Friday, June 19, 2020


Korea is a country with few natural resources.  The "Miracle on the Han", the model of transformation of an impoverished nation to a global industrial powerhouse, is the product of skilled human resources.  Let's take a quick look on how Korea developed this all-important resource.


Korean Education


Enthusiasm for educations is embedded in the Korean DNA. Education has been the key to social advancement for centuries.  Successful scholars earned access to coveted royal appointments bringing success and resources to the scholar and his family.  While learning was involved, the key value was social access.


In the modern era, education remains an important key to success.  Free, universal education through middle school is a right enshrined in the constitution.  In 2018, the vast majority of the population (88%) graduated from high-school and 49% graduated at an university, technical college or some other form of post-secondary professional training.


Given that education is the key to success, it has always been highly competitive.  Students are assigned to schools based on their residence.  Parents often move (or falsify their residential address) to districts that offer the best education. The ‘Eight Gangnam School District’ is the most popular as it is believed to be the ticket to better education. (The district is a wealthy district and the reputation for good education is further driving up housing prices in the district).


The importance of education has stimulated an entire industry of 'after-school' study (sometimes referred to as 'cram schools'). Lines of cars can be seen standing outside of popular academies as parents wait for their children ready to rush them to their next scheduled study session. In 2019, the market size of private education for elementary, middle and high school students was calculated to be around KRW 21 trillion (US$ 1.8 billion) with 74.8% of all students attending at least one after-school class. This polarizes opportunities for wealthy families.  In response, to promote equal education, the government is working to provide more affordable public education.



Education changes


The education system has changed in many different ways since its modern education was first established in the years following the second world war. However, the fundamentals of the education system have not changed much. Students focus on memorizing materials rather than trying to understand or apply it. This rote learning was highly applicable during the early period of rapid industrialization that required disciplined, repetitive action. However, it is less useful for more advanced skills.


Starting from 2011, the government focused on developing a 'smart education' system, to prevent private education dominating the market and to provide equal opportunities for education. Extensive afterschool programs were established and online courses on EBS online (Korea Educational Broadcasting System, a public broadcasting organization) were created. This had little impact on reducing the private education sector but it allowed more students to have access to education. Despite this effort, the basics of the education system did not change and the government continues to grapple with implementing fundamental improvements.


Impact of Covid19 on Education


Covid19 has affected all aspects of Korean society including education. The initial response was to suspend all classes until Covid19 was under control. However, it is still not fully under control but education cannot be suspended forever. After schools re-opened, within 2 days, 800 school were closed again. The Ministry of Education announced that online education cannot be 100% effective, but it is still essential. School that remain open are providing both online and offline classes to reduce the risk of Covid19, while Schools that are closed school are providing only online courses.     


As this new system was applied suddenly, society was unprepared so applying and adapting education online caused various issues. The greatest problem was technical issues caused by a sudden change in the system. While teachers and professors were not comfortable with online technology, they were forced to provide online classes without proper understanding of the technology or teaching methods. The students were also not used to the system which caused participation problems and other issues. One technical problem is that it is difficult to track what the students are doing, especially for exams. There was one incident where 80% of the students shared answers during a medical school university exam. Now most schools seem to have the capability to provide online courses but they are still getting used to it.   



New Normal Education



Challenges are emerging from the new Covid19 era education paradigm. Online education for elementary students is less effective compared to middle school or high school students. In schools, students learn not only the subjects taught by the teacher but also learn interaction with other students and adapting to new and different environments. Teachers also have difficulty in bonding with the students, unable to provide them the personal care that they need. Middle school and high schoolers obtain better results with the online education compared to elementary students as they are able to concentrate more.


As hard as it is for students it is also equally difficult for teachers.  They must create new programs and new ways to convey course materials. Considering the vast amount of educational content already available on-line from EBS, Youtube and other platforms, it will challenging to present course materials that are sufficiently unique and differentiated. However, if teachers integrate available content into their own courses, there are opportunities to provide even better education than in the classroom format.


In the future, as students become familiar with online teaching, it will be difficult for them to give up the upside of the online class experience they have adjusted to and will demand to use some of these methods even after offline classes resume.


Even though this was an abrupt change in the education industry, we hope that we can develop systems and processes that will deliver better education in the future.

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