SEOUL — Five years ago, South Korea mapped out a plan to transform its education system into the world’s most cutting-edge. The country would turn itself into a “knowledge powerhouse,” one government report declared, breeding students “equipped for the future.” These students would have little use for the bulky textbooks familiar to their parents. Their textbooks would be digital, accessible on any screen of their choosing. Their backpacks would be much lighter.
By setting out to swap traditional textbooks for digital ones, the chief element of its plan for transformation, South Korea tried to anticipate the future — and its vision has largely taken shape with the global surge of tablets, smartphones and e-book readers.
But South Korea, among the world’s most wired nations, has also seen its plan to digitize elementary, middle and high school classrooms by 2015 collide with a trend it didn’t anticipate: Education leaders here worry that digital devices are too pervasive and that this young generation of tablet-carrying, smartphone-obsessed students might benefit from less exposure to gadgets, not more.
Those concerns have caused South Korea to pin back the ambition of the project, which is in a trial stage at about 50 schools. Now, the full rollout won’t be a revolution: Classes will use digital textbooks alongside paper textbooks, not instead of them. First- and second-graders, government officials say, probably won’t use the gadgets at all.
The newest thinking, in the eyes of some education experts here, calls into question South Korea’s long-held tenet that technology automatically brings progress. 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.
Other countries are watching closely, because no other nation, according to government officials here, has a similarly ambitious digital plan. The nearest comparison might be in Florida, where officials last year proposed phasing out traditional textbooks by 2015.
But South Korea’s education system has long been known for pushing the limits. It is among the world’s most demanding: Most students meet with private tutors or attend cram schools. Parents obsess over their kids’ achievement. South Korea has among the world’s highest literacy levels and highest private education spending.
“The concern about the digital textbook,” said Kwon Cha-mi, who runs the digital program at one of the pilot elementary schools in Seoul, “is that young students won’t have as much time to experience real life and real things. They’ll just see the whole world through a computer screen.”
At first glance, some of the trepidation sounds like the typical concerns of an older generation that doesn’t understand the new. But South Korean students are showing the downside of uber-stimulation.
About one in 12 students between ages 5 and 9, according to a government survey, is addicted to the Internet, meaning they become anxious or depressed if they go without access. Some experts suggest a similar problem in the United States, where between 8 percent and 12 percent of children show signs of Internet addiction, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Education officials here fear that if tablets and laptops become mandatory in the classroom, students could become even more device-dependent. They might also suffer from vision problems. Some parents, officials say, have expressed the concern that their kids will struggle to keep their focus on studying when using an Internet-connected device.
Before making a complete transition to digital books, the government should study the “health effects” on students, said Jeong Kwang-hoon, chief of the online learning division at the Korea Education and Research Information Service, a government-sponsored institute that is working with private companies to create digital textbooks.
South Korea’s education ministry never said explicitly that paper textbooks would disappear. But the 2007 plan spoke in sweeping terms about “overcoming the limit” of traditional learning, so education experts here assumed as much.
Only last summer did the government unveil the specifics. South Korea said it would introduce the first set of e-textbooks nationwide by 2015 at the latest. The content would be accessible on any device — on tablets or laptops, in classrooms or at home, on Apples or Samsungs, the homegrown electronics company whose rise corresponds with Korea’s economic emergence. But the plan was scaled back, too, with officials saying paper textbooks still need a prime place in classrooms.
“There have been some changes in ambition,” said Ra Eun-jong, the deputy director of textbook planning at the education ministry. “In some way, paper and digital textbooks will be used together. But we still haven’t figured out the best mix. . . . It might just depend on the teacher’s personal style.”
Students in classes using digital textbooks — at the beginning, they might be used only for a few subjects, such as science and social studies — will be able to retrieve their homework from a “cloud” computing network, the education ministry says. Conceivably, they will be able to access their homework in any place with Internet service or cellphone service; they could even finish up their assignments on their smartphones while riding Seoul’s subway, where the service network reaches underground.
At least 10 South Korean publishing companies are building digital textbooks. The crudest versions are much like copied pages of a traditional textbook; the pages are digital, but you can’t play around with them. The more advanced versions, though, are packed with 3-D animation and video clips. There’s also the possibility that the textbooks can be updated in real-time — although textbooks here are government-approved, and any changes would require a bureaucratic review.
Most of these publishing companies have their background in traditional textbooks, and for the moment, their developers find themselves torn between an old model and a new one. Despite higher upfront development costs, e-textbooks, stripped of the costly printing process, are typically cheaper than traditional ones. South Korea’s government has always insisted on affordable textbooks, unlike in the United States, where the market is more lucrative (South Korea’s paperbound textbooks cost about $9). But the fear among publishers is that the move to e-textbooks will cause the entire industry to shrink.
For now, one publishing executive says, companies are developing e-textbooks only because the shift is inevitable.
From surveys of the pilot schools, government officials here say digital textbooks help the attitude of students. But there’s no evidence that they help or hurt grades or retention.
Digital textbooks do, though, change the very nature of the classroom. Teachers who embrace the digital textbooks, education experts say, become more like “companions” in the education process, not just lecturing, but also helping students to conduct their own Google searches and to make sense of simulations featured in the e-textbooks.
At Seoul’s Guil Elementary School, where fifth- and sixth-graders participate in the trial, every student in the digital classrooms has a Hewlett-Packard laptop. Students toggle between their digital textbook and the Internet, which they use like an encyclopedia for fact-checking and research.
On this particular day, students are learning about pinhole cameras — a simple device that captures images upside-down.
When teacher Lee Yeon-ji asks her 24 students how the device works, she sends them to the Internet.
“I think I found something that sounds true,” one student says.
Minutes later, she asks them to double-click on a video, embedded in the digital textbook, illustrating the process. Students watch the video either on their laptops or on a high-definition monitor at the front of the classroom, in place of a chalkboard.
The Guil principal, observing in the back of the classroom, marvels at the way the students follow along, speeding between searches and simulations. “The students are focusing,” Yoon Taek-joong, the principal, says, and that sort of focus requires a digital brain.
“My brains and their brains must be totally different,” Yoon says.
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.