The digitalization of South Korea’s education

Digital textbooks and e-learning resources have been steadily on the rise and becoming increasingly widespread, despite the heavy debates surrounding its implementation into traditional education. As conventional learning materials are replaced by tablets and other smart devices, the future of digitalization and educational technology becomes prevalent and fast-approaching.

One country that is demonstrating the all-pervasiveness of digitalized education is Asia’s leading tech hub – South Korea. Its high-achieving, accomplishment-pursuing attitudes towards youth education has earned its rightful place as one of the top achieving nations in various educational and IQ tests carried out worldwide.

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High school students cheering on peers at the ‘Suneung’ exam (Courtesy of

South Korea’s e-learning culture and its players

 In 2013, the South Korean government had announced its plans to implement an “educational paradigm shift”, known as ‘SMART education’. Rather than a blatant proclamation of loyalty towards digitalized resources for learning, the concept revolves around an acronymic slogan promoting a self-disciplined, motivated, and adaptive outlook on nationwide schooling.

South Korea’s ‘SMART education’ bears the ambitious mission of digitalizing education completely and wholly by 2015. Today, in 2016, the nation’s e-learning goals are evident. As high school students prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test, or Suneung that takes place in November annually, it is clear that the vision to digitalize is well on track. Students diligently attend school during the day, and log in to their online classrooms as nighttime dawns.

Judy Suh’s 2012 award-winning short documentary ‘ExamiNation’ portrays the South Korean attitude towards education. Through the capturing of the average high school student’s hardworking, nose-in-book lifestyle, youth education is exposed as a cultural phenomenon in itself. The documentary follows final-year high school student Bitna Hwang and her repetitive musings at school, private cram centers, and dimly-lit studying cubicles where she spends hours doing practice exams and memorizing content. The average South Korean high school student spends 16 hours a day studying.

Amidst this nationwide emphasis on lengthy hours of study, where does technology fit in? Private tutoring expenditure in South Korea tops $20 billion annually, and is a thriving industry feeding off the rigorous lifestyles of diligent young students (and their parents). Online cram schools are a new, budding form of e-learning, allowing subject-specific content to be even more accessible than ever. A package membership allows full access to lecture videos, past papers, and online streaming schedules, encouraging the importance of self-directed study patterns that extend school hours.

Journeyman Pictures’ documentary on South Korea’s academic scene and sky-high teen suicide rates exposes the masterminds behind these online academies. They are profit-driven entrepreneurs who sport wacky costumes to make their lectures interesting in order to prevent students from falling asleep due to strenuous hours of studying with devices in hand. Students typically spend more than 2 hours a day reviewing merely from online lectures. During the live streaming, up to 300,000 students nationwide are logged on and ready to learn.

The key is to “keep costs low and provide kids with good-quality online content”. It is clear that education has become a corporatized business tool with its elevated demand. The people’s attitudes towards youth education, paired with the culture of online and after school tutoring reflects not only the competitive, dog-eat-dog nature of the local education system, but also the fast-advancing pervasiveness of digital learning outside the classroom.

North America’s Khan Academy – where does digitalized education stand?

Similarly, e-learning and digital education in North America are widespread. Cloud-based learning and information storage tools, as well as multimedia materials are becoming increasingly popularized. Online tutorial videos teaching various subjects such as science, mathematics, and economics are an example of the shifting education scene – from traditional paperbacks to digital learning.

SRI International’s study on the use of Khan Academy in North American schools showed that its role satisfied a “blended learning model”. Khan Academy is a popular academic website providing students with free instructional and tutorial videos on subjects such as mathematics, science, economics, and more. Its resources are used mainly in K-12 education within North America. The “blended learning model” is the combination of self-directed online study with instructor-led school-based learning, allowing students to enhance their knowledge on particular areas of study.

Khan Academy’s steady rise stipulates a shift of emphasis onto self-paced and self-directed learning that can prepare students for independent knowledge acquisition and research in university. During online study, students can practice newly-acquired skills from classroom-based instructed learning, and obtain a better grasp on areas in which they have trouble with. Thus, the “blended learning model” acts as not only a tool for teachers and instructors to track students’ learning curves, but also for students to monitor and pace their own learning progress.

As digitalized learning becomes an academic trend, it is important to evaluate the implications behind its popularization in order to utilize it to full potential. South Korea’s academic paradigm shift clarifies the connection between readily-available online education, and diligent attitudes that will lead to success. The use of technology as learning tools and why they are used is ultimately what constitutes as the culture of digital education.