I have written often about the economics of printing books on paper versus electronic publication. I believe the world is rapidly moving to a more cost-effective environment of electronic publishing for most text materials. One more piece of evidence of that shift in technology was announced recently: South Korea plans to stop purchasing printed textbooks for its schools and switch entirely to e-books.
This is especially interesting because South Korea is a world leader in technology and in education. A larger percentage of homes in South Korea have in-home Internet connections than in the U.S. and those connections typically are made at higher speeds as well. In addition, South Korean students have higher success rates at being admitted to colleges than do American high school graduates, even at being admitted to U.S. colleges. Finally, many of the electronic devices we use are designed and/or manufactured in South Korea. Any successful changes in that country will probably be adopted by other countries around the world within a very few years.
The South Korean Ministry of Education has announced a ground-breaking plan to digitize all textbooks which are in use in Korean schools and thus completely phase out printed materials by 2015. The Korean government's "Smart Education" scheme will see the creation of a cloud computing network in order to allow students to access digital textbooks and store their homework so it can be accessed via any internet-connected device, including tablets, smartphones, PCs and smart TVs.
The plan begins with more online classes starting in 2013 so that students who are sick or unable to attend school due to weather conditions will be able to participate in virtual classes. All primary school textbooks will be digitized by 2014 and all mid and high school textbooks by the following year. The government does not plan to purchase any printed textbooks after 2015.
As part of the shift to digital, all schools will have wireless Internet access points set up by 2015 and the ministry will provide free tablet PCs to low-income families. Giving away free tablet PCs is expected to be a cost-cutting effort, as giving away the computers is cheaper than purchasing printed books.
According to the latest OECD report into digital literacy at http://goo.gl/B5QlJ, Korean teenagers came out on top compared to students in 19 economically advanced countries. Adoption of electronic textbooks will probably be a non-issue for these technically savvy students.
Of course, this change will also be good for the Korean economy. The Korean education ministry plans to spend US$2.4 billion on buying appropriate devices and digitizing content for them. Yet, that will still represent a savings in expenses over the next few years.
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