South Korea. one of the world’s most digitized nations, has for years equated the advance of technology with societal progress, including in the area of education. Now, it seems, the country is taking a fascinating breather from its obsession.

My colleague Chico Harlan reported Saturday that five years after advancing a plan to use technology to turn its education system into a 21st-century model, South Korea is rethinking one of the key elements of that push: digital textbooks.
Initially the plan called for digital books to be used in classrooms on every grade level by 2015. The attractions seemed obvious: Students could use any computer, tablet, phone or other screen to access them; the books could be updated with ease; backpacks would no longer weigh a ton.

But now something has changed.

South Korean officials have suddenly become concerned that young people are too dependant on technological gadgets, pointing to a government survey that showed that one in 12 students between ages 5 and 9 are addicted to the Internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported a similar problem in the United States. There is also a concern that online education may not be the huge advancement some claim.

Harlan wrote: “The JoongAng Ilbo, one of Seoul’s major daily newspapers, warned in an editorial about the country’s ‘exaggerated trust’ in digital education and the wrongful assumption that wireless education means better quality.”

So, South Korean officials are putting on the brakes. Now, officials say, old-fashioned paper textbooks won’t become obsolete but will still be used along with digital textbooks. And students in first and second grade are likely to stick entirely with paper books.

This is the latest step by South Korean officials to reform the education system by stepping back. The government has been so worried about “cram schools” — where some three-quarters of the country’s students go after their regular school day to keep studying — that last year it launched a crackdown on them to help reduce reduce costs for families and the emotional burden that those families carry.

President Obama has, somewhat inexplicably, hailed South Korea as something of an education model for the United States because its students perform so highly on international assessments.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’” Obama said last year. “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

Aside from the fact that many U.S. teachers believe Obama’s administration has caused them to be demonized, the fact is that the South Korean public school system isn’t exactly the model Americans would be happy emulating. From an article in Asia Times Online:

“What the stats don’t tell is how drearily authoritarian classes often are. Flair and creativity are rarely rewarded. Instead, teachers drum into students a ton of stuff they must learn by rote so as to jump through hoops leading up to the all-important university entrance examination.”

Technology in education has become a huge battle cry for many school reformers, who cite benefits such as more individualization of classes for students. (There are also plenty of folks who see big dollar signs in the educational technology revolution.)

Too often the most important question isn’t asked before millions of dollars are spent on technological devices: Do they work?

Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a former teacher and district superintendent, wrote on his school reform blog:

When it comes to research supporting major purchases of laptops, tablets, and similar devices, such a cumulative body of evidence is missing-in-action.

So if the research pantry is nearly empty, why do districts buy iPads?

They want to use hardware and software to solve difficult problems. But school boards and superintendents also buy high-tech devices because they want to be seen as technologically innovative and ahead of other districts. In this culture, the value of technology is equal to social and economic progress. Because school boards are completely dependent upon the political support of their parents, taxpayers, and voters to fund annual budgets, being seen as ahead of the game in technology garners public support. Not to adopt new technologies, even when funds are short, means that district leaders are failing their students and against progress.

So the truth of the matter is that research studies that show positive effects of technology hardly matter. Occasional studies that do show promising results for new technologies are dragged in to cover the near nakedness of research, much like a fig leaf, to justify the high costs of these new devices in the face of little evidence. The fact remains that no one knows for sure whether the new hardware and software appearing in schools works. They are all beta versions with glitches that teachers and students end up discovering.

Technology surely has a role in education, and in the future, that role may be huge. But the South Koreans are sending a message that rushing headlong into this new world may not be the smartest thing to do. Finally, something we can truly learn from South Korea about education.

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