital literacy. In this camp we worked to build a Wikipedia page for the school, shoot and edited stop-motion videos and uploaded them to the web, created lol cats and shared them on the web, and learned how to use Google for research. I’ve blogged about the camp and the posts can be found here, here, here, and here.
Lately I’ve been working on a new project with my students. We’re working on a student-made online timeline of the history of the video game Starcraft. We’re using Facebook’s new timeline feature to build it. The project can be found by searching for The History of Starcraft on Facebook. The timeline is a work in progress, but its goal to to teach students about digital history, online research, and social networks.
Even though I only have one more month on my contract, I hope to continue working on new digital learning projects until the very end. More than anything I hope that I’ve instilled my students with a curiosity about digital learning that will lead them to new and interesting places throughout their lives. I’ve seen my job as being about more than teaching my students English, I want to prepare them to be citizens in an online, global culture.
How do you feel about the state of digital learning in your own country? If you have any ideas for new ways for me to engage my students in digital learning I’d love to hear them. Please leave me a comment with your feedback.