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July 11, 2011 8:32 AM

South Korea Embarrassing US In Race To Digitize Education

Recently South Korea made the kind of announcement that makes me a bit embarrassed to be an American and quite envious of South Korea's ability to consistently raise the bar for themselves and therefore the rest of the world in terms of how they're embracing broadband to revolutionize their society.

This announcement was South Korea's intentions to spend $2 billion over the next five years to transition fully from paper textbooks to digital.

Their vision is pretty straightforward: every South Korean student having their own device (most having purchased it themselves, with subsidized units for the poor) and having access to a comprehensive selection of robust digital textbooks.

As they're planning on most students purchasing their own devices, the bulk of this money's going to be spent on producing the content of the digital textbooks, which is really smart as hardware can be commoditized but without content this whole endeavor's meaningless.

I find this to be a really profound move across multiple levels.

For one there's the obvious potential benefits of moving away from paper textbooks to students. While there's still a lot that has to go right for this to work, assuming it does it'll mean South Korean students will have access to more information presented in more dynamic ways through this initiative, which should improve their learning overall while also continuing to make them more and more comfortable using information technology, plus I bet they have less back trouble as they free themselves from having to lug around stacks of books.

Secondly, there are clear benefits to school systems as they'll no longer have to worry about replacing outdated paper textbooks, which should save them the overhead of purchasing and distributing new books while simultaneously making sure students always have access to the latest information rather than having to balance educational need with the fiscal constraints of schools when deciding how often to update paper books.

Third, I think this could have profound economic development implications. Through these efforts, South Korea's going to become a clear global leader in the production and utilization of digital textbooks. Not only will this create opportunities for companies domestically, but it could position those that are most innovative in South Korea, especially in the creation of interactive content, to grab significant share of the global market, which should boom over the next decade.

All in all this effort has the potential to be a tremendous investment in South Korea's future, both in the direct impact it should have on education and the potential long-term impact on digital economic development.

So how is South Korea embarrassing the US? Well let's compare/contrast our efforts on this side of the Pacific.

While I'm not intimately aware of all that's going on at the Department of Education, a program I am familiar with, which is one of the strongest and biggest when it comes to supporting digital education in the US, is e-rate, a program within the Universal Service Fund (USF) that helps subsidized the communications costs of schools and libraries.

Each year we're spending about $2.5 billion through e-rate, which sounds pretty respectable compared to the one-time investment of $2 billion that South Korea's making. But unfortunately this rosy comparison is only skin deep.

Today pretty much all of that money is being used to subsidize the cost of communications services like broadband or telephone service. How effective has this been? A recent survey showed 80% of e-rate recipients indicated inadequate access to bandwidth, either because it's too expensive or not capacious enough.

Now the buzz in DC telecom policy circles is USF reform. In particular, a proposal has circulated to expand eligibility for reimbursement from e-rate to ebooks. Unfortunately, the proposal makes no mention of expanding the pool of funding available. It's important to note that e-rate's already arguably underfunded as each year there are more requests for subsidies than there's money to give.

So basically, while South Korea's investing $2 billion in establishing a robust digital textbook infrastructure, we're making what will likely be a tiny fraction of that available not through a coordinated national initiative but simply to those individual school systems that are ahead of the curve.

As another point of reference, South Korea is a country of just under 50 million people. That means an equivalent investment by the US in digital textbooks should be more than $10 billion. Yet we'll be lucky if a few hundred million gets invested. Plus, our approach is to be consumers of textbooks rather than producers, meaning fewer economies of scale and less hope of US companies becoming global leaders in the production of digital textbooks.

All in all, this is another example of the glaring, and unfortunately seemingly widening, gap between a country with a clear strategic plan for how to get the most out of broadband to become a leader in the global digital economy and a country that may have once been known for having big vision but today seems only capable of taking half steps forward with no clear direction of where we're going. I'll let you guess which country is which.

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