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While online classes have become the norm for some amid the COVID-19 pandemic, academics from Japan and Hong Kong believe that online classes cannot truly be a substitute for face-to-face learning despite the merits of technology in communicating with students.

“Learning does not take place in the classroom, it happens outside the classroom, on campus where students can interact,” among themselves and with teachers, Oussouby Sacko, president of Kyoto Seika University, said during a recent webinar.

The webinar on the future of education was organized by the Awaji Youth Federation, an educational group in Japan, as the academic world faces the challenges posed by online learning.

Sacko said professors at his university have struggled to teach, for example, art-related courses online, and students were also losing interest in attending classes.

To motivate the students, Sacko, who hails from Mali, has introduced a hybrid system of direct interactive sessions between teachers and students once a week and online classes on other days.

Recognizing the challenges teachers face in holding virtual classes, he said there is a need to develop a program for the faculty to train them to become accustomed to the new teaching style.

An online survey by the National Federation of University Co-operative Associations in July has shown that 44.7% of students do not find their lives fulfilling amid the pandemic, citing the limitations of online classes as one of the reasons.

Baniel Cheung, adjunct assistant professor at Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Business and Economics, shared the sentiments of Sacko on the positives of face-to-face learning, even as he recognized the benefits of speed of information and knowledge sharing via online classes.

“It is difficult to teach without seeing the students’ faces and body language, to really know what the other person thinks,” Cheung said, adding that while teaching could be “hybrid” in the post-COVID-19 era, “digital cannot replace humans.”

Representing the students’ voice, Fuka Chida, a sophomore at Chiba University, said the pandemic has reinforced the importance of campus learning.

“University is not just about studies, but is a place where I can learn about myself, through interactions with others, and grow,” said Chida, Japan ambassador of the Youth and United Nations Global Alliance, a group created in partnership with U.N. agencies and civic groups dedicated to children and youth.

Sacko said the pandemic has made it easier for students to communicate through the Line messaging app and noted how shy students are now more actively participating in classes than before.

Cheung said he uses messaging platform WhatsApp to communicate with students, having created groups for different purposes. The tool is used to narrow what he calls “the psychological distance.”

Looking ahead, he underscored the vital role of technology for future inter-university collaboration.

Cheung said online collaboration between universities has become more prevalent during the pandemic and called for continuing such efforts, especially between universities in Asia.

“Students have become more competitive during the pandemic and want to learn more skills to survive in the companies, so inter-Asia exchanges should be held,” he said at the webinar by the federation, founded by Japanese staffing firm Pasona Group Inc.

He added he hopes Japanese universities will offer more courses in English that are popular with students in Asia, such as manga and animation studies.

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