A teacher at Seoul Girls High School conducts an online lecture on April 9. Photo: AFP

South Korea took a leap into the unknown on Thursday (April 9), when it resumed schooling suspended due to the novel coronavirus pandemic – online.

Seoul’s anti-virus campaign is being seen as the gold standard globally because it has flattened the country’s national Covid-19 curve, notably due to its testing regimen and its aggressive contact tracing.

Now the country, well known for its gleaming high-tech infrastructure, its high adoption rate of mobile devices and its minimal digital divide, is resuming schooling with social distancing in an initiative that looks likely to gain considerable global attention.

Due to the pandemic, schools have been suspended since February 23. A handful of exceptions include daycare for children with two working parents. Meanwhile, universities are ahead of schools: They have been holding online classes since the beginning of the spring semester.

The new format has not been welcomed by all. Questions are being raised over the demands placed upon teachers and over whether online education can offer the same value as offline.

Still, as the world looks to a post-pandemic future, remote-learning innovations introduced as crisis-management measures may become a desirable new normal.

No more delays

Though South Korea has locked down no cities, social distancing measures are in place. Sport seasons are indefinitely postponed and countless festivals have not taken place. But in a country whose social culture prizes education above all, schooling could not be delayed indefinitely.

“We don’t know when we can contain the virus,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Yoo Eun-hye at a news briefing on March 31. “[But]we cannot stop educating our students and we should re-start schools any way we can, right now.”

About 1.5 billion children around the world are currently shut out of school due to Covid-19 risks.

“There’s bound to be chaos at the scene of schools because we are doing this for the first time,” Yoo admitted. “But we will get through it together.”

Today’s step is a phase one.

Students in grades 4-8 and 10 and 11 will start online-schooling on April 16. First- to third-grade students will follow on April 20. The phase-in is designed to ease all stakeholders – teachers, students, parents – in as gently as possibly, allowing kinks to be worked out before going 100%.

The grades which kicked off Thursday are the most sensitive: pupils in them face, respectively, high-school and university entrance exams. And the government has bowed to public pressure in a related area.

Critical to almost every Korean’s life is the Korean Scholastic Ability Test, or KSAT – the university entrance exam. A high KSAT score grants entry to a top-notch university, with the attendant prestige and networking benefits that can last a lifetime

Seoul has announced that this year’s KSAT, set for November 19, will be postponed until December 3.

How to: pros

The Ministry of Education is giving teachers considerable leeway. “We have suggested various tools that schools can use,” Kwon Ji-young, director of the e-learning office at the Ministry of Education, told Asia Times. 

These include conferencing app Zoom, educational website Classting on which teachers upload lectures, and Educational Broadcasting System, or EBS, Korea’s educational TV channel/online service.

Early indications are that teachers were prepared.

Kim Jae-sung, a 12th-grade student at Wonjong High School in Bucheon, southwest of Seoul, told Asia Times that he is taking lectures uploaded by his teacher. “I was told to register for courses to take on ‘Classting’ and my attendance can be checked after finishing daily assignments,” Kim said.  

Though Kim took his first “official” class online today, he had been getting information from his homeroom teacher since early March, when the semester was originally scheduled to start.

Jang Eun-ki, a 12th grader at the same school, told Asia Times that he and his classmates are taking classes via EBS.

“No matter what format we have to use for taking classes, we have to fully pay attention,” Jang said; he will be sitting the fearsome KSAT in December.

Still, however web-savvy young Koreans may be, some hiccups are already apparent.

How to: cons

“I was asked to download Zoom for classes, but I have no idea how to use it,” Park In-joo, a 9th grader at Bukok Middle School in Bucheon told Asia Times.

Park’s homeroom teacher had been told to use Zoom just prior to the start of online schooling, but it proved too challenging to conduct classes via the unfamiliar platform. Park’s teacher, who had already created a chat group for her pupils on popular messenger app Kakao, switched from Zoom to EBS programming on Wednesday.

That also proved problematic.

“It was hard to access EBS when so many students were accessing the website this morning,” said Cho Sung-hae, a classmate of Park.

Cho accepted the inevitability of online schooling, but added that class quality is bound to fall. “Many students are just playing on their phone and doing something else during online classes,” Cho said.

Park also said the assignments are overly easy. Though EBS classes are meant to constitute a full school day, ending at 4 pm, most class videos are less than 10 minutes. “We can finish our classes by noon,” said Park.

The Ministry of Education announced Tuesday that it would provide guidelines for every school on grading, attendance checks and student records. However, these are still in the works.

“Ms Lee” – a teacher at a middle school outside Seoul, told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that teachers are bearing the bulk of the burden and criticized lack of consultation.

“The Ministry of Education should know that we have to follow their orders no matter how hard it is,” she said. “It would be better if we had more time to prepare.”  She added that classes such as PE, music and art are unsuited to online teaching. 

“We will finally get used to it, but I really hope no more decisions come out from the vain discussion of government officials,” said Lee, adding that she was exhausted from checking daily updates from the ministry. 

Loci of debate

Lee is not the only critic. “Mrs Seo,” a mother of two schoolchildren, told Asia Times of her concerns about  inequality. 

“Isn’t it fair to say that inequality of access to educational services may happen to students who are not familiar with using online sources?” she asked.

However, steps are being taken to narrow an already narrow digital divide.

“We will ensure that all students have access to the Internet,” vowed Kim Sung-geun, a director of the school innovation support office of the Ministry of Education, in an interview with a local news outlet on Monday.

Kim said more than 90% of students have smartphones, and the Ministry of Education has prepared measures to support low-income families.

Kim said that roughly 280,000 mobile devices are available at educational offices and schools for students who lack them. Authorities will also provide access to data services.

Local pollster Realmeter found that 60.5% of Koreans support starting online schooling; 23.2% were against; the remainder were undecided.  

The government has requested public cooperation on social distancing measures through April 19. The Ministry of Education expects offline schools to restart in late April or early May.

“We expect students to go to school once or twice a week from late April and take mid-term exams in May,” Education Minister Yoo said at a demonstration online class with children on Wednesday. 

Winners and losers

Universities are already weeks into online teaching.

Hong Say-young, who teaches social welfare at Anyang University, uses a local program to film and edit lectures, which she uploads onto YouTube. Students watch online and communicate with her via text or email.

Michael Hurt, an American who teaches art history at Korea National University of the Arts says he prefers a Socratic method – so is teaching classes in real-time via Zoom, which enables student feedback.  Students also converse on his course’s Facebook page.

Hong previously lectured at Seoul Cyber University but for many of her colleagues, online teaching has proved challenging.

“I am accustomed to online lectures and most of my students don’t complain,” she said – but has heard from colleagues that they are facing student pushback. “Most students don’t know what is behind their professor’s endeavors – they are working hard!”

As a result, pressure is building against university fees, with some students already demanding refunds.

“There is going to be a reckoning as students are complaining with good reason: A lot of professors can’t convert,” Hurt said. “If you are a 62-year-old professor doing things a certain way for 25 years, converting to online is challenging at best, impossible at worst. Expecting to maintain reasonable quality is a big expectation.”

Another issue is professors making themselves dispensible.

“If I put my content online and structure it in a way that you don’t need me – well, you don’t need me!” said Hurt, who said he was not uploading to YouTube. “Am I going to be paid for use of my content? This is a major complaint I hear from colleagues in Korea and everywhere else.”

Accelerating into tomorrow

Remote learning is not new – from the UK’s TV-based Open University to MOOCs (Massive Online Lecture Courses) offered by prestige universities including Harvard and MIT. However, the current unprecedented crisis is prodding education further down the remote path than it has ever ventured before.

“This pandemic has forced changes in the way we work in education that needed to be done a long time ago because we had the technical capability,” Hurt said. “Does it make sense for 30, 40 or 50 people to spend time and resources to meet in a physical space? For all the lip service paid to the Fourth Industrial Revolution we [academics] have been reluctant to take the lead.”

Hurt, whose school has two campuses, notes that Internet classes now allow students who previously could not attend in person to do so online.

Hong reckons that online classes are “a useful supplement” but is hoping things will return to normal: There is talk that offline lectures will resume in around two weeks. Mid-term exams can be converted to assignments, she said, but finals will have to be done in a monitored lecture hall.

“Online is more efficient,” Hong said. “But the offline lesson is more effective.”