When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the sudden closure of schools at the end of February amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, teachers and parents alike were left scrambling for alternatives to classroom learning.

Other countries have moved swiftly to implement online-learning options as their citizens have been asked to shelter in place at home, but most Japanese children were summoned back to school before the closures to collect piles of homework sheets to tide them over until spring break.

Japan may enjoy an international reputation for innovation, but this does not extend to the educational sector at large. Brenda Kaneta, an American mother of four children in the Japanese system, says she is appalled when she compares her own situation with that of her friends in the United States.

“This crisis is highlighting what each country’s weakest points are,” she says. “It’s the 21st century. I’m floored at how far behind Japan has fallen.”

Doug Strable, a freelance learning and development designer based in Tokyo, says Japan has lagged behind in introducing technology into the classroom because educators are generally not familiar with new teaching practices.

“They’ve not had the experience of collaborative, project-based online learning where students complete projects in teams,” he says. “One of the most important skills for creating knowledge and driving innovation is collaboration and the sharing of ideas, and learning online provides this experience.”

Now that spring break is over and the new academic term has begun at schools and universities, there appears to be no cohesive decision on the best way to minimize the risk of infection to students while avoiding a disruption to their studies. Could this situation be a wake-up call for Japan in terms of bringing “edtech” (education technology) into the mainstream?

The home front

Convincing parents may not be easy. Yoshi A. Okamoto is the executive director of SHO-zemi Innovation Ventures, the research and development arm of the Shonan Seminar cram school chain. He believes that public perception has not yet shifted from the paper-based model to seeing technology in education as desirable.

“Parents expect children to get into good schools, and their current focus is on re-creating the environment of entrance exams, which are still paper-based,” Okamoto says. “Many parents don’t yet understand the necessity of technology to help their children prepare for entrance exams.”

For their part, many teachers are not proactive in pushing for change. In her role at the Research Center for Instructional Systems at Kumamoto University, lecturer Chikako Nagaoka designs online programs and develops functions for learning-management systems (LMS). She points out that Japan’s traditional one-way lecture style has offered little incentive for many teachers to learn to use information and communication technology tools effectively.

For teachers looking at how to move their classes online during the current COVID-19 pandemic, Nagaoka suggests they begin by separating out learning activities into those students can do on their own with an LMS (reading slides, watching videos or taking quizzes) and activities that require synchronized meetings (discussions).

Some educators have already taken the plunge and have worked out how to adopt the online tools that are available, such as Claire Sezaki, who operates her own English school.

“I started in a complete panic and pulled off simple lessons the first week, but advanced to respectable lessons by the second week,” she says. “I was very proud of myself for making a YouTube channel, creating and uploading videos, making Powerpoint lessons and using breakout rooms on Zoom. I actually find older students speak less Japanese and are very focused when their face is there on the screen.”

Ryan Lege is a lecturer in professional development in information and communications technology (ICT) at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba. Lege feels fortunate that his institution sees the current coronavirus crisis as a catalyst for innovation and is prepared to meet the challenges it presents.

“Our professional development leaders and groups are actively training teachers with digital tools, while preparing plans to help students ease into studying under a new educational model,” he says. “We have training sessions, as well as mock lessons arranged to help both teachers and students acclimate to online lessons.”

However, even at a basic level, many institutions are woefully lacking in the technology or know-how to move forward with edtech. Charlotte V.T. Murakami, an academic based in Kyushu, points out that the ICT offices at universities should be taking a much more active role in both facilitating technology integration and meeting administrative needs.

“There are faculty staff in Japan who still don’t know how to use a computer,” she says. “There are also a fair number of administrative staff who have no idea what a drive or cloud storage is. Worst of all, some communication systems have been set up so oddly that people cannot quickly share information with each other on campus.”

Moreover, Murakami urges teachers and institutions to take into account the way Japanese students use technology. For example, since not all university students have their own computers, it makes more sense to utilize platforms that can be easily accessed with smartphones.

A future in edtech

Looking ahead, some industry experts believe it is helpful to focus on the big picture. While COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused unprecedented challenges and stress for teachers and students, it could be an opportunity for the Japanese education system to finally move forward in terms of edtech.

“We tend to see critical situations negatively. However, I believe this experience has the potential to accelerate our adoption of technology as a country in a positive way,” says SHO-Zemi’s Okamoto. “It can have a positive impact on how public and private sectors collaborate. There may be less of a gap between public- and private-sector education. There are private-sector cram schools that have been embracing technology for a while, and I predict that this experience will cross-pollinate into the public sector, supporting public-school offerings.

Ultimately, the ideal would be for teachers and students “to try using all the educational tools at their disposal for the best possible effect,” according to Adam Jenkins of the Shizuoka Institute of Science and Technology. Jenkins is also an officer with the Moodle Association of Japan, a not-for-profit organization supporting research and development. Moodle is an open-source learning platform.

Jenkins suggests that educators think of online learning not as a complete alternative for the traditional classroom but as a way to enhance it, in what is known as “blended learning.” Certain tasks, such as learning vocabulary or taking quizzes, can be done online, freeing up time for activities that require face-to-face interaction in the classroom.

“Edtech is just a set of tools that form a part of the educational landscape,” Jenkins says. “There are advantages to these tools over traditional in-class teaching, but online learning is not a drop-in replacement for a classroom. My dream is to see more teachers using edtech, and collaborating and sharing knowledge and resources, which will lead to everyone getting stronger.”

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