September 22, 2018

Is there online learning in North Korea?

An online lecture from a North Korean university

Kang, T-J. (2018) Online learning in North Korea The Diplomat, May 25

You may have noticed that North Korea has been in the news quite a bit recently, so the question arose in my mind, is there online learning in North Korea?

No, your intrepid reporter did not hop on a plane to Pyongyang and interview the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. No need: this article from the Diplomat answered the question quite nicely.

Yes, North Korea has (fairly recently) started delivering streamed lectures at a distance through some of its more prestigious universities, such as Kim Il-sung University. This prestigious university recently awarded degrees to those who finished their program via a distance learning course for the first time. You can even watch a promotional video from a North Korean web site. (It helps if you speak Korean, which I don’t, and it took over 10 minutes to download the 48 second video.) Students can watch the programs on laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

But how many have mobile phones? The Diplomat reports that in 2015 the number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea reached 3.24 million, (about 13%) and that about 60 percent of the population in Pyongyang, the capital, between 20 and 50 years old are using mobile phones. (If you deduct for government exaggeration and add for technology development since 2015, these figures are probably a reasonable estimate).

However, access to the Internet internationally is prohibited to students.

So while online learning may be allowing for more flexibility in delivery, it is not necessarily widening access. You still have to be admitted to a prestigious university to get the online courses.


North Korea appears to be in roughly the same position as China in the mid-1980s, when China created the Chinese Central Television and Radio University, which is now well established and has millions of students. Cuba also has online distance education, but students are not permitted to access the Internet internationally.

However, as in China in the 1980s, North Korea is using largely streamed or broadcast lectures, which do not exploit fully the power of the Internet and in particular put a heavy emphasis on information transmission at the expense of skills development and knowledge management – but then that’s not so different from the practice of many online courses in Canada and the USA.

The lesson clearly is that it is not enough just to use the technology; you also need to change the teaching method to get the full benefits of online learning. But at least North Korea is moving into online learning.

If anyone has more information about online learning in North Korea, please share!

North Korea launches two MOOCs

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, went on national television on Thursday to announce that North Korea had successfully launched two MOOCs (massive open online courses). The first is called: ‘How to build a nuclear bomb’, and the second ‘How to build an intercontinental missile’.

President Obama issued a statement immediately denouncing North Korea’s action as ‘highly provocative,’ and it is expected that the U.N. Security Council will strongly condemn the launch, with even China supporting the motion.

Stephen Downes, a Canadian expert on MOOCs, noted that the North Koreans are using long-wave radio, a less advanced technology than North American Internet-based MOOCs, as their delivery technology. ‘Fortunately, outside the Korean peninsular, there aren’t too many who can speak Korean, and even fewer these days with long-wave radio. Nevertheless’, said Downes, ‘if these MOOCs get into the wrong hands, they could cause enormous damage.’

Anant Agrawal,an engineering professor at MIT and the the Director of edX, a MOOC program being developed jointly by MIT and Harvard, said they are watching the development closely. ‘The problem is,’ he said, ‘that we are having difficulty finding old long-wave radio receivers, and will probably have to build one ourselves. Then we can study the North Korean MOOCs in more detail.’

Tony Bates, the Canadian director of CMD (Campaign for MOOC Disarmament), said this is yet another reason for a global MOOC non-proliferation treaty. ‘It’s such a simple technology, anyone with a video camera and a radio or a computer and the Internet, can build one,’ he said. ‘North Korea’s action is insignificant compared to the enormous damage being done to North American universities by our own MOOCs.’

Meanwhile, Daphne Koller of Coursera, the largest MOOC organization in the USA, announced that Coursera will be taking legal action to sue the North Korean government for breach of copyright. ‘Goddammit’, she said’ MOOCs are as American as apple pie. Coursera invented them, and we will take the North Koreans for every won we can get.’ Downes though doubts whether they will be successful. ‘The claim is highly dubious,’ he said.’ ‘There is strong evidence that they were invented in Canada and even if Coursera wins in an American court – which is highly likely – they will have enormous trouble getting the money out of North Korea.’ Nevertheless, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation confirmed that is about to offer $10 million towards Coursera’s legal fund.

Watch this space for further news.