The Korea Herald


Education jolted by pandemic, learning gap widens

Home environment, income, teacher’s ability to adapt make all the difference

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 2, 2021 - 16:00

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A teacher at an elementary school in Seoul communicates with students via a desktop computer. (Yonhap) A teacher at an elementary school in Seoul communicates with students via a desktop computer. (Yonhap)
Sohn Eun-jeong, the mother of a 10-year-old elementary school student, is considering quitting her job. She felt guilty that she has not paid enough attention to her child’s education because of work. She recently found out that her son did not attend his school’s online classes. Instead, he played a computer game in his room and his grandmother had no idea what he was doing. The son said the online educational videos were too boring and his teacher did not give him feedback even when he asked.

“He is now going into fourth grade and it’s time to develop a habit of studying. I think I can no longer neglect his studies,” Sohn said.

Eight months since South Korea introduced online learning, many students, parents and teachers are struggling with remote learning. People’s homes have now become classrooms and students who are less well-off and without family support are even more at a disadvantage.

“For remote learning, students in the lower grades face more challenges. Without an adult to help, it is very challenging for young kids to get up on time, control digital devices and follow the learning process,” said Shin So-young, a researcher at the World Without Worries About Shadow Education, an education NGO in Seoul.

“Even middle school students can easily get distracted if they are not highly self-directed in the absence of both teachers and parents,” she said.

Kim Na-eun, who is in her second year of middle school, said that in 2020, she spent most of her time at home with her brother, who is in high school. Her parents both work.

“My grades dropped a lot this year. I didn’t understand much of what we learned because I just kept doing other things while attending online classes. I got lazy when I listened to the classes at home, so I sometimes slept while they were on,” she said.

“I think I can concentrate better if I go to school, or if my mom stays at home.”

A digital barrier for teachers

Because schools have no guidelines to follow for online classes, the quality of classes solely depend on their teachers. If teachers are passionate, tech-savvy and willing to make creative content, they can offer better educational materials to their students. If not, students are left watching dull videos without being checked.

Kim’s brother, who took the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) this year, thinks online learning is not the future because there are teachers who still find it difficult to handle devices.

“There was a time we were not able to have an entire class because a teacher didn’t know how to unmute on Zoom. An hour later, a teacher from the next class came in and helped to solve it,” he said.

A freelance teacher surnamed Nah, who is also a mother of two sons in elementary school, said, “Mostly, a teacher’s passion and sincerity in class seems to play a large part,” But she admitted that, “Even with passion, it may not be easy to make good online content without a high digital capacity.”

She gives lectures on the proper use of games for elementary school students nationwide. She usually spends two to three days preparing for a one-and-half hour class.

For private schools, there are fewer concerns. Teachers, classes and curriculums are more systematically managed under the supervision of a principal.

Lee Sun-ah, who sends her son to a private school in Jamsil, said, “All classes are perfectly two-way. If a child is found to be slow in following a class, a teacher intervenes. I can see teachers put a great amount of effort into making class creative, dynamic and interactive. My child doesn’t seem to be bored.”

“The teacher uses diverse ways of encouraging students to participate in classes. They let children upload their assignments online, other peers evaluate them and divide them into small groups to discuss several topics.”

Not all parents can afford to send their child to an expensive private school. The average annual tuition for the nation’s private elementary schools is 12.95 million won ($11,858), compared to 510,000 won for public elementary schools, as of 2019.

For some, pandemic is opportunity

For students from high-income families, the pandemic is rather an opportunity to widen the gap.

A mother surnamed Lee, who sends her son to a private middle school in Seoul, said, “I tell my son to use coronavirus as an opportunity. He can spend more time in doing assignments for tutoring and cram schools as he can save commuting time.”

She is quite satisfied with her son’s online classes. “The school seems to retain a similar quality of classes and I can provide my child with extra guidance at home. When he was in school, I didn’t know what was lacking, but now it’s good to know that.”

A teacher surnamed Kim, who teaches at an elite foreign language high school in Seoul, also said, his students seem to have taken advantage of the pandemic period.

His school -- whose annual tuition is over 10 million won -- adapted quickly to virtual learning in the early days of the pandemic, and currently online classes are quite stabilized.

“Because most of students are quite self-directed and have a high ability to utilize video classes, their grades are not much different from last year’s,” he said.

“(Despite the pandemic) They also continued to go to cram schools at Daechi-dong,” he said. Daechi-dong, an affluent neighborhood in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, is known for its expensive private academies.

Education gap widely felt nationwide

A recent survey showed that both teachers and parents are concerned about the educational gap caused by online learning.

According to a survey released on November by the National Education Council of 7,623 parents and 5,119 teachers, 92.2 percent of teachers and 89.6 percent of parents said if online classes continue, the educational gap between learners will widen.

In another survey released by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Tuesday of 100 citizens, 96 percent said there has been a learning gap since the beginning of coronavirus. The biggest factors were differences in “academic interests of individuals and parents,” “private education” and “family economic conditions.”

The results of the June mock evaluation of the 2021 CSAT also showed that the gap between the top and bottom ranks widened and but the median was reduced.

In the English section, the ratio of first-class students, the top-tier, rose slightly from last year‘s CSAT (7.4 percent), but the proportion of second- to fourth-class students, which is classified as middle-class, decreased.

Amid growing concerns on virtual learning, the Ministry of Education said in December it will begin to innovate the education system in earnest in the wake of the post-coronavirus era. Real-time two-way classes, which were applied to some schools on a trial basis this year, will be fully introduced from 2021.

Shin from the World Without Worries About Shadow Education said the education policy focusing exclusively on digital technologies can only be a stop-gap policy if more ideas on how to make curriculums suitable for online classes do not follow.

“The current class curriculum is still based on offline learning and does not reflect the characteristics of online learning. Teachers are overburdened by the progress of the curriculum, which is too fast and too much to follow online. The online curriculum needs to be substantially reduced in quantity,” Shin said.

“The minimum amount of achievement should be set nationwide so that students can fully digest what they are studying, even if they learn only one thing,” she said.

By Shin Ji-hye (