• The implementation of online education in South Korea has been relatively smooth, thanks to the country's excellent internet infrastructure.
  • However, many students and teachers have expressed dissatisfaction with this new paradigm.
  • Moving education online, as South Korea's experiences demonstrate, requires long-term, systemic change backed up with policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced virtually all schools and universities to switch to online education in South Korea. The nation's transition to online education has been mostly smooth, and the reason for this is clear; South Korea has one of the best IT infrastructures in the world.

Before the pandemic, the country had realized 99% of 4G coverage, with 5G under implementation; further, about 75% of households had access to computers, and 99.5% had internet access. Coupled with the nation's prioritization of education, this makes the easy implementation of online education and widespread acceptance of this mode by students and teachers seem inevitable.

President Moon Jae-in's government has expended all efforts to ensure continuity in education in these challenging times. The government expanded public infrastructure by increasing e-learning platforms' capacity to support millions of students, from mere thousands. Furthermore, it has helped to build teaching capability by providing teachers with piloting and peer-mentoring programmes. An example is "The Community of 10,000 Representative Teachers", which encourages teachers to share their ideas and information about online education. The government has also shared relevant guidelines and provided real-time support to teachers, parents and students to use online education platforms, and has worked with the private sector to resolve the digital divide. Further, it provides rentable devices at zero cost to thousands of students and has offered this policy to educational institutions to ensure the inclusion of disadvantaged students in online classes.

How South Korea's higher education sector has adopted online learning
How South Korea's higher education sector has adopted online learning
Image: Korea Economic Daily

However, South Korea's impressive IT infrastructure and the government's proactive steps to implement online education do not translate to widespread online education acceptance. For instance, a recent survey reveals very low satisfaction rates among students regarding their online learning experience, even to the extent that 50% of the students considered taking a leave of absence in their second semester. These students cite the low quality of classes (37.9%) and their dissatisfaction with tuition fees (28%) as the major reasons for their discontent. Further, both students and teachers lack the technical skills to interact effectively in online class environments. This is not surprising, since both students and professors said that they were not trained to interact in the remote education environment. Moreover, the absence of a standardization policy for online education has resulted in diverse operations among schools, which further worsens the educational divide.

In summary, online platforms and technologies are not ready to effectively deliver educational content like in face-to-face classes. The condition is even worse in engineering schools; in a survey targeting the students and professors of various universities' engineering departments, 33% said the classes were ineffective. Only 5% indicated that they were satisfied with the classes. Among professors, 42% of the science and engineering professors reported dissatisfaction, and only 12% were satisfied. These findings suggest that some classes are best conducted offline. Although virtual reality is being proposed as a solution, it will take some time to realize this technology in practice. Similarly, university presidents cite some other challenges (see figure below), such as difficulties in reforming institutions and preparing content, managing pressures to provide additional financial resources, the lack of governmental support in implementing online learning, and managing the widespread resistance to incorporating technology in education.

The transition online is far from smooth, say presidents of private universities
The transition online is far from smooth, say presidents of private universities
Image: Dong-A Ilbo

The limitations of online education

Further, it's clear that some aspects of college education, including learning with peers and interactions with professors, the campus dormitory life and college games, cannot be 'Zoomed'. Hence, universities and colleges have recently started implementing a hybrid education model, in which classes are conducted online and offline. This emerging trend enables us to imagine a new era of "hybridtact" education (see figure below), where the best features of online (non-contact) education and offline (contact) classes are optimized to deliver the best teaching and learning experiences for teachers and students. For instance, by leveraging the internet and online learning platforms' potential, educational institutions can optimize their resources to enhance millions of students' access to less costly education. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and courses such as Georgia Tech's online masters in computer science exemplify these exciting possibilities.

South Korea has long been preparing for the advent of this era; for example, the Ministry of Science and ICT have implemented the K-MOOC, which targets top-ranking science universities and is publicly available. However, uptake has been slow and it remains undersubscribed.

The 'hybridtact' approach
The 'hybridtact' approach
Image: Authors

The need for systemic change

There is an emerging consensus that the future of education is 'hybridtact'. However, to realize this exciting future, governments should consider education reforms that go beyond infrastructure and access-focused measures. The case of South Korea shows that education reform requires long-term thinking and systematic transformations that seek to make technologies, including online platforms, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, integral components of education systems. Governments should also facilitate training and engagements for teachers, professors, students, and parents on a broader scale.

Additionally, we should transform teaching and learning; work hard to change cultures and create incentives for professors, teachers, students, and parents; and transform education business models to suit the new era's demands. Therefore, we propose that governments and stakeholders focus on policies that promote technology-friendly environments to alleviate technology resistance, synonymous with the current online teaching and learning experiences. Ultimately this may lead to the development of social trust and agreement regarding 'hybridtact' education.

Second, there is a need to implement policies that support online education infrastructure – for example, platforms, devices and internet connectivity – alongside policies that aim at the system and social transformations. The latter include enhancing capabilities such as implementing curriculums to train students, teachers, and school staff in online education, reforming university systems, and encouraging institutions' collaborations.

Finally, after consultation with stakeholders, laws and policies should be enacted to establish a legal basis for distance education and promote the standardization of online across educational institutions. This will help minimize confusion among teachers and students and close the educational divide.

To conclude, the case of South Korea reveals that having the necessary infrastructure and access is not enough to ensure the efficient online delivery of education. There is a need for systematic thinking and system-wide reforms to embrace the possibilities offered by technologies and wide-scale stakeholder training and engagements.