National / Social Issues

Facing depopulation, rural towns turn to online cram schools

Kyodo

One of the biggest concerns for families living in depopulated areas may be a lack of educational opportunities for their children that larger cities can offer.

In an effort to discourage families from moving out of those rural towns and villages, local governments are offering subsidies to take online cram school lessons.

“We are hoping to offer more possibilities for children who live in rural areas,” said Raito Matsukawa, a president at FioreConnection Co., a Tokyo-based company that offers online lessons provided by students at the University of Tokyo, also known as Todai. “Students who weren’t interested in going to universities started to think that is an option.”

FioreConnection currently offers online schooling to about 200 students in nine towns and villages across three prefectures: Shimane, Tokushima and Okinawa.

In the town of Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture, Machino Kotoba Tokushima, a local organization, started offering FioreConnection’s online math lessons to 20 children ranging from fourth to sixth graders, including those from neighboring municipalities.

“I feel happy when I understand what I’ve learned,” Asumi Shingai, a fourth grade student in Kamikatsu said as she took an online lesson offered at a community hall in July with six other students.

Her 40-year-old mother Aiko, said her daughter “was not eager to finish correspondence assignments at home. (But with the online lesson) I’m happy to see my daughter enjoy studying with her friends.”

In the town of Kamikatsu, more than half of the 1,700 residents are at least 65 years old. It’s one of Japan’s depopulating towns that are suffering from an outflow of families with small children. In fiscal 2013, four families moved to cities to seek better educational opportunities for their children when they graduated from elementary school.

In the hopes of halting a further outflow of the younger generation, Machino Kotoba Tokushima asked FioreConnection to offer remote lessons for the town’s children.

Thanks to cooperation from municipalities, the fee for the lessons was covered by the town until June and has been picked up by the prefecture since July.

“Originally, sparsely-populated villages offered perfect conditions for raising children thanks to the abundant nature,” said Rika Namerikawa, who heads Machino Kotoba Tokushima. “If they can study with Todai students via the Internet, it would be the perfect place (to live).”

Similarly, online lessons are given in six different towns and villages in Okinawa Prefecture, with fees shouldered by municipalities.

In the case of three remote Okinawan islands — the town of Taketomi, the village of Tokashiki and Zamami — where the number of students are especially low, the prefecture covers the cost.

Those students study together online via live-streaming videos, which helps them bond as well as to remain competitive.

“The financial burden for families in remote islands is enormous, as some of them travel all the way to mainland Okinawa to attend a cram school at Naha during weekends,” said Kazuichi Arakaki, a prefectural official in Okinawa.

Teachers at FioreConnection try their best to narrow the distance with their students online.

“I try to chat with students to get to know them and try to check their answers by having them raise their hands, said Yoshino Nawa, 23, who attends the engineering department of the University of Tokyo.

Tutors also visit towns and villages a few times a year to deliver lectures. They also invite children to the university to interact with them there.

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