Reference | FYI


E-textbooks to open digital can of worms

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

As the world goes digital, many schools are trying to introduce digital materials into the classroom to encourage studying and meet the needs of students’ increasingly diverse needs.

In May, the education ministry formed a panel to discuss the use of digital textbooks and whether to replace the physical ones. It is also weighing the possible technological, economic and legal ramifications of such a shift.

How will education change by going digital? What are the challenges posed by introducing digital textbooks?

Here’s what The Japan Times dug up about using digital textbooks in Japan:

What constitutes a digital textbook?

The education ministry says the digital materials currently used in classrooms are not textbooks in the strict sense, but supplemental materials, including learning aids, and audio and video content. They also allow students to rotate images on display screens to get a 360-degree view, or click to access extended explanations for words that appear in text.

Digital materials for studying English may include videos designed to help students listen repeatedly to work on pronunciation by watching how the speaker’s mouth moves.

Such materials are mainly designed for teachers to use in front of students, with the help of digital markers, magnifiers and links to help make lectures more creative.

Some offer students devices, mostly tablet computers equipped with functions to facilitate communication via note- and memo-sharing over a network. These systems can also keep track of study records to help teachers provide proper guidance to each student.

Are schools in Japan sufficiently digitized?

Although slowly improving, Japan still lags in introducing information and communications technology, or ICT, in education.

According to the education ministry, the number of students per computer remained at 6.5 in 2014, compared with its goal of 3.6 by fiscal 2017 set in the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education.

This puts Japan behind countries like Singapore, which had a student-computer ratio of 2.0 in 2010, the United States, whose ratio stood at 3.2 in 2008, and South Korea, which had a ratio of 5.0 in 2007, according to an internal affairs ministry report.

On average, only 37.4 percent of Japan’s public schools were using digital materials in the classroom in 2014, which is a slight improvement on 32.5 percent from the previous year.

The exception is Saga, which was leading the nation with an 86.1 percent penetration rate for digital materials in 2014, the report said.

Saga has been forging ahead with such efforts since 2011. In April 2014, the prefecture installed digital devices for student use in all public high schools.

That generated a positive reaction from both teachers and students, who enjoy participating in interactive lectures, an official from the Saga Prefectural Board of Education said.

What are the merits of using digital textbooks?

Digital textbooks can help nurture creativity, said Toru Kawase, an official in charge of digital promotion at major textbook publisher Tokyo Shoseki Co.

Unlike traditional lectures held in conjunction with printed textbooks, where students tend to be evaluated only by whether they can regurgitate the correct answers on tests, digital textbooks allow teachers to evaluate the process students use to determine the answers, Kawase said.

“The good thing about digital textbooks is . . . students can deepen their thinking through trial and error” as they share and discuss the process with other classmates, he said.

In fact, digital materials helped students, including those shy about giving presentations, to actively express their opinions and organize them in an effective manner, according to the ministry’s experimental study on ICT education.

Digital textbooks can also support students with learning disabilities because they offer alternative ways to read or write, including through audio narration of text passages. Children who can’t speak Japanese can benefit from translation apps.

What are the hurdles to introducing digital textbooks?

Legal revisions will be necessary to adopt digital textbooks as the nation’s official textbooks, said media and governance professor Ichiya Nakamura of Keio University, who is vice chairman of the promotional group Digital Textbook and Teaching.

Under a revision of the School Education Act in 2014, any textbook used at school must literally be printed on paper and pass the ministry’s screening process, Nakamura told a symposium on digital textbooks on May 25 on Keio’s campus in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Money is also a challenge.

The cost of managing the distribution of digital devices to students will fall to local governments, while schools will have to bear the enormous expense of creating an environment that can take full advantage of the technology, such as by setting up wireless networks and building a database for the data to be used.

Developing digital textbooks is also costly for the makers, Kawase said. As an example, he said it costs about ¥100 million to create social studies textbooks for use by elementary school students between the third and sixth grades because of all the copyrights held on digital images and videos.

How the government would screen such textbooks is another concern, Kawase said, adding that it’s too much of a burden to check all of the content, including the movie files and web pages that are attached.

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