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Worldwide Locations

No More Pencils, No More Books

(sturti/iStockPhoto)

(sturti/iStockPhoto)

The popular children's chant may have a whole new meaning before long. State and federal government agencies have talked about and passed legislation to move towards digital education. With the rise of tablets on iBook publishing, a new age of learning may be upon us.

The American education system, however, must proceed with great caution that this trend does not lead to a new digital divide and greater inequity among students accessing a good education.

Let me explain by comparing the paths two nations are taking.

Korea's Rise as a Digital Powerhouse

South Korea has pledged that all elementary and secondary schools will be completely digital by the year 2015. The ministry of education will ensure that every student has access to a mobile device, a strong connection to the Internet, and a cloud-computing network dedicated to education.

In many ways, this isn't a great leap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) listed South Korea—with Internet speeds on average three times faster than that in the United States—as the leading nation on their survey of digital literacy. "Digital technologies provide a great opportunity to make students more active participants in classroom learning," said Barbara Ischinger, OECD Director of Education. "[It helps] to tailor learning ... and to give students access to the world's current research and thinking."

What's remarkable is that this ranking, according to the Korean Ministry of Education, is not good enough. The Ministry has since targeted their policies and some $2.4 billion in funding so that best practices in digital learning become the norm for all students within three years.

UNESCO has documented through a series of reports how South Korea has equitably integrated digital computing in schools on a national level. Formal standards for teacher education and training, among other best practices, are now being shared widely by the international agency.

School systems around the world are watching Korea, not just for its high-achievement rates, but also to see if it succeeds in being the first country to go entirely digital.

United States' Hope

Last week, computer giant Apple announced the iBook2, a powerful platform for textbooks. It released iBook Author, a free app that allows anyone to publish educational content. Apple also announced that iTunes U, the world's largest repository of educational content, is now available to elementary and secondary schools in 123 countries.

Apple's announcement may well be a game changer, but it follows a long line of private tech companies creating tools, sharing content, and offering training to the education industry.

There's also political will backing digital learning. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a plan titled "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology." One of its key goals is wide-scale adoption of digital learning.

In 2011, the federal government developed an independent non-profit called Digital Promise, whose mission is "to support a ... research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education ... in order to provide Americans with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy."

States are getting in the game, too. Last summer, Florida announced its goal to phase out textbooks in favor of digital learning by the year 2015. And Alabama representatives are planning to introduce the "Alabama Ahead Act" which would allow schools to purchase electronic tablets instead of textbooks. The state has already made large investments in statewide broadband service.

Is digital learning an area where American ingenuity and innovation can be bolstered by public policy? Can it mean equal access to cutting-edge, excellent education is attainable?

In order to realize this vision our systems need to be aligned.

In a recently released study, only one out of five teachers believe they have the know-how to teach effectively with technology, despite a 91% rate of digital access.

Three lessons we can learn from Korea:

  • Schools of education must model this type of teaching and learning for a new generation of teachers.
  • Funding shouldn't necessarily be equitable, but rather that it should lead to equitable outcomes.
  • We need to move beyond pilots and focus on ensuring every student has access to best practices.

Innovations must be matched with supportive policies, not to mention supportive teachers and parents. One thing we know from OECD studies is that excellence in education cannot happen without equity. Let's not let the promise of e-learning go by the wayside when there are successful models that show us the right way.