Blog | 16 May, 2023

From K-pop and K-drama to ‘K-learning cities’: lessons for the digital era

Millie Lee

Research Fellow

In recent years, South Korea has been gaining more and more attention in the global market in many areas: for example, K-pop, K-drama and K-food. This was accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were forced to switch their living space from offline to online and spend more time watching YouTube or Netflix. After my recent trip to South Korea for interviews for this project, I realised one more thing should be added to this list, K-learning cities.

First of all, South Korean cities actively participate in the Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) programme run by the UNESCO. In fact, South Korea has an outstanding number of cities participating in this programme as shown below.

UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities

 Source: Members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities

In addition, there is a national level initiative called the Lifelong Learning City programme and more than 80% of all the cities in South Korea are awarded this title as of February 2022. City A, located in the north of Seoul, was recommended to the team to visit as they had actively been participating in both UNESCO and national programmes.

Under these circumstances, I did not have high expectations at first as I thought City A would be another one of the cases where the mayor just wanted to earn such good titles without doing much meaningful work. It did not take a long time to realise my perception was wrong once the first interview was started.

While speaking with people who were leading lifelong learning in City A, I felt their strong passion and commitment. When visiting places where lifelong learning activities were taking place, I saw how genuine and real the title of the Learning City was for City A. Below is some of my findings from the visit.

1. Bottom up approach and autonomy
The first person we interviewed was the leader of the lifelong learning team in the regional government of City A. Unlike most of civil servants in South Korea, he did not get the government position through the civil service examinations. Instead he developed his career in lifelong learning as a civil activist and recruited by the government later. He understood and experienced the importance of the bottom up approach and gave a lot of autonomy to the individuals and civic society in implementing lifelong learning programmes. They always tried to listen to the voices of the people when designing and implementing any programmes.

2. Offline interaction for human touch
Although digital technologies are utilised in most learning programmes and initiatives, online interactions are not sufficient to make them sustainable. City A has designated a variety of places as ‘Base Lifelong Learning Centres’ for people to meet face-to-face and provided support in different ways, not just in funding or online platforms.

The pictures below were taken from one of those centres. It has a rich cultural and historical background and is used as a café and also a venue to host different programmes. They hire senior citizen baristas from the City A Senior Club, which provides various job and social participation opportunities as well as learning programmes for the elderly. The senior citizen baristas, in particular, have many fond memories of this place, and they are proud to be working together to protect a space that holds precious memories for many citizens.

One of the Base Lifelong Learning Centres in City A

We had their specialty latte, which had our face printed on top of milk foam. They have a machine taking a photograph of the customer while taking an order, which then sends the digital image to the coffee machine. Cinnamon and chocolate powders are used to print the image on the milk foam.

One of the interviewees said the following during the interview.

I think that’s why it’s so important to be able to have offline communication in the local area. I think that was the secret of its growth. Because I think it’s very important that no matter how much online develops, it’s very important to fill in some of the communication thirst offline that can’t be met online.

3. Humanitarian goals of lifelong learning
Lifelong learning in City A was not just about skills upgrading, employability or social mobility. The people in this city emphasized the roles of lifelong learning as something to make them happy and their life fulfilled, not just to move up the social ladder or make more money, as seen in the comments below.

What we want to achieve through lifelong learning is actually not the movement of classes, but self-satisfaction. For my own self-satisfaction that I develop and refine myself and become a better person, and that I am used in a better place. Because that’s what makes me happy.

Considerations for digital transformation
Right now, we hear a lot about robots and AI systems starting to take over human jobs. While we know that technological development is the way forward, the prediction of the potential impact on our lives is uncertain. How will we, humans, benefit from this? Would there be any unintended consequences of the changes? No one knows the definite answers.

Engineers who develop such technologies are known to be trained as problem-solvers. They usually focus more on the process of solving the problem at hand, not so much on the ultimate results or consequences. We need to ensure someone asks questions about what happens after the adoption of new technologies replacing human. The findings from City A above may come in handy to form the basis of those questions.

1) Bottom up: Are the technologies developed based on the experience of the people on the ground? Does it really solve the problem?
2) Human touch: Would removing human touch be necessary? Is the problem worth solving?
3) Ultimate goals: How do the new technologies contribute to making people happier or improving the quality of their lives? Who is benefitting at the end of the day when the problem is solved?

Technology should not be our final goal, but a tool we use to reach where we want to go. And we have a choice of tools. Let’s not rush and stay focused. In the end, we are doing all these for us, humans.

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