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March is usually a month of hope as we sense the coming of spring, and the expectation of a new beginning after wrapping up the academic and fiscal year. This year, however, the COVID-19 outbreak has dampened this sentiment as schools are closed nationwide and graduation and other ceremonies are either canceled or being held at much smaller scale. Events such as concerts, shows and conferences/seminars are called off or postponed due to the risk of infections among a large crowd in a closed space.

There is great concern over the economic outlook as the impact of disruptions to the global supply chain and flow of goods and people will be felt for the coming months and possibly beyond. Another concern is whether the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games can be held this summer as Japan has been designated by some nations as a country to avoid traveling to. The new coronavirus outbreak is a forced disruption of regular activities — for schools and for work.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has requested the closure of public schools throughout the country through the spring break at the end of March. Some schools have decided not to close, and others made their facilities open to students who have no other place to go.

Meanwhile, some online course materials by Recruit and N High School, and programming-related courses by AI Academy, are being offered free of charge to schools and students. Shinyo High School in Sapporo and Seiko Gakuin High School in Shizuoka began offering online courses upon Abe’s call for the temporary shutdown of schools. Zoom Video Communications of the United States has made its applications freely available to schools and teachers.

Students need infrastructure such as internet access as well as a computer to make the use of the free course materials. It appears that schools, teachers and students that made preparations before the outbreak are in the best position to move smoothly to the online teaching. As they involve some simple technology, they need to learn how to use these materials, and not everybody has been trained. But even though they have never used these materials before, the young students should be able to learn quickly.

In the business sectors, some companies have promoted staggered working hours to avoid crowded trains as well as halted overseas and domestic business travel for their employees. Working from home is also being recommended.

Compared with schools, those companies appear to be better prepared to adapt to these actions as their technological infrastructure and skills are more established.

According to a Jiji Press survey, 34 local governments and institutions promote staggered work hours and remote work, and 10,000 workers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have begin teleworking. Video conference and other communication tools will be used by more than half the companies polled.

This forced disruption of regular school and work operations can possibly trigger the changes needed for Japanese society. As David Roberts, one of the world’s top experts on technology disruptions and innovation, says, disruption is difficult, not because of technology, but because it challenges people’s conventional wisdom.

The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing many people to have a firsthand experience of trying something new and unconventional. It could be online learning, online discussion and meeting, etc. It gives them an opportunity to reexamine the traditional way of doing things. By being forced to use technology and new approaches, many people can evaluate them firsthand and compare them with the conventional methods.

I’ve always wondered why changes, particularly overhaul of activities and processes that have been maintained for some time, are difficult to implement in this country, even after the advantages of applying new approaches have been discussed and debated. The coronavirus outbreak can break this tendency of procrastinating and of not taking action.

People can challenge the notion that classes where teachers engage with students need to held physically. If many subjects can be taught to students via online courses, education that needs to be done face-to-face can be differentiated from that which can be provided online. What is important is that large numbers of people can experience trying both approaches as opposed to experimental, small-scale trials.

It’s true that a considerable number of schools are not ready or prepared to introduce online courses or offer online materials to students. And some students may not have the necessary devices and/or access to the internet. Once students are given the opportunity to try them, however, they will likely learn much more quickly than expected. Instead of offering programming and English courses in a classroom setup, providing them via online learning and encouraging students to use these tools can take society a step forward in getting students ready for the new technology.

With the online forum where students can consider and discuss the meaning of data and or/implications of the facts and trends, we may even be able to resolve one of the problems that OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment result reveals for young Japanese students: a lack of familiarity with using digital tools, finding the meanings and making judgment.

For businesspeople and companies, many benefits can also be expected. Telework may make corporate employees think of alternative work styles and explore new opportunities. Though it may still be a long shot, those who have retired from regular work or housewives who don’t have regular job despite high educational qualifications may start considering new job opportunities. These attempts will help solve many of the issues associated with the nation’s rapidly shrinking working-age population.

Arranging web-based meetings with only those who need to attend takes preparation. As employees are forced to shift to online meetings, the value of many face-to-face meetings held at companies — with more participants than necessary and little tangible output — should be reexamined to see if such meetings can be eliminated. To have productive and efficient web-based meetings, the agenda and the output expected by the end of the meeting needs to be clearly stated. Long, boring presentations with many slides and little substance will be eliminated for the sake of time.

Schools, teachers, parents and students as well as companies and businesspeople are strongly encouraged to never go back to the traditional way of doing things after the COVID-19 outbreak ends. This forced disruption of daily activities is a blessing in disguise that can move Japan forward and change its way of doing things.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.

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