North Korea’s Virtual Universities and Distant Learning Infrastructure

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Thursday, April 7th, 2016
choi sung

Choi Sung, Professor of Computer Science at Namseoul University

Recently, there has been a big change in North Korea’s educational landscape: North Korea has either newly built or expanded hundreds of college and school buildings and scaled up distant learning (e.g. online courses and classes) infrastructure. In North Korea, distant learning has increased annually: 1,280 North Korean companies provided online lectures in 2015; North Korea’s first virtual college last year produced its first batch of graduates.

According to the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official state-run newspaper, nearly 8,000 workers at factories, companies and institutions took online courses provided by Kim Chaek University of Technology (KCUT), a 60 percent jump from 2014 when roughly 5,000 workers at 503 businesses and institutions took e-learning courses.

KCUT’s virtual college, which was opened in 2010, produced its first batch of graduates in October 2015. Among them were people actually working in the field.

North Korea’s distant learning system is based on the country’s national intranet called “Kwangmyong.” In the 2000s, North Korea carried out a trial run of distant learning by taking advantage of KCUT’s electronic library facilities. Based on the experience, North Korea established a virtual college at KCUT in 2010.

KCUT’s virtual college started with a mere 40 students, but the number of students enrolled in distant education courses has grown rapidly. In 2014, virtual colleges were set up at Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang University of Architecture and Wonsan University of Agriculture. Meanwhile, distant learning departments were created at Kim Hyung Jik College of Education, Han Duk Su Pyongyang Light Industry University, Hamhŭng University of Chemistry, Hamhung University of Water Conservancy and Power Engineering and Heecheon Technical College.

Demand for distant learning is likely to pick up. Two-way communication takes place in online classes and professors can even monitor whether their online students stay focused.

Companies, institutions and production plants have set up their own e-learning class rooms where their workers gather together to watch online video lectures.

North Korea

The student on the photo above is taking an online class. He is getting a scolding for being distracted. The pop up window says: “This lecture lasts 90 minutes. We have 18 more minutes to go. However, you are pretending to be attentive but you’re doing something else on the computer. You should concentrate on this class.” Since students can easily get distracted in online class, such a pop up warning system is in place (Source: Namseoul University)

Such online courses are helping North Korean workers improve their skills, thus enhancing efficiency and industrial standards. The Rodong Sinmun reported: “Struggles to nurture North Korea’s working class -- the driving force behind the North Korean economy’s transition into a knowledge-based one -- into holders of college-level knowledge and modem science and technological skills are taking place with a vengeance.”

What’s more, North Korea is allowing students to take their college admission tests online. North Korea's weekly Tongil Shinbo magazine said: “As part of efforts to usher in a new-century educational revolution, North Korea has adopted a system whereby student can take their college entrance exams online.”

Students who want to take a college entrance exam can take their exam at an electronic library in their province and get their results online. Their exam papers are marked online in real time, so the total score will be tallied up immediately after they finish their exam.

Such a system has been applied to virtual colleges at large cities. In 2015, seven provinces -- including Ryanggang Province, Jagang Province, Hamgyong Province, North Pyongan Province and Hwanghae Province— and 10 major universities, such as Kim Il-sung University, KCUT and Kim Hyung Jik College of Education, embraced the system.

In addition, North Korea is planning to expand the application of remote testing to all the general universities across the nation in 2016. North Korea has been keen on expanding online courses and remote testing because it put a high premium on advances in science and technology. Therefore, it is equipping physical classrooms with "smart" classroom tools and devices like LCD TVs, beam projectors and electronic whiteboards. The North has also designed and distributed new school uniforms.

By Choi Sung, Professor of computer science at Namseoul University (sstar@nsu.ac.kr)

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