Commentary / Japan

The shape of post-pandemic university education

by Haruaki Deguchi

Contributing writer

How will the pandemic affect universities? How will they metamorphose as they go through the COVID-19 period and then the time after it’s over?

I define the COVID-19 period as the time before vaccines and drugs are developed to combat the new coronavirus. This is the time when the “new normal” of wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distances are required to avoid infection in the “Three Cs” environment: closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded and close-contact settings. In the period that follows, COVID-19 will become an ordinary infectious disease that can be combated by vaccines and drugs, like influenza.

At Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), where I serve as president, all the classes during the first half of this school year (April-September) are being held online using the Zoom video-conferencing system.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak is under control to some extent in Japan. So far, some 31,000 people have become infected with the coronavirus and 1,000 have died in this country, while worldwide 16 million people have been infected and more than 640,000 have died. Since Japan accounts for about 1.5 percent of the world’s population, it can be said that it is relatively safe as far as COVID-19 is concerned.

As Japan cautiously tries to return to normalcy, universities are exploring how to normalize their education. In the latter half of the school year, APU plans to hold hybrid classes, with students attending classes on campus when possible, and online classes being provided for students who cannot come to campus or when otherwise appropriate.

Universities have no other choice but to try hybrid teaching since there is no telling when the second wave of coronavirus infections will hit.

As such, we will have to consider several issues: 1) What kind of face-to-face classes are possible while maintaining social distancing under the terms of the new normal; 2) Where to draw a line between online classes (typically large classes with the priority of imparting knowledge to students) and face-to-face classes (typically a seminar in which the teacher and a small group of students discuss specific topics); and 3) To what extent will technology be able to help provide equal educational opportunities for students participating remotely in a class that other students are attending in-person.

During the COVID-19 period, the quality of hybrid teaching will hold the key to the competitiveness of universities.

What will universities be like in the post-COVID-19 period? It is unthinkable that they will completely go back to the old normal because it’s human nature to not let go of things that are found to be convenient. Some of the teachers who become accustomed to the convenience of teaching online from home may not want to return to face-to-face classes.

Does that mean that universities will move toward online teaching and distance learning? The tuition for the broadcast-based Open University of Japan is about one-fifth that of ordinary universities. If this is adopted by other universities, teachers’ salaries or the number of teachers could be reduced to one-fifth. Would Japan be able to maintain its level of research and education under such a system?

If teaching moves online, students will be able to compare class options. Students may in fact be happier if videos of classes taught by popular instructors known for their teaching virtuosity are distributed online — like some prep schools have been doing. In this sense, pursuing an “online” university may result in axing large numbers of teachers and getting rid of big university campuses.

Minerva Schools at KGI, touted as a model for 21st century universities, may give us a hint as to the future of higher education. While all of Minerva’s classes are online, their students are supposed to live in dormitories that are scattered across the globe. The students move among them so they can experience living in various parts of the world.

Minerva attaches importance to the idea of peer learning. Most people are lazy so it is fairly hard for them to study by themselves. In general, students can learn only when they mingle with each other and with teachers. Philip II, king of the ancient Macedon, spent a large sum of money to invite Aristotle from Athens to tutor his son Alexander and provide him with a special education. Philip II then opened a school where Aristotle taught Alexander and select children of other aristocrats.

The idea of peer learning has been handed down unbroken from Ancient Greece to this day. Here lies the essence of university education. It can be said that a university is a form of business that makes sense only when it provides students with a physical environment for learning. The core value of this is joy that is born when students deepen their study by spending time with each other and with university staff, including teachers.

In other words, students deepen their studies through total immersion in campus life, including extracurricular activities. Therefore, there won’t be any problems even if classes, which make up only one part of campus life, are replaced by online teaching. Teachers can use the time spared by online teaching to provide guidance and to advise students on their various needs.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

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