Lessons from South Korea on the Future of Online Education


  • The implementation of online education in South Korea has been relatively smooth, thanks to the country’s excellent internet infrastructure.
  • However, many students and teachers have expressed their dissatisfaction with this new paradigm.
  • As the experiences of South Korea show, implementing online education requires long-term systemic change supported by policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced virtually all schools and universities to switch to online education in South Korea. The country’s transition to online education has generally gone smoothly, and the reason is clear; South Korea has one of the better IT infrastructure in the world.

Before the pandemic, the country had achieved 99% of 4G coverage, with 5G being implemented; in addition, about 75% of households had access to computers, and 99.5% had internet access. Coupled with the country’s priority on education, this inevitably makes the easy implementation of online education and the widespread acceptance of this mode by students and teachers alike.

The government of President Moon Jae-in has made every effort to ensure the continuity of education in these difficult times. The government has expanded public infrastructure by increasing the capacity of e-learning platforms to support millions of students, from a few thousand. In addition, it has helped build teaching capacity by providing peer coaching and mentoring programs for teachers. An example is “The community of 10,000 representative teachers“, which encourages teachers to share their ideas and information about education online. The government has also shared relevant guidelines and provided real-time support for teachers, parents and students to use the education platforms online, and worked with the private sector to resolve the issue.In addition, it provides commendable devices at zero cost to thousands of students and has offered this policy to educational institutions to ensure inclusion of disadvantaged students in online courses.

How South Korea's higher education sector embraced e-learning

How South Korea’s higher education sector embraced e-learning

Image: Korea Economic Daily

However, South Korea’s impressive IT infrastructure and the government’s proactive measures to implement online education are not translating into widespread acceptance of online education. For example, a recent study reveals very low student satisfaction rates with their online learning experience, even as 50% of students considered taking time off in their second semester. These students cite the low quality of courses (37.9%) and their dissatisfaction with tuition fees (28%) as the main reasons for their dissatisfaction. Additionally, students and teachers lack the technical skills to effectively interact in online classroom environments. This is not surprising, as students and faculty said they were not trained to interact in the distance learning environment. In addition, the absence of a policy for standardizing online education has led to various operations between schools, which further aggravates the educational divide.

In summary, online platforms and technologies are not ready to effectively deliver educational content as in face-to-face classes. The situation is even worse in engineering schools; in a survey targeting students and faculty from different engineering departments at universities, 33% said the courses were ineffective. Only 5% indicated that they were satisfied with the courses. Among professors, 42% of science and engineering professors said they were dissatisfied, and only 12% were satisfied. These results suggest that some classes are best conducted offline. Although virtual reality is offered as a solution, it will take some time to realize this technology in practice. In the same way, university presidents cite other challenges (see figure below), such as difficulties in reforming institutions and preparing content, managing pressures to provide additional financial resources, lack of government support in the implementation of e-learning and managing widespread resistance to the integration of technology in education.

Online transition is far from smooth, say private university presidents

Image: Dong-A Ilbo

The limits of online education

Additionally, it is clear that some aspects of college education, including peer learning and interactions with faculty, campus dorm life, and college games, cannot be “Zoomed in.” Therefore, universities and colleges have recently started to implement a hybrid education model, in which courses are taught online and offline. This emerging trend allows us to imagine a new era of “hybridetact“(see figure below), where the best features of online education (contactless) and offline courses (contact) are optimized to provide the best teaching and learning experiences for teachers and For example, by leveraging the Internet and online learning platforms’ potential, educational institutions can optimize their resources to improve the access of millions of students to less expensive education. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and courses such as Georgia Tech’s Online Masters in Computer Science exemplify these exciting possibilities.

South Korea has long been preparing for the advent of this era; for example, the Ministry of Science and ICT has set up the K-MOOC, which targets leading science universities and is accessible to the public. However, adoption has been slow and it remains underwritten.

The 'hybridtact' approach

The ‘hybridtact’ approach

Image: Authors

The need for systemic change

There is an emerging consensus that the future of education is ‘hybridetact’. However, to realize this exciting future, governments should consider education reforms that go beyond infrastructure and access-oriented measures. The case of South Korea shows that education reform requires long-term thinking and systematic transformations that aim to make technologies, including online platforms, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, components full-fledged educational systems. Governments should also facilitate the training and engagement of teachers, professors, students and parents on a larger scale.

In addition, we must transform teaching and learning; work hard to change cultures and create incentives for professors, teachers, students and parents; and transforming education business models to meet the demands of the new era. Therefore, we propose that governments and stakeholders focus on policies that promote tech-friendly environments to mitigate technological resistance, synonymous with current e-learning and teaching experiences. Ultimately, this can lead to the development of social trust and agreement regarding “hybridtact” education.

Second, there is a need to implement policies that support online education infrastructures – for example, platforms, devices and internet connectivity – alongside policies that target system and societal transformations. . These include improving capacities such as implementing programs to train students, teachers and school staff in online education, reforming university systems and fostering collaborations between institutions.

Finally, after consultation with stakeholders, laws and policies should be enacted to establish a legal basis for distance education and promote Internet standardization in educational institutions. This will help minimize confusion between teachers and students and bridge the educational gap.

In conclusion, the case of South Korea reveals that having the infrastructure and access to effectively deliver online education is not enough. Systematic thinking and system-wide reforms are needed to embrace the possibilities offered by technology and large-scale training and stakeholder engagement.


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