Jaewon Cho is a programme officer and Benjamin Riley is a consultant at the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS). KERIS is a public institution under the Korean Ministry of Education that promotes national and global initiatives and policy support related to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education ranging from kindergarten to higher education. KERIS is a new member of the 21st Century Skills Coalition, joined by nearly 30 public and private organizations to promote the development of transversal skills in Latin America and the Caribbean.
At the beginning of the new year, when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, it was impossible to foresee the full scale and nature of this rapidly spreading pandemic and how it would shake the Earth to its core. In a matter of weeks and months, almost every individual across the planet was impacted in some way by this virus. South Korea was one of the first few countries to face a major outbreak.
After the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Korea in mid-January, the numbers soon spiked in the following weeks. The South Korean government raised the national alert level to the highest category and declared a national health emergency. The whole nation fell into a state of despair, as if struck by an invisible enemy without any alert.
However, after five months, the situation in South Korea has seemingly taken a turn for the better. The total number of positive cases decreased, and the death toll remained low, thanks to the high rate of testing and diagnostic capabilities, combined with meticulous contact tracing, social distancing, and personal sanitary measures, such as wearing masks and sanitization. The curve was ultimately flattened, and the nation has been able to control and mitigate the COVID-19 outbreaks. Yet, despite the growing sense of normality, which is gradually returning to daily life in South Korea, it remains premature to declare a complete victory over the pandemic – and perhaps we never will. People wore masks out of fear in the early stages, but now such measures are becoming more of a long-term precautionary measure and a part of our daily lives.
Another encouraging step towards societal normalcy was the recent reopening of schools. As of June 12, all students, except for those with a positive diagnosis or symptoms of illness, have returned to school after almost four months without stepping foot on campus (the academic year in South Korea typically begins in early March). Although students weren’t physically allowed to attend school during the outbreak, classes were able to continue using online education models.
Phased online-learning was implemented, beginning with students in their final year of middle and high school on April 9, and was fully expanded to all remaining grades by April 20. One of the key reasons behind the idea of phased online learning was to buy some time for both teachers and the educational ICT infrastructure to make necessary preparations while mitigating unforeseen issues.
Key measures taken in South Korea are as follows:
1) Expanding public infrastructure
As the Ministry of Education decided to substitute the opening of physical schools with online learning, the first step that was taken was expanding the ICT infrastructure. This may sound strange to some, given South Korea’s long-standing reputation as a global ICT pioneer. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 99.7% of South Korean households had full access to the internet, and 99.9% of teenagers used high-speed internet in their daily lives, according to a 2019 report from the Korean Ministry of Science and ICT.
Yet, the Ministry of Education realized that they haven’t tried allowing huge numbers of users to simultaneously access the online learning platforms before. This is because, to some extent, online learning was not perceived as the preferred means of learning. And, this is also because the online learning was not initially designed with a server volume that could support all students across the nation connected at once. To cope with the new situation, extra servers were added for the two major online learning platforms, the Korea Education and Research Information Service’s (KERIS) e-Learning Site, and the Education Broadcasting System’s (EBS) Online Class Platform. With the additional servers, each platform can now host 3 million students simultaneously, making them the two main pillars responsible for bringing primary and secondary education online across South Korea during the pandemic.
All students from elementary, middle, and high schools fully joined their online classes, with roughly 470,000 online classrooms made on the KERIS e-Learning Site and the EBS Online Class Platform combined. In addition to the online classes, the EBS created more TV channels to meet the education needs of students differing circumstances or special needs. For instance, the EBS created exclusive television channels designated for first and second-grade students who are likely to have difficulty with online learning, given their young age and lack of experience in even the physical classroom setting.
2) Supporting capacity building for teachers
The role of teachers in the success of education cannot be overstated – the same goes for online education. At first, many teachers were disoriented when schools were closed, and teachers were told that their classes would be taught online. The problem was that some teachers initially did not feel comfortable with teaching online. To aid this transition to online teaching, the government quickly responded by publishing and distributing online education guidelines nationwide. The government also created a website called “School-On,” which serves to provide a wide array of information to teachers on how to teach, communicate, and share contents through online platforms.
To further mitigate issues for a smooth transition, a group of volunteer teachers at Metropolitan and Provincial levels started to operate an additional service called “Teacher-On” through support from the local Offices of Education. Teacher-On aims to support teachers with technical difficulties by remotely connecting to their devices.
Further, a group called “the Community of 10,000 Representative Teachers” was formed. The number ‘10,000’ represents one teacher from each of the roughly 10,000 schools in South Korea. This community connects teachers with the Ministry of Education, the 17 Metropolitan and Provincial Offices of Education, KERIS, and the EBS. The essence of this group is to jointly tackle any issues– from policymakers to teachers—about carrying out online classes. With all this effort put together, teachers created more than 2 million digital contents as of April 21 and uploaded them on the two major platforms.
3) Preventing the digital divide and supporting marginalized groups
Like two sides of a coin, introducing online education could bring both opportunity and unwanted results. If successfully implemented, it can offer a huge benefit by continuing education during a crisis. However, online education inevitably requires many prerequisites, including access to the internet, possession of digital devices – the quality of devices matters, too—, student computer literacy levels, and so on. There was a concern that, without meticulous consideration, online education could widen the digital divide and increase educational inequality.
To avoid these negative outcomes, the South Korean government provided free digital device rental services. Thus, students from low-income families without digital devices were given priority to borrow devices from their schools. The private sector also donated many devices. Furthermore, through adopting a zero-rating policy, students have received free mobile data access to education websites with generous support from the three major telecommunications companies in South Korea (KT, LG, and SK). Also, to fully support students from low-income families, the government installed Internet service at their homes and provided a monthly subsidy of 17 US dollars for internet fees.
One key lesson South Korea learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that a similar education crisis could arise again, and we need to prepare for it. Luckily, online education proved to be a strong asset. Although it is less likely that online education will completely substitute the primary and secondary education system, well-designed online learning will provide new opportunities to better assist education in the future. In this sense, based on South Korea’s experience with COVID-19, the nation is moving one step forward to establish a new online education model incorporating AI and cloud computing systems. Also, based on this experience and lessons learned, South Korea is strongly committed to working together with the global community by sharing and learning from international experiences to build a better future for all through education.
No country around the world expected the COVID-19 crisis, but how could South Korea better respond to COVID-19? Did you know that Korea has invested heavily in integrating technology into its education system since the 1990s? Find out in our latest publication how South Korea, along with countries like Finland, Uruguay, Estonia, and the United States, transformed their education systems through widely, but not exclusively, incorporating technology. Stay tuned and follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus. Read the first entry of the series here.
What can your country learn from the South Korean experience? Share your comments with us the section below, or in Twitter mentioning @BIDEducacion # EnfoqueEducacion .