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Educators, city gov't at odds over 'Seoul Learn'

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Students take part in online classes at an elementary school in Seoul, in this July 15 photo. Yonhap
Students take part in online classes at an elementary school in Seoul, in this July 15 photo. Yonhap

Questions emerge over free online private academy lecture service for underprivileged students

By Bahk Eun-ji

Seoul Learn, one of Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon's campaign promises to provide underprivileged students with online lectures from well-known private academies ("hagwon" in Korean) for free, began operating officially at the end of last month.

Although the goal is to bridge the educational disparity between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, a controversy has arisen as the education community is raising questions about whether it is effective and criticizes it for promoting education via private academies instead of supporting public schools.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon / Yonhap
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon / Yonhap
The Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) officially launched the free online lectures on Aug. 27 for 110,000 students from households in various low-income and social minority categories, ranging from elementary, middle and high school students, to children from mixed heritage families and children who are not attending school.

The city government purchases the online lectures of famous lecturers at private academies, popularly referred to as "top instructors," at 15 to 25 percent of the market prices, and provides them for free to those students through the learning portal.

The goal of Seoul Learn is to bridge the educational disparity, a chronic social problem here between the children of parents of different income levels. The problem has become more serious due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, as children in lower-income families have to rely on public schools' online classes, the quality of which has usually been worse than that of in-person classes, while children of affluent families can make up for this lack of quality education by attending hagwon on the side.

According to data from Statistics Korea, as of 2020, households with a monthly income of less than 2 million won ($1700) spent 99,000 won per month on private education, but households with a monthly income of 8 million won or more spent 504,000 won on private education, which is five times more. It is clear that income inequality leads to educational inequality.

Against this backdrop, the SMG plans to bridge the gap by providing free online private academy lectures. In the case of content quality, which has been considered the biggest challenge of the project, it is working with the nation's eight most popular online private academies, known to be of high quality, including Megastudy and Etoos, to raise students' satisfaction levels.

"Other than education in public schools, students from vulnerable groups cannot access hagwon lectures even if they want to take them. Seoul Learn is a service that aims to provide fair access to those students," Lee Dae-hyun, director of the SMG's lifelong education bureau, told the Korea Times.

However, the SMG's project has elicited mixed reactions from the education community.

Similar free online lecture services for elementary, middle, and high school students, such as "EBSi," provided by the public broadcaster EBS, and "Gangnam Ingang," run by the Gangnam District Office in Seoul, have already been in operation for a considerable period of time. Additionally, doubts have emerged over whether such deep-rooted problems as educational disparities and learning deficits among different socioeconomic groups will be resolved simply by offering more free online lectures.

"Most online lectures by such top instructors can already be taken free of charge on EBSi," said Gu Bon-chang, director of the policy bureau of "World Without Worries about Shadow Education," a civil society organization devoted to ending Korea's problems in education, in particular, the issue of excessive academic competition.


"The SMG's claim that Seoul Learn is not a policy that promotes private education also lacks logic, as the brands of the private education companies are visible through the lecture platform. From the moment when students start using the platform, they will become the targets of marketing from these private education companies," Gu said.

People pass a building housing the offices of private academies in Seoul in this Aug. 28, 2020 photo. Yonhap
People pass a building housing the offices of private academies in Seoul in this Aug. 28, 2020 photo. Yonhap

Gu stated that this project of the SMG implies that students should study as much as they want in private academies, rather than in public schools. However, this implication in fact contradicts the central government's policy to strengthen public education.

It was also pointed out that an online learning platform is not a fundamental solution to educational disparities.

"So far, many plans to expand online classes have been proposed, but the education disparity issue has not yet been solved. This fact means that the emotional bonding that occurs between teachers and students in person is critical, and that online classes cannot produce that," said Park Geun-byeong, the leader of the Seoul Teachers' Union.

"In fact, this is the main reason why the central government is trying to expand in-person classes, but Seoul Learn is completely going against this trend," Park said.

Even private academies are mostly centered on in-person classes. According to a survey on the private education expenses of middle and high school students in 2020 conducted by the Ministry of Education and the Statistics Korea, announced in March, the students paid 499,000 won for in-person hagwon classes last year, followed by 366,000 won for individual tutoring lessons, 262,000 won for group tutoring lessons, and 117,000 won, the smallest amount, for online lectures.

In response to such criticism, the SMG reiterated that the key of Seoul Learn is to provide "fair opportunities" to students.

"Education within public schools should be done at the schools, but it is the responsibility of the city government to support education that takes place outside of schools," Lee said.

"Students from low-income families have the problem of not being able to attend private academy lectures even if they want to. We hope that people understand that this project intends to give them a fair chance to receive the same education."

Lee also said that the private academies provide their lecture content at around 25 percent of market prices, so the criticism that the project only benefits the companies currently is not precisely the case.


Bahk Eun-ji ejb@koreatimes.co.kr


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