Students in South Korea will soon be learning from pixel instead of paper, as the government plans to digitize the country's entire school curriculum by 2015.

Like a band of summer vacation-crazed high school students, South Korea is tossing their textbooks into the great bonfire of “No More Pencils, No More Books…!” No, they’re not entering an indefinite period of state-organized hooky, they are doing away with those burdensome textbooks and digitizing their entire curriculum. In an effort to enable education through technology while bringing down costs, all materials are expected to be digitized by 2015. When the effort is complete, students will be able to learn when and where they want.

The material that used to be bound between textbook covers will be accessed by computers, tablets and smart phones. In addition to content from ordinary textbooks, the digital textbooks will include supporting material such as multimedia and related FAQs. Each school will have its own cloud computing system on which the digital curriculum will be stored that the students can access to get the material they need. The government expects to spend $2.4 billion on the project.

“Smart Education will change how we perceive textbooks,” South Korea’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Ju-Ho Lee, told the BBC. “The transfer from the traditional paper textbooks to digital textbooks will allow students to leave their heavy backpacks and explore the world beyond the classroom.”

For some countries, a digital curriculum might not make much of a difference. Talking to the BBC, science and Informations and Communications Technology teacher David Weston pointed out that “The sad truth is that students can learn just as badly with a class full of computers, interactive whiteboards and mobile technology as they can with wooden desks and a chalkboard.” But if any country is going to make the digital grade, it’s South Korea. A study released in June by OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that the country is particularly prepared for the transition to digital learning. According to the report, Korean teenagers were the best of 16 developed countries at using computers and the Internet to learn. Their fifteen year olds were the best at ascertaining the credibility of information on the Internet and at navigating web pages. “We don’t expect the shift to digital textbooks to be difficult as students today are very accustomed to the digital environment,” a ministry official told Korea’s Chosunilbo. The ease of access will not only make it more convenient for gunners on the go, but students who have to miss class have an opportunity to stay up to speed. The ministry is also considering a system that will allow students who need long-term hospital care to receive an education on par with their in-class classmates. And so the disadvantaged don’t get left out of the loop, the ministry will provide tablets free-of-charge to low-income families that can’t afford them.

Korean manufacturer Samsung – who make the Galaxy tablet – and Korea’s IT sector must be licking their lips over the country’s plans to convert paper to pixel. They haven’t said so explicitly, but it would be surprising if the ministry didn’t snap up locally made tablets for the students.

Check out what such a ‘classroom of the future’ would look like in this video from Korea. A far cry from the days of overheads and transparencies!

Other countries are trying to emulate Korea’s digital revolution. Last month, President Obama announced a new center to strengthen technologies for learning and teaching in the US. The so-called “Digital Promise” center will bring together leaders researchers, entrepreneurs, and schools to identify breakthrough technologies, to assess what current technologies work and what doesn’t, and to restructure the market in a way that drives private sector investment in school innovation. The National Science Foundation is offering $15 million in new awards for next-generation learning technologies.

The inevitable march towards a digitized curriculum has already begun in the US. Six middle and high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia have adopted online textbooks in their social studies classrooms. There are currently 77,000 online textbooks being used in the county. Teachers, in general, support the change. “…if we had bought hardcovers, those books would have been updated in 2017,” social studies specialist Kurt Waters told the Washington Post. “Do we really want to be using those books by then?” By going digital students have access to information that is not only frequently updated, but they can access the web for videos from the History Channel or maps, for example.

Replacing traditional textbooks with digital ones has only become economically feasible relatively recently. Competition from an increasing numbers of publishers that put textbooks in digital form are driving prices down, making them cheaper than print books. That trend is sure to continue. Next year Fairfax plans to digitize its math curriculum.

It seems it’s only a matter of time before students are tele-schooled from home altogether. If they have a question they can video chat with their teacher and, as Korean schools plan to do, measure attendance by hours logged in online.

I hope not. Schools aren’t mere vessels for delivering facts and problem-solving skills. Social development through sports, group projects, playground interaction, gym classes, student councils, etc. is a vital part of a child’s education. The benefits that technology offers – up-to-date material that can be tailored to the student and can be made available anytime, anywhere – doesn’t mean the student should stay at home.

Another important question is how learning is going to be affected by smaller-screened tablets or the smaller still smart phones?  A study conducted last year by the OnCampus Research showed that 74 percent of college students across 19 campuses prefer good ol’ print textbooks. It may just be that some areas of study are more suitable to digital supplementation than others. A separate study showed that virtually all students in a statistics class found their statistics iPhone app helpful. Like a super calculator, they could look up formulas, take practice quizzes, and review lecture notes at their convenience. Science material that requires detailed illustrations might not be as effectively translated from paper text to smart phones or even tablets and laptops. At any rate, the rest of the world’s educators will be watching closely at Korea’s Smart Education to see just how “Smart” it is.

[image credits: the chosunilbo and advancetechnologykorea]

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image 2: samsung
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Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.