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[Herald Interview] Minister turns to AI classes to cool competition in education

S. Korea to adopt world’s 1st digital textbook and AI tutoring for public education system to reduce heavy reliance on private sector, says education minister

By Park Jun-hee, Cho Chung-un

Published : June 8, 2023 - 17:24

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Education Minister Lee Ju-ho speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday at the Government Complex Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Education Minister Lee Ju-ho speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday at the Government Complex Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Education Minister Lee Ju-ho is attempting to change the course of South Korea’s education system by adopting artificial intelligence technology in all public school classrooms, which the minister claims will transform the nation’s hypercompetitive education culture and make it the first country in the world to adopt such measures at scale.

Calling it a “paradigm shift,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday that the new plan of replacing paper-based textbooks with digital devices and AI-powered learning system, is aimed at solving educational inequality and reducing the heavy reliance on private education.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy spent a record-high 26 trillion won ($20 billion) on private education last year, with parents sending children to cram schools, called hagwon, to get good scores in the heated race to prestigious colleges.

“Students would connect to the cloud via electronic devices and access AI tutors for one-on-one personalized learning. Meanwhile, teachers would look after students’ social and emotional behaviors or offer a curriculum centering around active learning,” Lee said.

“The traditional learning method was the driving force behind the country’s rapid development, but it needs to be upgraded to an education model that fits the 21st century. The 19th century copy and paste model doesn’t work because it only requires memorizing textbooks,” he said.

Under the new policy unveiled on Thursday, elementary third- and fourth-grade students, as well as middle school and high school first graders, will be the first to benefit from the shift starting the new academic year in March 2025. Elementary fifth and sixth graders, as well as middle school second graders will use the digital textbooks in 2026. Meanwhile, middle school third graders will start learning from the textbooks in 2027.

In 2025 digital textbooks will begin with four subjects: mathematics, English, informatics and Korean language textbooks for students with disabilities. Afterward, they will be adopted for Korean, social studies, science, history and other subjects by 2028. Using personalized dashboards, students will interact with AI tutors through the textbooks. AI tutors will offer tailor-made content based on a student’s academic understanding. Parents will also be able to gain knowledge about their children’s academic status and performance via a customized dashboard which includes comments and evaluations made by AI tutors. With the related information, parents can guide their children in their learning.

The ministry said it will start educating teachers on AI textbooks in the latter half of the year. It added that a system that could shield students from harmful content is also underway, explaining that the ministry is committed to building a “safe learning environment” for both students and teachers.

Digital textbooks, however, will not be implemented for elementary first and second graders, as such exposure in early childhood education could disrupt students’ development. In addition, high school electives, ethics, music, art and physical education will not be subject to digitalization.

The AI scheme is expected to bring a physical change to classroom operations, where human teachers focus more on nurturing students’ social and emotional development. When asked whether the new system could mean that students do not have to be physically present in a classroom for certain digitalized lessons, the minister said this was possible, as students would be given access to a cloud network that they can access anytime, anywhere.

However, as the proposed plan is yet to be finalized, no specific details were provided on how student participation would be tracked and verified. The ministry said it would unveil more information in August.

‘Help students think outside the box’

The minister also noted that digital learning environments shoulder a key role in offering students a chance to explore society beyond the classroom.

“The use of AI in education would eventually foster students’ social interactions and character-building. These are pivotal elements in helping them be students asking questions in class,” Lee said.

“Students will be able to think outside the box, explore answers to their own questions, think creatively and be engaged in finding solutions during class,” he said.

The ministry is also planning to include language support for students from multicultural backgrounds who might confront difficulties with the Korean language, he added. The ministry has yet to disclose how many languages it would support for AI-based education. In addition to multi-language support, digital textbooks will be equipped with subtitle services for students and teachers with disabilities.

The rationale behind such an “innovative” policy drive stems from the public’s desire for a change in South Korea’s education system, which still relies heavily on textbooks and memorization-based lectures. These features are the biggest reason why students place importance on private education, according to the minister. Heated competition accompanies such rote learning, since performing well on tests among peers assures entrance to top universities, Lee said.

“Private education has replaced public education, so students turn to private education to earn good scores on memorization-based tests. This has only widened education disparity and triggered competition among peers,” Lee said.

When asked about his view on South Korea’s enduring education fever, wherein certain kindergarteners are sent to hagwon to prepare for medical school enrollment, the minister said that household spending on private education appears to have reached its peak, leaving no room for further expansion.

“The ministry is bringing what’s being done in the private sector to public education. In the long run, this will make private education less significant, and well-off kids will no longer have advantages over their peers.”

Placing humanity and creativity at the core of AI-driven education, the minister said the blueprint starts from the “high-touch, high-tech” initiative. South Korea is the first country in the world experimenting with AI technology with the public education. It is possible due to the country’s technological prowess as well as the government’s education budget that become more available with declining number of students.

‘Golden time for change’

“Now is the ‘golden time’ for change, as we nurture young talent. Focusing on each student has become easier with a lower population than before. The digital shift will bode well for the future by suggesting new learning practices,” Lee said.

The AI scheme first emerged in February, when the ministry rolled out its digitalization plan aimed at providing individualized education -- a service previously only available in the private sector -- to students relying on public education. Under the plan, each education office will supply electronic devices to students, alleviating the financial burden on low-income students in sustaining online learning.

Electronic gadgets have been distributed to more than 60 percent of the student population -- except for elementary first and second graders who are not subject to the digital shift -- by each education office, according to the ministry. It added that it is currently in talks with the Ministry of Science and ICT regarding developing AI textbooks and supplying devices.

The ministry said the AI policy would be the second-biggest change in Korean education following the May 31 Education Reform administered by the former Kim Young-sam government in 1995, which included increased government education spending to 5 percent of gross domestic product and communication technology in schools.

Despite the ministry’s effort to seek a breakthrough, the AI policy has drawn heavy backlash, with many worrying that it could disrupt children’s ability to learn in classroom environments. Parents also questioned the feasibility of applying technology to traditional classes.

But Lee is betting big on digitalized education to ease the cutthroat education system and level the playing field, since students can learn at their own pace without having to compete with their classmates.

Slowly but surely, Lee believes digitalized classrooms will ease the college admissions rat race, as test scores won’t carry the same weight as today.

“Students would no longer have to prove the result of their learning through handwritten tests during midterms and finals. Instead, AI-powered textbook tutors would regularly check students’ performance and focus on what students need to know based on their strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

“In the end, the criteria for assessing students’ learning outcomes -- which is currently based on test scores -- will change, and students’ academic standards will also change. Eventually, it will ease competition for college admissions since universities will start assessing students based on AI education,” Lee said, adding that the next administration should also take on the task of changing the education system because it is a long-term task.

Lee, known as one of the architects of South Korea’s current education policy, is a two-time education minister. He served as education minister in 2010 for three years under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. During his tenure as chairperson of the Education Commission Asia in 2019, he researched how education could become more accessible to students at orphanages, welfare facilities and even economically disadvantaged families if offered digitally.

The essence of education is to help students put citizenship into practice and become productive members of society, the minister said, noting that it should help nurture young talent who can later contribute to the workforce.

“AI-backed education will allow students to explore diverse career paths beyond the medical profession. They’ll be able to pursue diverse careers in society and follow their dreams.”