South Korea's announcement that it will ban all school paper textbooks and replace them with electronic tablets by 2014 should ring alarm bells in the United States, Europe and Latin America — many of our children run the risk of being left even farther behind their digital-savvy Asian counterparts.
Already, according to a new study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea is the top country in the world where 15-year-old students make the best use of Internet-connected computers in schools.
Perhaps not by coincidence, South Korea is also one of the world's leading countries in student test scores. In the latest worldwide PISA test of 15-year-old students, it ranked No. 2 in students' reading comprehension, after Shanghai, China. The United States ranked 17th, Spain 33rd and the highest-ranking Latin American country, Chile, 44th.
Now, the learning gap between South Korean students and those of most Western countries may widen further.
The South Korean government said it will invest $2 billion over the next two years to provide all elementary school children with free electronic tablets connected to the Internet, and — most important — with customized e-learning programs. The plan is scheduled to be extended to all high school students by 2015.
In the Americas, only one country, Uruguay, has one computer per child in all elementary public schools. While Uruguay is a pioneer worldwide on this, not all of its school computers are connected to the Internet, nor use digitalized learning programs. In high schools, there are five students per computer in the United States, seven in South Korea, 11 in Mexico, 17 in Peru, 20 in Chile, 25 in Uruguay, 25 in Argentina and 33 in Brazil, according to the latest OECD figures.
But the biggest significance of the South Korean plan is that its school tablets will use exclusively custom-made e-learning programs, says Eugenio Severin, an Inter American Development Bank specialist on digital education in Latin America and the Caribbean.
"This means that they will no longer spend money in paper, printing and distribution," Severin told me. "They will use multimedia technologies that make learning more fun, and more effective."
Granted, many of you are probably wondering whether we should embrace this trend, and throw the traditional school textbooks away.
There are legitimate questions on whether digital education is a magic pill. You may argue that the reason why South Korean kids do better in standardized test scores is because they study harder, and longer, rather than because they use computers.
Indeed, most South Korean youths spend 12 hours or more a day studying in school and at home, and their school year lasts 216 days a year, compared with 180 days in the United States, and less in most Latin American countries. During a recent visit to Honduras, I was shocked to learn that the school year there averages 140 days a year.
Severin told me that a recent IADB study he co-authored confirms that, despite problems with lack of technical support and training for teachers, computers in schools improve academic standards, and narrow the digital gap between children from affluent homes and poor ones.
"South Korea's education achievements are not the product of improvisation," he added. "It's the result of 20 years of steady investments in education and education technology."
My opinion: Fortunately, many Latin American countries, led by Uruguay, have begun providing free laptops to students. But in many cases, it amounts to little more than giveaway programs, which help governments win elections but don't necessarily improve education standards if they are not accompanied by good teacher training and tech support plans.
The key to educational progress in Latin America is continuity — making sure that every new government doesn't undo what it inherited from its predecessor.
To ensure progress, countries should seek political agreements between major political parties that commit them to pursue mutually agreed long-term education plans. If that doesn't work, they should create powerful civil society groups — backed by the biggest private sector companies, as it happens in Brazil — to put pressure on governments to meet long-term education goals.
Successful countries know that education is an investment that pays off in 15 or 20 years, and make long-term plans. South Korea did precisely that, and it worked.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; email: email@example.com.