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14 October 2020 | in NUSF News

Peering into South Korea's university physical education instruction during a pandemic

Seoul fields

Intrepid U-Media Reporter Chidiebere Ezeani gives the university sports community an update on the South Korean campus sporting scene during this most trying of times



SEOUL–The coronavirus pandemic has left a lasting mark on not just sports activities, but sports participation. The economics of sports experienced a never before seen threat, and sports federations have been forced to come up with new ways to play or be active during this time. 


With the world focused on getting professional sports back to where it was. It begs the question: Who is thinking about the effects of Covid 19 on the University sports system? And, most especially for the university sports community, what effect is this having on physical education departments around the globe? 


Student-athletes are a building block for every national sports federation and these individuals have also been grossly affected by COVID-19. Every aspiring student-athlete, future instructor and sporting leader has been affected by social distancing measures, and the barring of access to sports facilities, fields and quality instruction. The effects are immense. Here are some stories what this new reality looks like in South Korea’s university education environment. 


Seoul emptygymA gym normally bustline with activity on the Seoul National University campus stands empty during the pandemic lockdown period 

A main objective of any physical education department is to teach potential skilled researchers and instructors. To do so, they must obtain specific exercise capacities through different and extended hands-on classes in specialised environments such as sports facilities. Students have opportunities to learn other skills such as activation of a sports club, gymnastics, athletics, swimming, football, volleyball, basketball, and martial arts, etc., with the intent to become professionals as athletes, instructors, or sports scientists. 


Seoul tabletennisSince the requirements of social distancing due to the COVID-19, universities around the world have experienced some difficulties academically as classes had to be online, which in turn had affected the campus life experience of students. Yet, professors and students alike have found a way to teach and learn through this. But the physical education department has found it more complicated than the rest in adapting to education online. According to the Facilities Director at Kangwon National University Professor Seok Pyo Hong in South Korea "this is one of the most difficult learning processes for us as physical education instructors." 


Professor Hong went on to describe the time as one of the hardest in modern history for the physical education curriculum.


"Now everything is closed," he said. "All the sports facilities, though it is called physical education we have to take classes online, we put up videos for the students to watch and they are encouraged to practice on their own. "


Seoul poolDescribing his everyday experience, Professor Hong says teaching a class like swimming in this period as a most bizarre experience. 


"I upload videos showing the appropriate movements and breathing for the students to watch and practice," Hong noted. "This is bizarre and very uncomfortable as a teacher, and I believe for the students also, unfortunately, there is not much we can do about it until the university thinks it is safe again for us to have face-to-face classes. "


Physical education departments in South Korean schools also serve as sporting and exercise facilities for the general student body, thereby generating income for the university through student subscription fees. Professor Hong described this as unavoidable, as "the budget for physical education classes have been cut first due to the schools' need to conserve funds, and also as we have witnessed a drastic reduction in student registration for the classes."



The loss of jobs for some physical education instructors was another effect of the pandemic. Universities have had to temporarily suspend these classes, leading to the loss of employment for instructors, especially part-time instructors. At the Kangwon National University alone, six staff members were retired due to the effects of the pandemic. 


Another significant effect of the pandemic on school sports is the sequence of intakes of new students-athletes into universities in Korea. High school seniors who are athletes, unfortunately, might not be able to get admission into a university, as they require grades from their sporting activities which due to the virus has not taken place since February. 


Professor Hong fears this might lead to a loss of interest in the department.


"The pandemic is stretching a chain that connects high school, university and professional sports," Hong said. "Because the students have not participated in any of their competitions this year, they do not have the grade. This means they do not qualify to be a university student-athlete."

Seoul yogaSome group in-person sporting activities are making their way back into university life, like this yoga class on the Seoul National University campus

Despite this looming situation, the need to create a means of having face-to-face physical education classes brings more challenges due to university policies not yet adapted to the current health, societal and economic situation. "Unfortunately we cannot immediately decide to reduce the number of students per class, the requirements of changing university policy is difficult," Professor Hong said. "Kangwon National University policy demands that at least 20 students are registered to hold that class."


Amidst South Korean academic circles, there's fear that the country's physical education instruction might have already taken a few steps backwards, according to Youn Jung Kim, a PhD student at Seoul National University. 


Seoul gymIndividual gym workouts are also making a campus comebackKim described the situation as being a YouTuber with zero in-person influence, having to rely solely on students learning through video instruction. 


"As physical education instructors, this is very difficult because it is not easy to teach students without actually moving their body in specific ways," Kim said. "Giving specific instructions to individual students based on their onscreen performance also affects grading as it becomes more and more difficult to access how well or not they are doing". 


To get an even broader perspective on the effects, the FISU U-Media also assessed the situation with physical education majors at Seoul National University.


"Our PE classes are so hard because our class space is so restricted," student Yeji Kim said. "In one's home, students could not handle some dynamic exercises. Not everyone has a mat, there's often not enough space for the leaping, jumping or movements required.


"Also, it was hard to get proper and immediate feedback from the professor," Kim added. 


According to fellow Seoul National Univesity student Seungmi Rho, the type of classes one signed up for, and the individual teaching styles of the professors made for vastly different virtual class experiences. 


"When we had classes with lectures, those with a lot of student participation and presentations, were better done offline because students were able to look at their scripts while presenting. Also, some took the concept of TV shows or phone calls and made it feel more realistic than before. 


"However, with sports modules and those classes with experiments, there wasn't a feasible way to be a part of the experiment," Rho added. "Fifteen weeks of sports classes became six, which is way too short to learn something complicated."


On the possible effect of this pandemic on studies, Julia Lee says that despite the difficulties, "This pandemic may have a positive impact on the society of physical education. Most physical education courses prefer face-to-face instruction. However, this COVID situation forced our department and others to alter their method of teaching. Therefore, the students and professors will be more prone to online education, which in turn may provide a positive feedback loop in the future."


Fellow student Jiyoon Park noted that wearable devices that measure, analyse and connect have allowed students and professors alike to measure both physical performance and students' learning process as never before. 


The university students were in near unison that a sort of hybrid education model of in-person and virtual learning environments was here to say.  


Students and professors noted that both the institutions and individuals were readjusting to a new reality -- albeit not always as swiftly as one would like. But even in trying situations, the spirit of educational development continues in South Korea.


Seoul National University student Jinhee Kim evoked this sentiment, saying, "The school can ease the learning process by making sports classes done face-to-face, handing in exercising videos, and exercising together through online classes."