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Monday, December 28, 2015

"Korea 3.0": Korea's Economic Future is Linked to Changes in Its Education & Business Sectors

If Apple founder Steve Jobs applied for a job in today's Korean job market, would he be able to find employment? In a word, "No," according to a human resources professional in a leading Korean company. The now famous business entrepreneur was a college drop-out. He couldn't have presented credentials from one of Korea's top three universities, or any Korean college for that matter.  That fact alone would have "deep-sixed" his application to the employment wastebasket.

Would Steve Jobs be able to find employment in Korea's current
job market?
Today, Korea's economy and social structure are facing rising income inequality and high levels of relative poverty. A significant portion of the labor force occupies precarious jobs, earn relatively low wages, and remain stuck in tenuous economic straits that often derail them for their entire careers. Gazing at these troubling conditions, only 14% of Korean companies believe that their existing education system is suitable for fostering the creative talent they need to sustain their companies. According to a recent OECD report, the current Korean education system must be balanced with greater attention to fostering creativity and entrepreneurial skills-widely seen as the essential ingredients of a thriving business climate, if Korea's economy is to regain its once globally recognized vitality.

Korea's university classrooms have far too long been spaces devoid of discussion. There is however a significant bright spot in this otherwise disconcerting landscape. A teaching and learning approach, vastly different from the traditional lecture model that is so widely entrenched in Korean academia, is taking root in a handful of Korean universities. One of the leaders in this effort is KAIST University in Daejon, a school increasingly seen as perhaps the best university in Korea. The program, known as Education 3.0, is being offered in 100 ongoing classes, classes that require professors not to give lectures during their classes.

KAIST students engage in a group discussion under its Education 3.0 program. (KAIST)
Teachers must shift from their traditional role as content experts in the classroom and become more like facilitators or symphony conductors. Students read content and view relevant media prior to class meetings and use class time for discussions, problem-solving, teamwork and projects. Many classrooms have been redesigned to support such engagement with round tables and glass walls suitable for posting ideas, solving problems and encouraging teamwork. This approach to education teaches students the kinds of skills we now know are essential for building a more creative and entrepreneurial economy. This represents nothing less than a transformative shift in Korean education. 

This approach to training and learning has long since been popular in both U.S. universities and corporate environments. Witness The Evergreen State College, part of Washington State's university system. According to its website, "The Evergreen State College has earned a national reputation for innovative teaching and academic excellence." Furthermore, its highly interactive classes encourage students "to experience a better way of learning with processes that explore the many sides of a theme or topic." Corporations too have invested in training that targets the kinds of skill development that increases productivity for both current and future jobs of their employees.

The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington
Confucian philosophy based on the importance of family and social structure continues to hold sway in South Korean businesses. This means acquiescence to the boss at all costs, perhaps best (or worst) exemplified when employees stay late at work because leaving before their higher ups depart is often seen as betrayal to the boss and the organization. Employees feel the frustration of this work norm and organizations see lower productivity on their bottom line.

While Korea's tradition and culture helped power it to prosperity, sticking to old ways in both its classrooms and corporations is unlikely to help it moving forward. Korea must change and create new models in its education and business sectors. A "Korea 3.0" will not be easy, but it will be necessary if Korea is to return to its heady days of economic leadership. The DNA for Korea's future economy will rely less on which universities its youth graduate from, and more on what skills they've learned along the way.


  1. Good article. I'm excited about teaching an undergrad course called "Epidemic Control & Prevention" at DGIST this spring, a course I'm writing myself, and using my accustomed discussion format. Your article helps me understand that the ISTs go even beyond that, which I applaud. When I was teaching med school, in the mid-90s there was a shift from talking heads/power point in large lecture halls to small discussion groups, often revolving around simulated patient exercises. This suited me a lot better, and was in my opinion much more effective. If you're doc-shopping, look for someone who learned medicine after 1995.
    Anyway, I'll see how things go at DGIST and keep you informed. (Dan Strickland)

    1. Good luck with your forthcoming course. I proposed a course designed to help professors shift to facilitating and group-oriented teaching methods vs. lecturing to the Yeungnam University's School of Education. They were worried that they might lose students from their traditional classes so essentially "blew me off." I think there is still a general sense in Korea that changing education is someone else's problem; that for those that already have tenure, "What, me worry?"


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