Online school aims to help students find their calling as they prepare to enter university

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Staff Writer

Former teacher Hirokazu Okuhira is concerned that the current education system in Japan is more about rote learning than helping students find career paths and nurturing human resources with the professional skills truly needed in today’s society.

Okuhira, who has worked in the education industry for more than three decades, is one of many discontent critics of the fiercely competitive university entrance exam system. He differs from others, however, in that he intends to do something about it.

Okuhira is set to become the founding principal of N High School, an online school scheduled to launch in April that offers a slate of extracurricular programs on various skills from programming to producing Japanese anime, in addition to the mandatory subjects required by the government.

“Roughly 98 percent of children go to high school nowadays, and about half of them go to college. But about 30 percent of university graduates quit their job within three years,” Okuhira said during an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month. “Many of them start working without realizing what they really want to be.”

Okuhira said this is partly because school education today is too centered on cramming information required to pass university entrance exams.

As a result, students are trained to merely pass the tests rather than learn professional skills through trial and error to help them determine their calling.

Funded by Kadokawa Dwango Corp., a holding company of the operator of popular video-sharing website Nico Nico Douga and publisher Kadokawa Corp., N High School aims to become the dream school of the digital native generation, young people raised in the digital, media-saturated era.

“It’s a new proposal to (challenge) the conventional high school education system,” said Okuhira, adding that the current system has failed to take full advantage of information technology and nurture the skills and knowledge that society demands.

Memorizing textbook content does not necessarily nurture the abilities required in society, Okuhira said, especially given the abundant information available online.

“Rather than teaching what they know, a teacher’s role today should be to act as a coordinator who instructs students on how to search websites and compile information into something they can express by themselves,” Okuhira said.

Legally a correspondence school, N High School offers most lectures through online videos produced by major textbook publisher Tokyo Shoseki Co. Students are required to watch them when convenient and take tests after each session. They also need to send reports to teachers online after a few sessions.

In addition to online assignments, students need to attend five annual “schooling” days, as required under education ministry guidelines, take exams and have counseling sessions with teachers at the school’s main campus in Okinawa or satellite campuses in Tokyo and Osaka.

After completing a three-year program, students can receive a high school diploma.

The “N” in the school’s name can stand for “New,” “Next,” “Necessary” or “Neutral,” the company said, without specifying one.

The advantage of online schooling, Okuhira said, is to give students spare time to work on topics they are most interested in without being confined by timing and physical location.

As extracurricular education programs, the online school offers selective courses to learn the skills to become programmers, writers, video game creators and Japanese anime producers. It also offers on-site internship programs to experience farming, fishing and traditional craft-making.

Each student at N High School will be assigned a homeroom teacher who will offer advice in studying and career counseling on a one-on-one basis via phone and email.

Students will also have opportunities to interact with their fellows by way of online chats, which Okuhira said is also an essential communication skill in the present era of information technology.

But the school must still assuage the concerns of parents cautious about sending their children to a correspondence school they’ve never heard of.

In an apparent branding effort, Dwango said in December that it will open a boarding cram school for N High School students who want to join the prestigious University of Tokyo, offering an intensive training course for students who aim to apply to the prestigious institution.

To aim to send students to the University of Tokyo while challenging the conventional entrance exam system is “to change negative impressions toward correspondence schools,” Okuhira said, adding that this will boost the online school’s image as a reasonable choice.

“If a student says he or she will attend a correspondence school, I believe many people would react with suspicion” that the student might have an ulterior motive for not choosing a regular school, Okuhira said.

“There is no particular reason to attend a full-time school; people just never question that it’s the right choice. They just assume it is.”

For N High School, the key word is undoubtedly individuality.

“We no longer live in an era where graduating students (start working in factories all doing) exactly the same thing,” Okuhira said. “But people are still afraid to be different.

“High schools in this country are not a part of compulsory education … they are supposed to be places to allow students to try different things, to find what they want to do in the future,” which is exactly what online schooling can offer, he said.