SHIKI, Saitama Pref. — Sitting in pairs behind computer screens, 30 fifth-graders at Muneoka No. 3 Elementary School here try to catch an English word spoken by computer and select the corresponding picture by mouse.
The word game is a warmup for a class on international understanding. Although it is designed to get students accustomed to English, the game also has another objective: familiarizing children with PCs.
Two Japanese teachers, Shiori Kohara and Yoshiyuki Kachi, go around the classroom, telling students to double-click the image that goes with the word. Andre Campa, a visiting American teacher, lends a native hand.
“They seem to enjoy using PCs in class,” said Kazuaki Konno, headmaster of the elementary school. “We’d like to make our students feel natural with PCs, just like they feel using other tools.”
The class at Muneoka No. 3 is considered one of the most successful examples of information technology education in Japan at the primary and secondary school level.
With children holding the key to Japan’s future prosperity, the government has been promoting IT at schools across the country. And the best way to do that is to get children to use computers as a tool for learning other subjects, said Yasutaka Shimizu, professor emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology.
“The purpose of IT education at schools is not teaching children how to use computers,” he said. “Our goal is to let them locate and access information on their own so they can find ways to solve whatever problems they have, and the Internet is one of the gateways to various information.”
Japanese schools lagging
Shimizu, who is also director of the Center for Educational Resources at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research of Japan, helped draft the “e-Japan” strategy unveiled by the government earlier this year.
The strategy is aimed at turning Japan into one of the world’s top contenders in information technology and linking at least 60 percent of the population to the Internet by 2005. Raising IT literacy among school-age children is indispensable to achieving that end.
But a recently released government survey shows that Japan and its schools have a long way to go.
The Public Management, Home affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry recently said that about 47 million people — or 31.6 percent of the Japanese population — accessed the Internet via PCs, cellphones or other devices last year, earning Japan a rather disgraceful 14th place in a world ranking of Net-savvy countries.
Sweden came out on top with 56.4 percent of its population connected to the Internet, followed by the United States at 55.8 percent.
Japan also lags behind other Asian nations, including India, Singapore, China and Thailand, in terms of people’s confidence in their own IT capability, according to data from the Dentsu Institute of Human Studies.
Only 33 percent of Japanese feel “confident” or “rather confident” they can catch up with the ongoing IT wave, compared with more than 70 percent of their peers in the other four countries, the private think tank said.
Nationwide effort in gear
To change the situation, the government has been trying to install PCs at all public elementary and junior high schools.
As of March 2000, Japanese public elementary schools averaged 16 PCs each and junior high schools 37 each, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.
Shimizu said Japanese public schools are five years behind their U.S. counterparts.
According to the education ministry survey, school computers were shared by an average of 13 Japanese students in 2000, compared with one per six American students in 1999.
As for Internet access, 57.4 percent of school PCs were online in Japan in 2000, compared with 95 percent of the PCs at American schools in 1999. The government plans to have classrooms at all Japanese public schools online by 2005.
Teachers also in a bind
The problem, however, does not end with the machines themselves. There is also a shortage of capable, computer-savvy teachers.
Kachi at Muneoka No. 3 Elementary School said that he enjoys helping his students learn to use PCs but that many others find the task a heavy burden.
All public school teachers are being urged by the government to acquire basic computer skills by March 2002, and local education boards have been organizing training sessions, sometimes going as far as hiring computer systems engineers to help the hapless taskmasters.
The teachers are struggling. Of the 900,000 or so public teachers nationwide, only 66.1 percent have basic computer skills and only 31.8 percent can use the machines in class, according to the education ministry survey.
Kunihiko Nakada, headmaster of Hosei Elementary School in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, said his staff has collected teaching materials on their own but are still struggling to use them effectively. He blames the problem partially on the lack of practical guidance on IT education.
Yukiko Furuya, a 27-year-old junior high math teacher in Ibaraki Prefecture, agrees.
“Currently, making the computer part of the class is left to each teacher . . . and some teachers have yet to start using the tool at all.”
Another problem is that many teachers have little time to think about how to incorporate an IT program into their daily curriculum.
“I arrive at school at 7:30 a.m. and stay till 8 p.m. every day. Besides teaching classes, I am responsible for students’ extracurricular activities on weekends,” said Chie Kobayashi, an English teacher at a junior high school in Kawasaki.
Tossing away the manual
Tatsuya Horita, an associate professor at Shizuoka University’s Faculty of Information, said the difficulty school teachers face with IT education stems from their excessive dependence on manuals.
Many Japanese teachers are having difficulties conducting classes that incorporate IT education into other subjects, especially when it comes to coordinating the teaching of the two subjects, he said.
Horita predicts teachers will have to learn how to teach by trial and error before quality IT education takes root in Japan.
Yet, such efforts are likely both necessary and worthwhile because computer skills and knowledge are becoming indispensable in today’s information-oriented society, he said. Yasuhiro Kanayama, deputy manager at Shiki City Board of Education, said learning computer skills, just like learning foreign languages, will widen the scope of a child’s future.
“The role of school education is to help and encourage children to pursue their goals and dreams,” he said. “It is important that we try to give them as many tools as possible so that they can better cope with the challenges that await them in the future.”