Lee Jin-man/AP
South Korea – already considered the world's most wired nation – will spend $2.3 billion to digitize all reading material in its public schools.

In South Korea, all textbooks will be e-books by 2015

Speeding past the US, South Korea will be digitizing reading material in all public schools by 2015.

In South Korea, heavy backpacks laden with textbooks are becoming a thing of the past.

The Asian nation announced that it will replace paper textbooks with electronic tablets in all state-run (public) schools by 2015.

The move will allow students to download digital textbooks on a variety of platforms, including computers, smart phones, and tablets. South Korea’s education ministry hasn’t yet disclosed which e-tablet make or model it will purchase en masse to make the digital switch, but it has revealed the cost of buying tablets and digitizing material for all of the students in its state-run schools: $2.4 billion.

The digital conversion is part of a project to create “smart schools” across the country, according to South Korea’s education ministry. The state says it plans to incorporate “smart” features such as video, animation, virtual reality, and hyperlinks, in its digital curriculum.

Korean students are already experimenting with digital learning. Since 2008, hundreds of elementary school students have been testing digital textbooks on tablet-like Fujitsu PCs and Samsung Galaxy Tabs, reported The Bookseller.

Besides alleviating backpack strains and reducing the market for highlighters, the move could have a huge impact on the educational publishing industry.

“South Korea’s transition to a totally networked society has profound implications for the publishing industry,” said James F. Larson, author of “The Telecommunications Revolution in Korea,” according to the Bookseller.

The move to digital could bring a lot more interaction and interest to the classroom, said Bill Rankin, Abilene Christian University’s director of educational innovation, in a USA Today interview.

“I think there are some really interesting possibilities with digital books,” said Mr. Rankin. “Books that re-imagine what a book is; that integrate media; that integrate social networking.”

In the US, some schools like ACU are already testing digital books that use touch technology to allow students to interact with text, digitally highlight material, make notes, and share those notes with other students.

Texas, Florida and California are among nearly two dozen states that have adopted initiatives to move toward digital books, but so far have they have generally opted to use supplemental digital course materials, alongside with printed books,” reported USA Today.

But the US is still nowhere near South Korea, the world’s most wired nation, in terms of digital learning. In 2010, digital books accounted for just 3 percent of textbooks sales according to the National Association of College Stores, reported USA Today.

But online education firm Xplana says that’s changing fast.

iPads and other tablets will be in the possession of about 20 percent of college students by the fall of 2012,” Xplana’s director of research, Rob Reynolds, told USA Today. “That's a huge impact. It's fastest growing technology that we've seen in education.”

Reynolds told USA Today that he predicts that digital book sale growth in the $8 billion higher education market will double over the next four years to reach $1.5 billion by 2015, giving digital books a 25 percent share of the higher education market.

South Korea has been testing digital textbooks since the mid-2000s and – as the world’s most wired nation – has the fastest broadband connections globally (seven times the world average), making the transition that much easier.

For now, American classrooms can look to South Korean schools for advice on how best to make the digital transition.

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

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