It’s 1:50 p.m., just five minutes before the fourth period is set to start at Tanashi Daini Junior High in western Tokyo. From one of its classrooms reverberates the sound of frustrated teachers, who surround and stare anxiously at a large screen set up to replace a green chalkboard that, under normal circumstances, would be commanding the attention of students in the room.
At the center of the scene is Megumi Kurihara, a veteran Japanese-language teacher who is supposed to begin her class in just a few minutes.
But this isn’t like any class she has ever taught in her decadeslong career. It’s going to be fully remote, with only that big screen and a tablet connecting her to about 70 students logging in from home.
Except the screen somehow isn’t syncing with the tablet, and it is prematurely showing all the answers to a kanji quiz she plans to use in her class. A feeling of dread falls over her.
“God, I’m panicking already,” Kurihara murmurs as she is joined by her fellow teachers, who have come to assist with troubleshooting. With their help, the screen eventually re-establishes connection with the tablet, reverting to the correct page. Crisis averted.
“That was close,” she says. “This is my last year as a teacher before retirement. I never thought I would be asked to do this whole online class thing at this age.”
Monday last week was Day 1 of the city of Nishitokyo’s weekslong experiment with fully remote learning for its elementary and junior high school students, a shift that was implemented as part of measures put in place amid a recent spike in COVID-19 cases that stoked parental concerns over the safety of in-person classes.
The scene at Tanashi Daini provides a glimpse of the challenges likely to be faced at a variety of schools across the nation, which are endeavoring to accelerate their digitalization efforts amid the pandemic.
Embracing remote learning
The digitalization of Japan’s education system had been considered a high priority even before COVID-19 came along. Japanese schools have long relied on conventional teaching methods, as is exemplified by the penchant for physical textbooks, notebooks and blackboards.
Studies have shown the world’s third-largest economy lags behind other nations in utilizing technology in the field of education.
The 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, for example, found Japan ranked second to last among the 48 countries and economies polled in terms of the share of middle school teachers who routinely used digital devices in their classes. The percentage stood at less than 20%, significantly lower than the average of about 50%.
Alarmed by the situation, Japan in 2019 passed legislation and greenlit policies meant to make Japanese schools more tech-savvy under the GIGA School initiative. At the heart of it was the goal of supplying all pupils in elementary and middle schools — both public and private — with digital devices by the end of March 2024. GIGA stands for Global and Innovation Gateway for All.
Then the pandemic struck, giving a shot in the arm to the adoption of online classes worldwide and adding even greater urgency to the need to digitalize education in Japan.
Efforts were sped up. As a result, 96.1% of all local governments have now completed the distribution of tablets to children eligible for the program, much faster than initially anticipated, according to a recent probe by the education ministry.
The improved digital infrastructure, however, was never quite enough to prod schools into switching classes fully online — until, that is, the recent delta-driven surge in COVID-19 cases among children awakened more and more parents to the potential risk of sending them back to classrooms.
It is against this backdrop that a growing number of municipalities have begun the new semester, which started this month, by experimenting with some form of virtual learning, including a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.
In the city of Nishitokyo, the bulk of pupils at its elementary and middle schools have been learning entirely online since last week, showing up to school only during lunchtime. Children thought to have difficulty studying from home, due in part to poor Wi-Fi or parents being away at work, have been allowed to attend in-person classes as an exception.
“How many words can you guys spot that end with ‘s’ in these sentences?” Koji Honda, an English teacher at Tanashi Daini, asked his first-year students on the screen at one point during his 50-minute lesson last week.
Throughout his class conducted via Google Meet, students mostly typed out their answers in the chat section or clicked a button to virtually raise their hand. Honda occasionally took his mask off to show them how to pronounce certain English words, mouthing each syllable slowly into the camera.
Lessons panned out in a similar fashion for math teacher Sho Sadamori too. Sadamori, a 27-year-old tech-savvy teacher who had already spent the previous semester making active use of tablets and digital textbooks, said he had no qualms about moving his classes online.
“With all the talk about how the delta variant could worsen symptoms even for children, I can certainly see the point in conducting classes remotely — I even wish there could be a system in place to allow us to teach from home,” Sadamori said.
Although far less accustomed to digital materials, Hiromi Saito, a Japanese-language teacher with a career spanning over 30 years, says she survived her first-ever remote class experience fairly well, even appearing to derive a bit of satisfaction from it.
“I feel like I got more responses from students than I normally do,” Saito said. “They are usually too shy to raise their hands, but today message after message filled the comments section, so I presume this online format makes them more eager to speak out.”
Not that teachers are entirely happy with online classes, however. For those who specialize in practical subjects, such as physical education and music, the online format does not come close to replicating key aspects of their lesson plans.
Communication vs. security
Communication with students was also nowhere near as intimate or efficient as usual, owing largely to the fact that tablets distributed by the city are designed to prevent any of the students’ personal information, including their names, from showing up on video meetings for security reasons.
Students were made even more unidentifiable by Tanashi Daini’s own decision to have them switch off their cameras during lessons.
This was because the school chose to merge multiple classes into one huge online meeting of about 80 or so students — an aggregation meant to free up some teachers so they can instead be tapped to assist with technical aspects of the class. But the obvious downside is that the sheer number of students in attendance burdens network capacity, making it difficult for them to maintain their connection all the time.
This meant that all teachers could see on their own tablets was a user number assigned to each of their students, who themselves would come up nameless, faceless and essentially invisible. Although teachers possess a list of names spelling out which user ID corresponds to which student, referring to the list each time someone comments or raises their hand is a time-consuming process they want to avoid.
“OK, user number 460, what do you think? Please turn your microphone on,” Kurihara, the soon-to-retire Japanese-language teacher, asked.
No response was forthcoming, but the teacher was clueless as to what was going on beyond the screen. “Hello? User number 460? Can you hear me?”
Similar exchanges dogged the rest of her class, with students virtually raising their hands only to end up silent, presumably due to issues with their microphone settings. By the time the bell rang to announce the end of her first-ever virtual class, Kurihara was utterly exasperated.
“This isn’t working,” she sighed.
Kurihara said she usually tries to rev up her class by adorning a chalkboard with her handmade wall stickers to reward students who provide excellent answers. But such fun, she said, can’t be emulated by remote classes.
“If my students were here right in front of me, I could just casually start a conversation with them and have real communication. This online format could work for college-style lectures, but I want my students to have a much more emotionally rich learning experience.”
Nishitokyo’s board of education, for its part, explains that keeping students nameless on their tablets is an essential precaution against hacking and breach of privacy.
“Kids could easily lose their tablets and leave them somewhere. If one of them is hacked, that could affect a countless number of other kids in our municipality,” said Nishitokyo board of education spokeswoman Shinobu Araki. “So we are thorough about making sure no imprint of personal information is left on their tablets.”
For 15-year-old student Takuma Shiozaki at Tanashi Daini, the tablet distributed by the city struck him as simply too slow, hindering his full participation in classes taught online.
“When I tried to do some research online while watching video footage played by my teacher, the page took forever to load,” he said.
Compared with his own personal computer, “the one provided by the school is way slower. It’s a bit inconvenient.”
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