1-to-1 Educational Computing -- A report from Korea

This page in:
no, we are talking about  1-to-1 (educational computing), not (five) won to Juan (Mata)
no, we are talking about
'1-to-1' (educational computing),
not (five) 'won to Juan' (Mata)

Not too long ago I did some advisory work in a country considering the purchases of lots of educational tablets. Previously this country had funded lots of computer labs in schools, but they had experienced great difficulties in integrating these facilities into 'normal' teaching and learning activities. Buying devices as part of a '1-to-1 educational computing' initiative, it was felt, would get around many of the difficulties they had experienced with desktop computers in dedicated school computer labs. (I had my doubts about this.)

When observing a class, I noticed that all of the students had the same backpacks. "What's up with that?", I asked.

"Oh, it is very interesting," came the reply. "Those backpacks are purchased by the state for use by low income students. You can see from the fact that all of these backpacks are in the room that the children here are from very low socio-economic levels in society."

I then asked how many of the students had a phone in their backpack. All of them but one (who said he forgot his at home, someone else told me later it had been stolen) said that they did, and most students pulled them out to show me.

After asking a few follow-up questions about what they did with them (Facebook! and texting! were the two most common answers) and once class had resumed, I turned to my counterparts in government and observed that I also "found this all very interesting. You are going to buy lots of small computing devices for these students to use by spending public funds, in part because they are not using the devices that you purchased for them before. Despite the fact they are all poor enough to qualify to receive free government backpacks, all of their families have somehow found the money to buy them mobile phones, which they obviously all use quite heavily. Have you thought about taking advantage of this personal computing infrastructure that is already installed in the pockets and pocketbooks (or backpacks) of the students, and orienting some your investments for different purposes, like upgrading connectivity and/or spending more funds on content and/or training?"

This phenomenon, known as 'bring your own device' (BYOD) or 'bring your own technology (BYOT) in educational technology circles, was just one of many topics discussed and debated at the most recent Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education, which took place in the provincial Korean city of Gyeongju.


Korea is in many ways a natural venue for these sorts of gatherings. It is the first country to 'graduate' from being the recipient of international donor funds to become a full-fledged donor in its own right. The story of the 'Korean Miracle' is a long and complicated one, but there is little disagreement that achievements related to technology, and in education, are key markers of this success.

It is in part for this reason that the World Bank, the Korean Ministry of Education and the Korea Education Research & Information Service (KERIS) have a close partnership exploring issues related to the use of information and communications technologies in education around the world. As part of this partnership, for the past eight years 60-80 senior education officials from around Asia and the rest of the world have gathered annually in Korea to share anecdotes (such as the one above) and discuss topics of common interest related to the use of new technologies in education.

Hosted by KERIS, Korea's world-renowned national educational technology agency, the Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education typically considers one topic of common interest and activity across a broad spectrum of countries, from the highly developed economies of East Asia and Europe to low income countries in Asia and Africa and all points in between. The event also serves to help orient the research agendas of a number of international groups with related interests to help better meet some of the most immediate and pressing related information and knowledge needs of educational policymakers.

This year's event in Gyeongju focused on "1-to-1 educational computing", the increasingly mainstream trend and interest in many countries to enable students access to their own personal ICT device. Usually this has meant a laptop, but more and more this is about tablets (and other devices) as well.
It is perhaps worth noting that, while Korea itself was one of the first countries to introduce computers and the Internet into its schools at a large scale, it is, relatively speaking, not as far advanced when it comes to "1-to-1 educational computing" as many other places. In part this is a historical legacy of the fact that was early to introduce PCs into schools. In a country where access to computing devices in people's homes and in the pockets and pocketbooks of its young people is near ubiquitous, and which enjoys some of the fastest Internet connection speeds in the world, concerns about the 'digital divide' which animate many 1-to-1 educational computing programs in other countries simply aren't that pronounced in Korea.

Ladies Methodist College in Melbourne, Australia is considered by many to be the world's first 1-to-1 initiative. Begun in 1989, it was an outlier for many years (what is commonly thought to be the first 1-to-1 effort in the United States, at Cincinnati Country Day School, didn't launch until seven years later). It wasn't until after the turn of the century, when efforts like the Maine Learning Technology Initiative in the U.S. and then, partially inspired by the Maine example, bigger initiatives like the global One Laptop Per Child effort and pioneering national programs in countries like Uruguay kicked off and rolled out, that the reality of 1-to-1 computing became a higher-profile topic of discussion across many education systems.

Of course, the vast majority of students around the world aren't yet online, and only a minority has regular access to computers in their schools. That said, there are, for better and/or for worse, few countries around the world that aren't contemplating initiatives that are aimed, at some point in the future (perhaps in the distant future), at achieving a ratio of one computing device for each student in their schools. Whether or not the goal of a country like Mozambique, for example, of achieving "1-to-1" by 2026 is possible (or advisable), the fact that this goal has been articulated and set by many countries such as Mozambique is a signal of the potent symbolism and organizing power of this sort of goal in education systems around the world. In addition to numerous examples and lessons from Korean experience, presentations shared practical perspectives and insights from countries as diverse as Australia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, the United States, Uganda, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Discussions at this year's global symposium made it clear that 1-to-1 educational computing efforts are no longer exclusively, or even largely, about only access to devices, and, through the devices, about access to learning materials and opportunities that were otherwise difficult to access. These sorts of initiatives remain about that, of course, but increasingly they are meant to address issues of education quality as well. While the balance between access and quality differs from place to place and over time, it is increasingly clear that, at the center of discussions about the relevance of 1-to-1 educational computing efforts to both access and quality are important, in many cases profound, issues related to equity.

There are many different operative definitions about what "1-to-1" means in practice in various parts of the world. I have always liked the definition adopted by the state of Maine, which calls for “a personal digital device, at the point of learning, as defined by the student.” While it is undeniable that many places are still largely concerned with the first component part of this definition ("a personal digital device"), the wisdom and power of the other two parts of this definition ("at the point of learning, as defined by the student") are increasingly acknowledged as well, especially in places where initial deployments that were largely hardware-focused have evolved into efforts with a greater focus on enabling and supporting useful teaching and learning practices, in ways both mundane and transformative. While some 'less developed' countries participating in the Korea event noted that, for them, "1-to-1" targets currently mean things like "one computer lab per school" or "one interactive whiteboard per classroom" (in some schools, it means that only one student is using a particular computer at a time), it is clear that these are waypoints on a journey that is meant to conclude, some day, with a definition that is more or less like what Maine articulated a decade ago.

Four years ago a small group of leaders of national and regional 1-to-1 educational computing efforts from around the world convened in Vienna in a first-of-its-kind meeting to share practical experiences about what was working, what wasn't, and how they hoped to move forward. Prior to that, 1-to-1 efforts were much less well networked across borders, and when connections did exist, they were often point to point (connecting Canada and Uruguay, for example, or the U.S. state of Maine with individual nations in the Caribbean). Since that time there has been an explosion not only of related rhetoric, but also of actual activity -- large-scale activity, and not only in the highly developed, post-industrial economies of the OECD. In some ways, the richness of experience and perspective shared at this year's global symposium was confirmation that, when it comes to providing students with their own personal learning devices, we are in some ways, at least from a global historical perspective, now at the end of the beginning.


To help set the stage for the discussions that were to follow, I opened the first session at this year's global symposium by sharing a short series of general, broad observations about trends and lessons from 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world. In case they might be of any interest or utility to a wider audience, I'll share them in a follow-up post here on the EduTech blog.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image at the top of this blog post ("no, we are talking about 1-to-1 (educational computing), not (five) won to Juan (Mata)") is a mash-up of two different pictures. The first is of the Chelsea footballer Juan Mata; it comes from the Wikipedian Warrenfish via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The second is of a Korean five won bank note. It comes from the Bank of Korea, was also found via Wikimedia Commons, and is used according to the terms of the official Guidelines for the Reproduction of Bank of Korea Notes and Coins.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000