By Chico Harlan,
SEOUL — Five years ago, South Korea mapped out a plan to transform its education system into the world’s most cutting-edge. The country would turn itself into a “knowledge powerhouse,” one government report declared, breeding students “equipped for the future.” These students would have little use for the bulky textbooks familiar to their parents. Their textbooks would be digital, accessible on any screen of their choosing. Their backpacks would be much lighter.
By setting out to swap traditional textbooks for digital ones, the chief element of its plan for transformation, South Korea tried to anticipate the future — and its vision has largely taken shape with the global surge of tablets, smartphones and e-book readers.
But South Korea, among the world’s most wired nations, has also seen its plan to digitize elementary, middle and high school classrooms by 2015 collide with a trend it didn’t anticipate: Education leaders here worry that digital devices are too pervasive and that this young generation of tablet-carrying, smartphone-obsessed students might benefit from less exposure to gadgets, not more.
Those concerns have caused South Korea to pin back the ambition of the project, which is in a trial stage at about 50 schools. Now, the full rollout won’t be a revolution: Classes will use digital textbooks alongside paper textbooks, not instead of them. First- and second-graders, government officials say, probably won’t use the gadgets at all.
Other countries are watching closely, because no other nation, according to government officials here, has a similarly ambitious digital plan. The nearest comparison might be in Florida, where officials last year proposed phasing out traditional textbooks by 2015.
Education officials here fear that if tablets and laptops become mandatory in the classroom, students could become even more device-dependent. They might also suffer from vision problems. Some parents, officials say, have expressed the concern that their kids will struggle to keep their focus on studying when using an Internet-connected device.
Before making a complete transition to digital books, the government should study the “health effects” on students, said Jeong Kwang-hoon, chief of the online learning division at the Korea Education and Research Information Service, a government-sponsored institute that is working with private companies to create digital textbooks.
South Korea’s education ministry never said explicitly that paper textbooks would disappear. But the 2007 plan spoke in sweeping terms about “overcoming the limit” of traditional learning, so education experts here assumed as much.
Only last summer did the government unveil the specifics. South Korea said it would introduce the first set of e-textbooks nationwide by 2015 at the latest. The content would be accessible on any device — on tablets or laptops, in classrooms or at home, on Apples or Samsungs, the homegrown electronics company whose rise corresponds with Korea’s economic emergence. But the plan was scaled back, too, with officials saying paper textbooks still need a prime place in classrooms.
At least 10 South Korean publishing companies are building digital textbooks. The crudest versions are much like copied pages of a traditional textbook; the pages are digital, but you can’t play around with them. The more advanced versions, though, are packed with 3-D animation and video clips. There’s also the possibility that the textbooks can be updated in real-time — although textbooks here are government-approved, and any changes would require a bureaucratic review.
A Changing Classroom
Digital textbooks do, though, change the very nature of the classroom. Teachers who embrace the digital textbooks, education experts say, become more like “companions” in the education process, not just lecturing, but also helping students to conduct their own Google searches and to make sense of simulations featured in the e-textbooks.
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