National

Schools tapping smartphone and tablet apps to engage a new generation

Kyodo

Smartphone and tablet computer apps are seeing increasing use in Japanese schools as teachers look to capitalize on what has become many young people’s preferred window to the world.

Artificial intelligence-assisted apps have become prevalent in education, particularly in subjects many Japanese teachers struggle to teach well.

One subject educators need help with is teaching English, a task that will become all the more important when speaking ability enters the joint achievement test in 2020, part of Japan’s high-pressure university entrance exams.

Nippon Sports Science University Kashiwa High School in Chiba Prefecture uses an app called TerraTalk to help students improve their English conversation skills.

The school introduced the app last summer for use by students planning to study abroad. It plans to expand its use to all students to prepare them for the new college entrance exam.

In early November, several students gathered after school to practice English using TerraTalk.

Using an airport customs and immigration scenario, a mock immigration officer drilled them with sample questions, asking, “May I ask your destination?” or “Do you have your ticket with you?”

After the students replied, their responses were displayed on the tablet screen so they could be checked.

The students said they generally have a positive experience with the app as they do not feel the hesitancy they might when speaking to real person.

“I get nervous when I speak during class, but this app makes me relax,” a student said. “I feel as if I spoke English in an actual situation,” another student said.

For teachers, the app goes some way to making up for the lack of in-class conversation with native English speakers.

“We have an English conversation class taught by a native speaker, but each student is given only a few minutes to speak,” one English teacher said. “The app is very effective.”

Yoshiyuki Kakihara, president of Joyz Inc., the Tokyo-based developer of TerraTalk, said the app can help people improve their English because it displays the points at which their pronunciation differs from natives.

Joyz released TerraTalk for the Android and iOS operating systems in 2016. Its scenarios cover situations both at work and in everyday life and lets people conduct role-play as well.

Another area where apps could be of great help to teachers is in computer programming. Coding will become an essential skill for elementary school pupils from the 2020 school year as well.

In October, DeNA Co. released a coding app for young children called Programming Zemi.

In a demonstration using a class of first-graders at an elementary school in Tokyo, pupils assembled blocks displayed on a tablet to enable a virtual character to walk or jump across the screen.

Tomoko Namba, DeNA’s founder and executive chairwoman, said she hopes the app will help “children clear the psychological hurdles of using a computer.”

Such moves are part of a drive to promote the use of information and communication technology in education. There were 1.95 million computers used by students in public elementary, junior high and high schools as of March 2016, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. That means there was one computer per 6.2 students.

Of the computers, 253,755 were tablet computers, nearly 10 times more than four years ago.

Cram schools are big users of apps.

Gakken Study et Co. and Yoyogi Seminar are among cram schools using the Studyplus for School app, which helps students manage their self-study programs.

Gakken Study began using it at two schools in Saitama Prefecture last year, instructing students to use their smartphones to input information on the subjects they study, how much time they spend on each, and the reference materials they used.

The app has allowed cram schools to get a better picture of their students’ study habits, a Gakken Study official said.

Gakken Study plans to use Studyplus for School at all of its 40 branches.

Using the app, students can find out how much their fellow students are working and raise their motivation to catch up or better their friends, a representative of the Studyplus app said.

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