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Renewed emphasis on computer education raises questions for teachers

Oct 29,2016
A science teacher surnamed Lim recently started teaching a computer class at a middle school in Gangwon after the Education Ministry appointed the school to serve as a model for coding (computer programming) education. The ministry announced last year it would implement coding curricula at public schools in 2018. Lim earned his computer education certificate in 2001, when the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003) required elementary and middle school students take an hour of computer education each week.

“I took pride in teaching something students would need in the future,” said Lim. But computer education has lost its popularity largely due to changes in education policies. The Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-2013) abolished compulsory computer education in 2008 and Lim had to change his major to science to stay at school.

“Hundreds of computer teachers will be hired just like I was in 2001,” he said, “but where will they go when policies change once again? This is the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about compulsory coding education.”

Lim now has a chance to become a computer teacher once again, but says he cannot decide easily. “Science subjects won’t disappear,” he said, “but you never know what will happen to computer-related subjects, which are always subject to change.”

“There is a saying that education is a plan which spans a hundred years,” said a computer education professor who did not wish to be identified, “but education nowadays spans about five years.”

Only eight universities in Korea currently have computer education majors, whereas 18 did in 2005. With the former Kim Dae-jung administration’s emphasis on computer education, schools with related majors increased from seven in 1995 to 15 in 2000. But most of these disappeared when the Lee Myung-bak administration came to power. Accordingly, middle schools with computer classes dropped from 43.2 percent in 2007 to 7.6 percent in 2012.

“The former Lee Myung-bak administration included a budget for computer facilities in schools,” said Kim Jin-hyong, head of the Software Policy and Research Institute, “enabling principals to decide whether or not to purchase the facilities. Principals who aren’t interested now cut down on expenses by getting rid of computer rooms.”

Computer education was taken down another peg when the start-up boom went bust in the early 2000s. Computer hagwons, or private academies, also suffered as there was no longer a belief that expertise in computers led to well-paying jobs. One engineering professor said, on the condition of anonymity, “The software workforce is mostly employed at small or medium companies contracted to large corporations, and so they experience poor working conditions. Who would want to learn coding when a software programmer himself wouldn’t recommend it to their children?”

But computer programming is getting another chance, as information and communications technology grows and coding education will be compulsory by 2018. The growing application rate for computer-related majors at Seoul universities and the number of students who learn computer programming are evidence of this trend. These days, a growing number of liberal arts graduates are also learning coding.

“Demands for software know-how will not disappear anytime soon,” said Kim Hyun-chul, a professor of computer education at Korea University, “and we hope to increase computer classes accordingly.”

As of last year, there were 1,217 information and computer teachers in 2,934 middle schools nationwide, which is an average of 0.4 teachers per school.

“As more schools hire computer teachers, some of our graduates have left Samsung or LG to teach at schools,” said Kim Jae-hyun, a professor of computer education at Sungkyunkwan University. “Universities need to increase their number of computer-related majors to match demand by the time coding education becomes compulsory in 2018.”

BY LIM MI-JIN AND KIM KYUNG-MI [kim.yuna1@joongang.co.kr]


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