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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on April 9)

All News 06:58 April 09, 2020

E-learning concerns
Ministry must reduce digital inequality, utilize private-sector resources

The new academic year for elementary, middle and high schools is scheduled to begin gradually with online classes following repeated postponements due to the novel coronavirus.

Middle and high school students in their third and final year will start to learn online Thursday. Online classes will open on April 16 for first and second graders at middle and high schools and fourth to sixth graders at elementary schools. First to third graders at elementary schools will receive remote education starting April 20.

For South Korean schools, this is the first time ever that classes will be held online. There are concerns about how well prepared schools are for this transition. Considering regional inequalities and disparities in e-learning preparedness, online classes may also widen educational inequalities within Korea.

Internet-accessible devices are essential for online education. A recent nationwide survey by the Ministry of Education found that about 223,000 students do not have digital devices. The number is not small. Education authorities say they will rent them by April 13, but it is questionable whether students will be able to use rented devices properly in a few days. Among other things, the government must work out separate measures for young students who need adult assistance to complete their studies at home, such as children of single parents and children with both parents working.

The ministry offers three options for distance learning: interactive real-time education using "Zoom," a videoconferencing program; prerecorded lectures, including lessons broadcast on television channels; and giving assignments as an alternative to online classes. The ministry seems to have tried to give schools flexibility in online education, but the quality of education may vary greatly depending on which option schools choose.

Online classes are an inevitable response to the COVID-19 crisis, but attempts to devise innovative ways of teaching are meaningful. It is important for education authorities to ensure no learners are left behind in online classrooms.

The most important factor in distance learning is to prevent technical errors. However, on Monday, three days before the start of online classes, a videoconference between the education minister and teachers via the Zoom program was interrupted for a few minutes because of a bad connection. Continuous connection is the key to online education.

Schools and students cannot help but worry about online classes. Zoom is said to be easy to use but weak in security. Lax security can cause serious consequences, and the authorities must strengthen measures to keep data secure.

A remote learning platform operated by EBS, a Korean educational television network, froze due to access bottlenecks during a trial run as many students attempted to log on concurrently.

On the same day, educational content collected for online classes was deleted by accident from a server operated by the Korea Education and Research Information Service, a public institution under the Ministry of Education. The service says a worker made the mistake while scaling up the server in preparation for the start of online classes. The data is said to be irrecoverable. Unexpected issues are likely to erupt, and backup systems need to be in place.

The unpreparedness of authorities and schools is largely attributable to the government's failure to keep up with the times. Education policymakers have been bound by the old paradigm of offline classroom education. Online lectures have been widely used in the education market for a long time. But the government has looked coldly upon private-sector education as a threat to public schools. It has made much of egalitarian education rather than inter-school competition and autonomy. Educational development can hardly be expected under rigid and heteronomous circumstances.

The authorities should not only offer equal opportunities in online education, but also need to graft modern private-sector teaching techniques in the public education system. Budget items ought to be readjusted to changes in the learning environment. For example, unused funds earmarked for school meals can be diverted to improving the quality of online education.

The coronavirus crisis may be prolonged. The ministry must turn it into a chance to innovate education, and take this opportunity to build a solid infrastructure for online education that can be utilized after the crisis.

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