Seoul, South Korea—Many textbooks at Osandaewon Elementary School here are digital, and many classrooms feature a laptop on every desk. The school is part of a major e-textbook experiment run by the South Korean government, and it offers lessons for colleges looking to replace printed class materials with electronic ones.
Last week the school invited a small group of participants from the e-Learning Week 2010 conference to see the e-textbooks in action, and I was able to tag along. After a snack of tea and cookies served by mothers dressed in hanbok, we were allowed to briefly watch four different classes of students using the e-textbooks.
The classrooms looked like a TV ad for a technology company—the sixth-grade students happily clicked away on laptops, while their teachers showed video clips and PowerPoint presentations on a large touch-screen computer monitor built into the chalkboard.
In one classroom, students filled out a worksheet onscreen, and no one seemed to have any software glitches or trouble working the computers. The teachers are able to peek at any of their pupils’ screens at a master-control computer at the podium, and they can even send text messages to any student who seems off task or distracted.
Next door, students were doing a group project that blended digital video-editing with old-fashioned arts and crafts. The assignment was to create a TV weather report based on local temperatures they had to find online. Each group decorated a poster board to serve as the backdrop for its broadcast. One student acted as the weatherperson, two held the poster board, and another directed the recording, using the Webcam on the laptop. Then the students edited their video, adding in a title screen, and posted it to the password-protected class Web site so their parents could view them later.
Park Sunyoung (above), a 12-year-old who served as the on-air talent for her group, said she liked the e-textbooks and the many activities they did on the laptops. She said her favorite part was being able to find a wide range of material (from the real world) for class-research projects, rather than just what was in a fixed text.
Jo Seong Woo, her teacher, said in a presentation after class that the biggest challenge of the project has been finding or producing quality content to put in the e-textbooks or class exercises. Doing so takes time or money to secure it from other sources.
Twenty-five schools in South Korea are participating in the pilot project, which began in 2007 with 14 schools and has grown steadily.
Officials at the school said their research showed that students in mathematics classes who used digital textbooks performed better than those with traditional materials, although no numbers were given.
At a session at the e-learning conference later in the week, Jeong-Im Choi of Kwandong University gave a more critical view of the project, in a session titled “Problems and Difficulties in Self-Learning With Mathematics Digital Textbook.”
“The system is not stable yet,” she said, “so students experience many system errors or blank screens.”
Another challenge was logistical. Because the laptops were heavy and valuable, the students were not allowed to carry them home from school. Though the digital textbooks could be accessed from home computers, some students had trouble getting to the materials at home.
Another problem: The e-textbooks made it difficult for students to write out the steps they took in a math problem. And in some cases, the e-textbook’s self-guided quizzes did not give detailed feedback on why a student got a problem right or wrong.
And echoing the teacher who spoke at the demonstration, the study showed that teachers had trouble creating the multimedia content for the textbooks.
While at their best, the e-textbooks provide more interactive and engaging classroom experiences, they seem to be high-maintenance.