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The students of Mino Jiyu Gakuen High School start out their day with an online survey that requires them to take their temperatures. It’s a task that the school’s teachers never imagined themselves doing when they landed their jobs.

Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a nationwide shutdown of schools in late February, however, the teachers have had to re-imagine their roles entirely. A big part of the change has been having to make a sudden shift to digital forms of teaching.

“All grades and courses are communicating with students online but in different ways,” says Derry Kelleher. He’s a teacher at Mino Jiyu Gakuen in Osaka Prefecture, where a state of emergency has been in place since April 7. “We use a platform called Classi to contact them and give exercises.”

In addition to Classi, Zoom and Google Drive are being used to help facilitate lessons and communication among the 1,700-plus students, and the school has distributed iPads to those in the higher grades. But Mino Jiyu Gakuen is one of the few schools nationwide that has been able to successfully shift its classrooms online amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Discrepancies in learning

While schools and universities across Japan have largely tried their hands at distance learning over the past two months, significant discrepancies have emerged between private and public schools in particular.

Rochelle Kopp, a professor of management at the University of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, has been following the issue of remote working and teaching closely as the nation grapples with the unprecedented challenges brought about by the spread of the virus.

“Many private schools in Japan were prepared and transitioned to distance learning quite quickly,” she says. “However, public schools generally seem to have not been able to cope at all. I think it was something that they didn’t really anticipate.”

Julie Matsunaga, a mother of four children who attend both private and public schools in Osaka Prefecture, says she has noticed a real difference between the two systems in how they’ve reacted to the crisis.

Her daughter’s private junior high school posted out a whole month of lessons and homework, “which the teachers remotely check through the Edmodo app system,” which connects students and parents to teachers. At her son’s public junior high school, however, they’ve taken a more standoffish approach.

“The school sent us a very simple online drill website but, as he hasn’t yet been assigned homework, he’s not sure what he’s supposed to be studying,” she says.

Osamu Ikeda, a professor of educational methods at Kyoto Tachibana University, says that with the exception of public schools in Kumamoto Prefecture, where students have had access to iPads since 2018, most public schools were not prepared for a long-term disruption to the standard way of doing things.

“At the individual level, there were some cases in which those teachers who knew how to handle ICT devices used them to support students’ learning at home,” Ikeda says, referring to information and communication technology. “However, the administrative level failed to face this crisis.”

The need for an update

Digital education technology has largely remained a back-up plan for many educators around the world but especially in Japan, which lags behind most of the developed world when it comes to adapting technology to meet the needs of a modern classroom.

According to a 2018 survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Japan had the lowest percentage for which schools believed their teachers had the necessary skills to integrate digital devices in teaching.

Teru Clavel, an education consultant based in New York and the author of “World Class,” a book that compares the educational systems of different nations, says this data “shows that China has teachers who are most comfortable and trained to use education technology whereas Japan is dead last among all participating countries and economies.” Furthermore, Japan’s public schools don’t have the resources to furnish students with devices like iPads.

Still, Japan consistently ranks high in the OECD’s international student assessments, which are conducted every three years, maintaining its position alongside countries that devote a higher percentage of GDP spending on education.

Kyoto Tachibana’s Ikeda says much of the credit for Japan’s placement in those assessments comes down to the perseverance of its teachers, who soldier on with only books and blackboards in their arsenal.

“However, what we are witnessing during this pandemic era is the limit of this situation,” Ikeda says. “We cannot (solely) rely on such teaching techniques anymore.”

One public high school teacher in Kyoto Prefecture, who asked to remain anonymous, understands the need for an update. As concerns about the virus spread, she realized educators would have no other option than to adopt distance learning and has since been working to keep everyone on the same page.

She spent the first week of April racing to get staff up to speed on running their own Google classrooms, a free online service. Kyoto’s board of education has since contacted her high school outlining its plans to roll out Microsoft Classroom sometime in April. However, as she notes, other than a one-day Microsoft Office class for new hires, teacher training in classroom technology is severely lacking.

The education ministry has attempted to make up for the overall shortfall by providing course content to students in all tertiary levels via a dedicated digital platform that makes use of video lectures and online drills to cover subjects such as science, math, Japanese and English.

But here again students in Japan face hurdles. According to the OECD, Japan ranks lowest when it comes to using information and communication technology outside of school for schoolwork, and Japan is below the OECD average both for access to computers for school work and quiet places to study.

Higher learning, lower standards

“What any educational institution needs to do in order to go online is to choose the platform, get instructors comfortable using it, have instructors recast their classes for delivery virtually and then get the students on board to using the platform,” says Kopp of University of Kitakyushu. “None of these are easy if you have never done it before.”

While educators in Japan are not alone in navigating the current situation, she adds, “I think it might be harder for Japanese institutions because so few of them had ever done anything like this before.”

Even at the university level, where most students and faculty should have a degree of competency when it comes to digital tools and platforms, institutions fall short.

The University of Tokyo and Osaka University have kept pace with the new semester and started online classes. But many other universities such as Ritsumeikan University and Kyoto University, both in Kyoto, and Keio University in Tokyo, have delayed commencing their semesters as they figure out how to develop online workarounds.

Parental guidance

The task of navigating the new classroom also extends beyond educators to parents who now find themselves having to assume roles as teacher aides in the home.

“This is absolutely a strain on families, it’s unprecedented,” says education consultant Clavel. “Those families with working parents or guardians and those families that may not have strong Wi-Fi or more than one device are also at a disadvantage. This is not to mention economic strains that this pandemic may be presenting.”

Clavel counsels that, where possible, parents and guardians should provide structure and routine during the day, while leaving some room to be creative and experiment.

“This is an opportunity to work with our kids to give them lessons they may not be learning during the busy school year,” she says, citing “contribution to household chores, accounting, family learning skills together and picking up an instrument.”

Above all, the parental responsibility of safeguarding a child’s physical and mental health and well-being is paramount.

“Children are experiencing anxiety, just as adults are,” Ikeda says. “This is especially the case for senior high school students, their future is full of uncertainty since they don’t know what the entrance examination for university will be like this year. Therefore, safeguarding your children’s mental health is a very important job for parents.”

Ultimately, Ikeda, like many of his peers, hopes that the crisis will be the catalyst for Japan to embrace information and communication technology, and for the government to increase spending on education in general and the edtech revolution in particular.

“Children must learn these skills to survive in a world full of uncertainty,” Ikeda says. “It’s really a critical situation right now. In the near future, we could witness an academic performance gap between those children who were able to study fairly well at home (during the pandemic) and the children who were unable to.”

Haruka Iwamoto contributed to this report

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