Interview by Robert Frederick to Dennis Normile about shadow education in South Korea

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How to be successful in PISA

South-Korean 15th year-olds are among the best performers in international comparative studies about life skills for having success in the life (OECD terminology). This result is not only the evidence showing the quality of the education system but it is the effect of a complex social and cultural organisation, putting students on a strong pressure outside schools. Nevertheless, the South Korea education system since 4 years is putting together an impressive free of cost e-learning system in competition with the shadow education for helping kids of poor social classes who cannot afford the cost of the supplementary education.



Contributing correspondent Dennis Normile writes about South Korea’s e-learning

system. Read his article in 2 January 2009 issue of Science. In addition, you can see a video introduction to the special issue about educational games and tech-based assessment.

Find the video, and the whole special section, at




Host – Robert Frederic


A recent government survey in South Korea reported that 77% of primary and secondary

students are enrolled in some kind of academic class that supplements regular classroom

instruction. To pay for it, the average family there with school-age kids spends about

one-fifth of its income, according to one study. In sum, that’s about 23 billion U.S.

dollars, which is 2 billion more than the South Korean government spends on its public

education system. In an article in this week’s Science, contributing correspondent Dennis

Normile writes on how the government is investing in an e-learning system that seeks to

reduce the huge cost of private tutors and so help those families who cannot afford it. I

spoke with Normile from his home in Japan.


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


South Korea has put together an e-learning system which has amazing flexibility and

seems to be really comprehensive and covers all the bases.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


What prompted the development of this e-learning system?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


The primary motivator was to offer an alternative to private tutoring services that many

Korean parents are turning to in order to help their kids do their best at school. The

private tutoring services, the most famous of them are the, the cram schools, which

prepare kids for the college entrance exams. But, private tutoring has gone way beyond

that, in that kids even in like fourth grade are going to private tutors in order to do better

on their regular schoolwork so that they will have better grades all through school,

because the universities are being pressured by the government to pay more attention to

factors outside the entrance exams. Those factors include the normal school grades.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


What are the characteristics of this e-learning system that allow it to compete with the

private tutoring, or the typical cram school preparation?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


Well, the construction can be individualized to a very large extent. The system starts out

with three levels of contents – let me put it this way – for each subject, and for each

grade, there’s three levels of content, of supplementary, basic and advanced, for students

who are either catching up, you know pretty much at the level of their class, and kids who

are ahead of their class. But, within that the content can be further customized by each of

the cyber teachers, customize everything from the home page that the kids log into to the

problem sets that they’re given to work with.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


I imagine all of that makes this a less expensive option than private tutoring?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


Well, it is offered to the kids for free, so it’s definitely less expensive than private



Interviewer – Robert Frederick


Who pays?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


The government. How much they’re spending on this was difficult to find out because,

although it was developed by the central government, it’s run by the sixteen individual

municipal and prefectural departments of education. And, I’m sure somebody

somewhere has put together a number on what they’re all spending on it, but I was unable

to find that.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


How does it compare in terms of the preparation? Is it leveling the playing field,

allowing those kids who are using this free system to compete with those who are given

the private tutoring?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


The results are not, may not all be in yet – the system has only been running for, it’s in its

fourth year, and they haven’t yet done any long-term studies to track how the grades, for

example, of those who use this system, as opposed to those who use private tutors. The

surveys indicate that those who are using the system are overwhelmingly pleased with it

– some have reported better grades, others have reported increased interest in the subject.

But, it’s still sort of early days to see whether this makes a difference in terms of

preparing students to get into the universities of their choice.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


How is this system being received, then, by the education community?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


Some of the educational specialists I spoke to, who are based in the United States but

familiar with this system, one, in particular, believes that this system, although Korea has

set it up to work with its grade schools and high schools, the man I spoke to believes it’s

a very good model for continuing and adult education, or any kind of education that could

take place outside the traditional school. It would still involve a cyber teacher, but the

concept could be extended to, you know, less time learning, to vocational learning, to any

kind of learning that you would want to take place outside the traditional classroom.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


As this is funded by the government, is there any likelihood that this e-learning system

would replace the school system entirely – not just for a substitute for cram schools, but

the regular government-supported public education?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


No. The system is intended to supplement the regular education system. There are some

cases in which it is being used as a replacement – for example, kids who cannot go to

school, for one reason or another – but their intent is to make it a supplement to the

regular school system.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


As a matter of policy, then.


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


As a matter of policy, but also the way it’s being used, in many cases, is that teachers are

using it to give additional help to the students they have in their regular classes. There

are some cases where cyber teachers have assembled classes of students from throughout

their district, you know, kids that they don’t see every day in the classroom. But many of

the teachers are using this to supplement classroom activities. And one teacher I spoke to

believes that, you know, technology is not going to do away with teachers – the teacher

still has a very important role to play in operating any kind of learning system whether

it’s online or face-to-face. And at least this one teacher, Song Mi Kim, believes very

strongly that there will be a continuing role for teachers, even using e-learning.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


So, the teachers teach a regular day at the classroom then they log on and help their

students further – that’s making a pretty long day for the teachers, isn’t it?


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


Yes. That seems to be one of the issues. Korea’s teachers are very dedicated, but that is

an issue. At the moment, many of them are getting minimal additional compensation for

the additional work that factors into setting up and running this e-learning classroom.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


Are there any other considerations – in, say, translating this e-learning system concept to

other countries? I imagine that this would take a lot of internet bandwidth and that kind

of infrastructure.


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


One of the things that educators I spoke to in the United States who are familiar with this

system say that one thing which is very impressive, which gives it such power, is that it

was a national initiative. The national government took the lead in setting up this – it’s

really a new kind of educational infrastructure. And once the interest of the national

government is, you know, behind such project, it has a lot more traction, you know, a lot,

many more resources can be put into it, and people think that that kind of a commitment

is one of the lessons that can be taken from Korea’s experience. However, they

recognize that not every country has the broadband infrastructure in place. And they

think that elements of the system can still be put to good use, you know, if someone is

working from contents that are loaded on a CD ROM at a computer center and not

necessarily interacting in real time with a cyber teacher. The kids would still be

interacting in real time with the software, but it wouldn’t be online. That is not the way it

works all the time, but it’s a possibility – it’s another example of the flexibility which is

built into this system.


Interviewer – Robert Frederick


Well, Dennis Normile, thank you very much.


Interviewee – Dennis Normile


Okay, thank you.


Host – Robert Frederick



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