Why is Korea so technologically advanced

South Korea's digital universities: timpani for the fourth industrial revolution

High tech is the flagship of South Korea. The progressiveness of the country in online education at universities is exemplary for the Asian region. However, the requirements of the digital age require approaches that cannot be solved by technology alone. Lisa Messenzehl's contribution portrays Korean digital higher education in the balancing act between technology and Confucianism, competition and open education.

Just enjoy the view? View of Gangnam District in Seoul, Korea. Image: [https://unsplash.com/photos/Xqr87FWe9e0 Elle Morre]

Jiyoon's left hand bounces over the neck of his instrument with ease. His thick, golden brown hair falls down to his face. He looks satisfied. The 41-year-old wears shorts, socks, slippers and a black T-shirt with the imprint "I'm feeling good". Jiyoon, guitarist who grew up in Seoul, plays in one of the practice rooms at the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Music, which is part of the Seoul Digital University. It's a Tuesday in September. Outside, the Korean metropolis pulsates in the afternoon heat, but no daylight penetrates the dozen-story basement of the building. It's pleasantly cool here. Department of Jazz and Contemporary Music Seoul Digital University. Image: Lisa Messenzehl

Jiyoon completed his bachelor's degree here a good two years ago. In addition to his bands, he now works as a supervisor for the students, online as a tutor and offline as a coordinator for the rehearsal rooms. His educational career is typical for graduates of an online university in Korea, usually the digital route is chosen for further studies. First he studied music for two years at a normal university in Seoul, and he says he was mostly lazy. His family had nothing to do with music. Nevertheless, he dragged himself to the associate degree, which can be achieved after two years. A few years later, according to Jiyoon, he discovered the advantages of studying online: he could choose his areas of specialization and adapt it to his interests. He could watch learning videos five times, at home or on the go, if he wanted to repeat the content. In addition, his age played into his hands: He now knew better what he wanted to learn and was therefore able to concentrate better on it, he admits with a wink. However, the workload of the course was high.

There are no students here this afternoon, which is normal. 700 students are enrolled at the department, but less than ten percent come to the practice rooms occasionally. It is a voluntary offer that most of the people cannot take advantage of because they do not live in Seoul. You don't have to come here once. The course is completely online, also for the other 40,000 students at the university.

Lifelong learning

The age range of students at the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Music is large. From the 18-year-old high school graduate to the 70-year-old retired musician, everything is included, says Professor Bumjoon Lee, who is in charge of the study program. Monks, priests and nuns also belong to the target group. The field of study is a prime example of lifelong learning. The heterogeneity of the students is also a challenge, notes Bumjoon Lee, because the needs are very different. Learning is done with videos, interactive virtual seminars and classic online tasks that learning management systems have to offer. In practice-oriented subjects such as music, the students record how they play their instrument and show their skills via video upload. Other application-related areas, such as the Department of Childhood Education, handle it in such a way that students have to do a certain number of internships.

Professor Pilky Hong, the dean of studies, is proud that people enroll at this university who have goals and visions. They really want to learn something, he says, and don't just come to get credits. Because otherwise, as has often been heard, the Korean education system suffers from a degree of doggedness. The costs for studying at the private Seoul Digital University are limited: you pay the equivalent of around 50 Swiss francs or 45 euros per credit. There are also scholarships.

19 cyber universities

Instead of classrooms, video studios are lined up in the Seoul Digital University building. Some are furnished in the style of venerable professors with desks and bookshelves made of solid wood, others as simple TV studios with flexible green screens. The compulsory program of the studio fleet also includes a room for fitting and make-up. The appearance in front of the camera is not left to chance, beauty is very important in Korea. The design of both the videos and the course didactics is determined by the respective teacher.

The process for conception and quality control is precisely specified and is accompanied by specialists. A team of 30 people supports the teachers in the technical production of the teaching and learning materials. The setting found at the Seoul Digital University is not unique, because it is only one of the 19 cyber universities currently in South Korea, a country with just under 52 million inhabitants. Many arose at the time when PC pools were being expanded at universities in German-speaking countries because not all students had their own laptops, let alone an Internet connection at home. In 1998, the Korean government started a pilot project with the first five cyber universities, each of which emerged from private organizations. They should cover the increased need for further training. That is why their courses are largely geared towards skills that are required in professional life. Today, new institutions are constantly being added that offer distance education, partly as offshoots of conventional universities.

The history of online universities is testimony to the breakneck speed at which digitization has developed in Korea and has taken all areas and layers of society with it. According to a 2019 study, there is no other country in the world where the proportion of adults who own a smartphone is higher than in Korea: 95%. Technology has brought prosperity to the country, the tech companies LG and Samsung are symbolic of the success and modernity of Korea. It is the political framework that has made technology the pacemaker for innovations. This applies in particular to schools and universities. Today, e-learning professionals and public decision-makers, especially from emerging Asian countries, are making a pilgrimage to the high-tech Mecca of Korea to learn how to digitize teaching. The fact that it was the first country in the world to put a 5G network into operation in 2019 fits well into the picture. Korea is also a blueprint because it has experienced rapid economic development within a few decades.

From 0 to 100: digitization through centralism

In the 1950s, after the Korean War, South Korea was still one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world. Since it has hardly any natural resources, education was given the role of the most important capital for economic value creation at an early stage. Politicians accordingly invested their financial resources, particularly in expanding the higher education system. Today Korea has more than 350 universities and the rate of university education is immensely high. According to OECD statistics, the country is at the top worldwide in this regard: over 59% of 25 to 34-year-olds have a tertiary education. Just as the governments managed to create universities across the board, the digitization of teaching and learning was promoted in a goal-oriented manner.Every time has its own information and communication technology. Image: [https://unsplash.com/photos/71CjSSB83Wo Pavan Trikutam]

With a centralized education policy, structures were created and measures implemented, the results of which in Europe can only be compared to some extent with Scandinavian countries. Equipping schools and universities with state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure, but also with the relevant know-how, is launched in Korea on a national level. As a result, primary schools in the most remote provinces of the country are being given high-performance computers and access to programs that digitally support school operations: from wireless internet to the learning management system to software for school organization.

One can only dream of these equal conditions in educational federalism, the digital pact sends its regards: While in Germany in 2019 nationwide funding guidelines for better equipment in general education schools were finally adopted, in Korea currently, as part of the sixth edition of the ICT action plan, Textbooks for the intermediate level revised in e-book format and learning analytics methods based on artificial intelligence tested. Even the manageable Switzerland only managed to found educa.ch in 2017 in order to use synergies for platforms in the school sector, which are needed throughout the Confederation. The infrastructure issues that e-learning experts in Western countries still have to deal with are a thing of the past for Korea.

Navigator for the education of the future

Today the landscape of digital and distance education in Korea is very diversified, there are offers for every need and different target groups. The motor for the digitization of education in Korea is called KERIS: a state institution that the Ministry of Education established in 1999 with the aim of merging ICT and education at all levels. KERIS is also called the “Navigator of Future Education” because it wants to be seen as a think tank and not just as a service provider. The list of topics as well as the regulations, strategies and projects implemented is long. It includes national school information systems, advice on copyright issues, the introduction of programming skills in primary schools, e-learning and ICT training for teachers, online modules for middle and high school students, programs to protect against cyber attacks, digitization of school libraries, one online -Platform for the exchange of creative teaching methods and learning content, an online portal for studying with disabilities, evaluation tools for digital skills, health and ethical aspects in dealing with digital media - to name just a few examples. (For further reading: White Paper on ICT in Education Korea).

The Korean counterpart to the Swiss NEBIS database is called RISS and is also managed by KERIS. All theses from students in Korea are fed into RISS. In addition, KERIS launched joint services for universities, such as the ten e-learning support centers between 2003 and 2007. The idea was to produce e-learning materials and use them at several universities, for example for basic subjects. However, the institutions did not last, and the competition between the universities was too great.

Between discipline and performance burnout

And yet: the fact that Korea has freed itself from its poverty within a very short time and developed into a modern technology state is not only the result of political measures. The social system, which partly refers to Confucianism, is characterized by respect for social hierarchies, discipline and the placing of one's own needs behind those of the general public. Confucius (c. 500 BC) took the view, progressive for the time, that education should be accessible to all. However, his teachings also extol strict order, harmony, and humility. The “humility” of the population also played into the hands of the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, under which the economic upswing really picked up speed. You work persistently, follow instructions as a matter of course and usually don't question the meaning and purpose of your own actions. This behavior is also expressed in teaching and learning.

If you think of schools in Korea, the first thing you probably associate is not paradisiacal conditions for e-learning enthusiasts, but the great pressure to perform in schools. The drill in the education system of the Asian tiger states has often made it into the western media, and it has been criticized. On one side of the coin there are the good results in the PISA study, on the other hand the high suicide rate among adolescents, as is the case in Korea. The reason is not only to be found in the stress of school, but it is really the case that children already go to tutoring facilities every day until late in the evening. The better the grades, the more likely it is to attend a high school that promises good transition rates to the best universities in the country. The social contact does not remain untouched by the performance competition. Parents report how friendships suffer from competitive pressures.

Tutoring institute in Seoul. What if the fruits of education don't taste sweet either? Image: Lisa Messenzehl

The life of young people is completely focused on the one day on which they will take the entrance exam for the universities. On this day - it bears the name Suneung - not only do the shops across the country open later, so that the examinees do not get stuck in the traffic chaos. On this day, the future of half a million high school students is decided every year. Only the best make it to the well-known, top-ranked universities. After graduation, employers complain about a lack of independence and problem-solving skills. The focus is often on the quantity of work - the working hours - and not on the quality - the performance. Foreign bosses are often amazed at their poor command of English and powerless in the face of the lack of personal responsibility on the part of their Korean employees. Many graduates do not even find a job with their qualifications; there is an oversupply of academics.

How does all of this fit together with Korea's technological pioneering role? Is digitization even partly to blame for the sore points pointed out? Further answers can be found at the College of Education at Seoul National University. It is the elite university in Korea. Your students are not only known for excellent research work. In the past they were also politically important and took to the streets for more democracy.

Seoul National University

The big city noise has suddenly vanished into nothing. The Gwanak Campus of the Seoul National University is nestled between two mountains in the southern part of the metropolis. For the size of the university, the area seems oversized: almost 30,000 students study and research in an area of ​​over five square kilometers. Small groups of young adults can be seen discussing in seminar rooms through the windows of the College of Education. In the hall-like foyer, a student with curlers in her hair is sitting in front of her laptop. She doesn't seem to mind the simple, somewhat impersonal ambience. Professor Cheolil Lim's small office is humble for someone who has an important voice in Korea when it comes to the future of education. The conference table is squeezed between overcrowded bookshelves. Cheolil Lim is represented in all major bodies in the country that advise politics on educational issues. He previously headed the Department of Education at Seoul National University. He is currently President of the Korean Society for Educational Technology, Co-Chair of the Ed-Tech Forum, and Vice President of the Academy of Creativity Korea. The offices fit well with his research interests.Seoul National University. Image: Lisa Messenzehl

“We have been very good at providing quality education so far, especially in elementary school,” begins Cheolil Lim. “If you go to elementary school, you might be amazed at the many learner-centered activities. The primary school is very good and can be measured worldwide. But from middle school on it gets a little worse, because from then on the students are forced to attend a good university later. That's why they have to learn very hard ». For this reason, more teaching-centered, “government-controlled” forms of instruction then dominated.

“The collaboration skills in Korea are quite problematic. Individuals are quite good, but they haven't been adequately taught how to work together, ”continues Cheolil Lim. Even graduates from Seoul National University have been criticized for this. The students themselves prefer lectures to project work. But with the fourth industrial revolution - government circles would also like to use this catchphrase - new skills are required, such as creativity and programming. For about ten years now, people have been trying harder to find a new path. "Education needs to support the future" says Cheolil Lim, but they are still fighting in Korea.

Conformity and consumer orientation

It is paradoxical: In this very progressive country, the combination of performance competition and adaptability is fatal.Obviously, individuality is shunned in Korean society, it is not part of the cultural self-image. Anyone who travels the country will also notice the focus on consumption. The status is shown on the outside. The pursuit of the perfect surface is reflected in the beauty industry, which is booming in Korea. This is aimed equally at men and women, with the latter also being confronted with traditional gender role models.

If everyone wants to be like everyone else, it is not child's play for the individual to confidently and ambitiously take a path that builds on their own strengths. It is often the family conventions and expectations that determine the career choice, not one's own interests. No wonder, then, when the impression sometimes arises that digitality in Korea or its excessive use compensates for general helplessness. It is often said of Korea that economic development has run too fast. Too fast for socio-cultural development. However, the times when the country could work its way up through sheer diligence are over. Economic growth has recently slowed. As a production location, it has long been too expensive compared to neighboring Asian countries. Knowledge will probably be the most important economic factor in the future.

Co-Creation by Technology: Paths for the Future

The Korean educated elite are aware of the fist behind their necks. This becomes clear at the international conference “E-Learning Korea”, which the Ministry of Education and KERIS organize every year. Almost 1000 participants from politics, education, research and business will take part in 2019 and for two days exchange ideas not only about the latest educational technologies, but also about the future of the education system. The venue is the COEX convention center in the Gangnam district, the place to be for young, up-and-coming city dwellers. Mainly speakers from Korea and Asia are listed in the program booklet, occasionally also from the USA, Australia and Europe. There are lectures from Google and UNESCO as well as a conference track exclusively for the people from the authorities. At the same time as the conference, Ed-Tech companies will be promoting their latest products and services for the domestic education market at a trade fair, also at COEX: digital learning games for kindergarten and school, hardware for video studios, VR simulations, LMS solutions and countless robot kits for Learn to program.Robot learning games at Ed Tech E-Learning Korea Exhibition. Image: Lisa Messenzehl

The atmosphere is subdued, the carpets in the wide corridors in front of the conference rooms seem to swallow the participants a little too. Anyone who is used to lively networking during coffee breaks will notice how little people talk to each other here. The mood seems almost nervous and tense. In addition to the many success stories about the use of digital media in the classroom, there are large and still unanswered questions that are causing uncertainty: How will the education system develop in the digital age? Will the Korean universities be able to produce not only high graduation rates, but also tons of good and motivated people who are in demand on the global job market?

In his keynote speech, Professor Chang Kyung Kim from Hanyang University complains that the Korean education system relies on solving problems with already known answers instead of tackling unsolved problems. The fourth industrial revolution was supposed to cause "the death of exams and lecture halls". Instead of grades, you need collective and artificial intelligence, as well as the possibility for students to design their educational path individually. Prof. Sang Hoon Bae of Sungkyunkwan University says the biggest mistake is that there is no link between what is taught in school and college and what learners need in the real world. At the same time, he is convinced that Generation Z will change the university landscape: “The user will change the setting”.

The importance of university degrees could change rapidly as a result. Finally, Nicolas Sadirac sets the counterpoint to the Korean education system with his lecture on L’Ecole 42, a network of IT schools. These schools manage without high school qualifications for those interested; the acquisition of skills is based entirely on peer-to-peer methods and project-based learning. The credo is co-creation: solving problems together and without competitive thinking and creating collective intelligence in the process. It has a lot to do with openness. Openness in the sense of free access to education, unlimited and free availability of learning materials thanks to their digitality. Korea has a long history of doing this, as the Korean National Open University and other initiatives in the field of open education show.

Open education par excellence

Broadcasting studio of the KNOU TV station. Image: Lisa Messenzehl

He has something of a professor like a picture book. Hundreds of books and CDs have piled up all over the place in his office, and there is also a keyboard in the corner. It is said that only a true genius rules chaos, and that genius seems to enjoy spending a lot of time in his room at the Korean National Open University (KNOU). Professor Jin Gon Sohn knows KNOU and his e-learning department, where he teaches educational technology, like the back of his hand. He helped set up the department and has been observing developments for more than a decade. In 1972, at about the same time as the Open University in Great Britain, the KNOU was founded. It is one of the ten largest distance education universities in the world. Since then, it has provided Korea with inexpensive or free educational programs, initially through media such as mail and television, and later through the Internet.

The KNOU television channel with its educational shows has remained to this day. Accordingly, the core of the KNOU at its headquarters in Seoul is an entire building full of studios: for example, studios for seminars via video conferences, which take place at the same time as students in the 13 regional centers of the KNOU. In addition, studios for the production of educational videos and those for the broadcasting of television programs. To date, more than 600,000 people have graduated from KNOU. In contrast to the private cyber universities, the admission procedures are not so selective. Anyone with a high school degree can enroll. "In the beginning the cyber universities were very cooperative," says Jin Gon Sohn with his sly smile, "because they wanted to learn from us how to do online courses". In the meantime, however, the competition among distance education universities has increased, and everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie.

Production of learning videos at the KNOU. Image: Lisa Messenzehl Meanwhile, the cyber universities score with learning structures that keep the participants engaged until they graduate. In online studies at the KNOU, the classic, non-interactive MOOC format still seems to dominate in some cases, which is generally beneficial to Korean learners due to their trained reluctance. Dr. Christian M. Stracke, who has a teaching position at the KNOU. He speaks of shyness. He said he flew to Seoul a couple of times to record tutorial videos there. However, he never had contact with his students. He only got to know some at the alumni party. The KNOU is also familiar with the phenomenon of high drop-out rates in MOOCs. Jin Gon Sohn is convinced that more micro degrees will be in demand in the future instead of the four-year Bachelor programs. In addition, the role of teachers will continue to change; in the future they will mainly be needed to assess learning resources.

In addition to the KNOU, Korea has successfully carried out pioneering work in the field of open education with other initiatives. Korea Open Courseware (KOCW) is a platform that moves at the intersection of Open Educational Resources, Open Access and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Again initiated by KERIS, KOCW went online in 2009 with the aim of making courses and other learning materials from Korean universities accessible to the general public. Free of charge and without registration, but without the possibility for the participants to receive proof of their learning success. Today, over 30,000 courses and 400,000 learning materials are published on KOCW, with the social and educational sciences dominating. About 200 Korean universities provide resources to the platform. No wonder that KOCW has won several awards. How did it succeed in getting so many universities to contribute to the platform without receiving monetary compensation? "It was the College Transparency Record," explains Sooji Lee, who works at KERIS and has dealt with it since KOCW was founded. "

The College Transparency Record came into effect around 2010. The universities have to disclose various key figures so that potential students and their parents can get an idea of ​​the university. The Ministry of Education also works to ensure that the universities show the extent to which they are living up to their social responsibility. One indicator of this was the number of learning resources they publish on KOCW. Of course, KOCW benefited greatly from this, ”explains Sooji Lee. Once again, the impetus and incentive came from the state, not from the universities themselves, as was the case a short time later with the MOOC movement in the USA. She herself is sometimes critical of the centralized measures; it is not uncommon for the Korean universities to wish for more autonomy. As far as MOOCs are concerned, Korea has pulled along: firstly with international providers such as edX or Coursera, secondly with platforms specially initiated by Korean universities and thirdly with K-MOOCS, which has found its niche in professional training. K-MOOCS could be the model for the Swiss MOOC project, which some Swiss universities are currently trying to achieve.

It's not just Korea's universities that have both bright and dark sides. Seoul, South Korea. Image: [https://unsplash.com/@anileated Anton Strogonoff]

Learning from korea

Korea has made remarkable, almost unbelievable developments over the past 50 years. In terms of education, the country has not only been able to catch up in a very short time on what other industrialized countries have already demonstrated. Korea has also shown that it can set international standards itself: ambitious, innovative and pragmatic politics has advanced digitization in schools and universities. For Ed-Tech enthusiasts, Korea is a land of milk and honey. Education researchers find a country where the rapid pace of its development is still heavy in the stomach, and the internal pressure to perform causes additional abdominal pain. But the education system is on the move, it is constantly reforming in small steps. You are not afraid to rethink things and implement them in the shortest possible time. It will be worthwhile to continue to observe developments and to learn from and with Korea.

Jiyoon, the guitarist, lets the strings of his instrument sound again. Did he notice any difference between studying online at Seoul Digital University and studying at a normal university earlier? What is it like when you never see your fellow students in person, face-to-face? Jiyoon silences the guitar and rocks his knee. “The online course was just packed and I had to learn a lot,” he says. There is no answer to the second question, presumably he did not understand what was meant by it. Studying online has long been the norm in Korea.