Are computers helpful or harmful to education? Two recent reports from government ministries expose the conundrum at the heart of that question. The communications ministry and the education ministry announced recently they would start a new cloud-based system to make teaching materials accessible on the Internet. Yet, in the same week, the education ministry released survey results that found children who spend many hours on the Internet do poorly at school. So, which is it?

Students will start to use cloud computing learning systems in fiscal 2016, according to the ministries. The system will allow students to access data via the Internet, where electronic teaching materials for five subjects — English, mathematics, Japanese, science and social studies — will be stored on servers. Allowing students access to school materials on their personal computers and on their cellphones seems a positive step forward, though perhaps just a small step.

Increasing accessibility of materials and upping the efficiency of learning is surely good. If students miss a class, they can catch up, materials can be updated easily and cheaply, and valuable data collected. However, will all students have tablet devices and other equipment, or even a stable Internet connection?

Japanese classrooms as of 2012 had only a 75 percent connection rate, according to the education ministry. More time online will become a larger and larger part of education, and of students’ lives.

More interestingly, the survey from the education ministry found that children who spend many hours on the Internet and video games tend to perform poorly in arithmetic. More time spent online translated into lower scores on standardized tests. Those students who spent more time watching news on television or reading newspapers performed better in the Japanese language.

The more important point in the ministry’s survey was another one unrelated to technology. The survey found that classrooms where teachers pose questions that elicit thought and where students are active and speak up had the highest rate of performance on tests. Clearly, schools need to focus more attention on posing thought-provoking questions and finding ways to teach students how to become active and express themselves.

Technology is neither a problem nor a solution. The best results depend on teaching method and manner of engaging students. Japanese students need classes where they participate actively and are challenged to think, regardless of how materials are accessed or how much time is spent on the Internet. Technology can do its small part by increasing access, but it is still up to schools, teachers and administrators to do the tough work of encouraging thinking and communication.

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