One year ago at this time I received an email from my son’s school announcing its closure effective the following week due to then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden decision to call on schools nationwide to shut down in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19.
Working closely with the faculty, PTA and students, the school’s leadership was able to switch to online teaching over the weekend, and classes began relatively smoothly that Monday, March 2. At that time, I was in Washington, for a conference on the 60th anniversary of the revised U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, watching in admiration and appreciation for the rapid way in which the school handled the transition from traditional in-person classes to online, remote ones.
Not all schools and students were this lucky, however, due to a lack of personal computers or tablets, connectivity and a conducive study environment at home, as well as a similar lack of software, equipment and skill sets at the schools.
Students, too, have different emotional needs and learning styles, with some doing better than others during this abrupt transition. Unfortunately, in some cases, digital and related divides have caused existing education inequities around the world to further grow. Improving access to education and the quality of education remain key factors in a country’s development and that of its people.
Japan has for the most part made the shift to what was initially seen as “emergency remote teaching” but has been slower to adapt to the new education environment compared to other countries, such as South Korea. The experience with shifting rapidly to online education has had a forcing effect, shaking things up that badly needed shaking.
It is amazing how Japan can change when absolutely forced to, although Japan could have been more proactive with reforms rather than being forced grudgingly into them. Had it been more experimental with its education prior to COVID-19, the disruption it caused would not have been as painful as it has been for schools, families, companies and society as a whole.
There are still problems with virtual classes but for the most part people have become comfortable with them, or at least the idea of them, as they have with teleworking. This is a big step forward. A major challenge now and in the future is for children, who need that hands-on, personalized education to develop as students and people, to be able to benefit in a remote manner if necessary.
Fortunately, most schools have returned to in-person classes or a combination of in-person and online known as “HyFlex” in the industry, for “hybrid-flexible courses.” Regardless of the learning format, it is clear that education as we knew it has been permanently altered.
The long-term effects are still unknown (especially among children), but it is vital that faculty, administrators and students do not get too comfortable with how things are being done now. We should, in other words, be constantly experimenting with the content and delivery.
This is the biggest lesson of COVID-19 on education — avoiding complacency in our lesson designs and delivery. If we go back to the way things were, we will have learned nothing and failed future generations.
Collaboration was vital in sharing the methods and technical expertise to get classes up and running online in short order, but unfortunately that collaboration does not appear to be extending into the content of the courses and how they are implemented now one year later. The emphasis to date has been to avoid lowering expectations rather than on maximizing the potential of online learning.
Based on my informal surveys of students and educators around the world, one method that is not being used (or not used nearly enough), is interactive learning internationally. This is surprising in that the technology exists to collaborate and engage globally. Indeed, it has long existed, but is terribly underutilized to the detriment of education.
It is also surprising because international exchange — homestays, exchange programs and travel — has essentially come to a halt because of the pandemic but the need for that interaction still exists.
Now that teachers have gotten the hand of offering classes online, it is essential to improve the content through team-teaching and allowing students to interact with other schools and groups. Ideally, this should take place not only across academic disciplines but across borders as well.
For example, it is now possible (as it has long been) to have speakers from around the world speak in one’s class. No travel or expenses are required. Just the will to make it happen. Time zones matter less, as a class does not have to meet in a physical classroom at a specific time. It could meet in the evening from home. Lectures and interactions can be recorded for those who cannot attend.
Furthermore, classes from different schools can meet virtually and work together on an assigned topic. They do not even have to be in the same time zone. In other words, classes between different parts of the world, simultaneously, can take place. Think of the potential — students of different racial, ethnic, religious and regional backgrounds can meet in a safe and professional setting and share opinions. It does not have to be one-on-one; a third school or country could participate for yet another perspective.
The difference in time zones can actually help facilitate projects under strict deadlines: When one class is sleeping, the other class or classes in different time zones could be completing their assigned workload.
Language challenges? Involve the foreign language instructors, including the woefully underutilized ALTs.
More educationally or technologically advanced schools could partner (or “adopt”) less well performing schools abroad and help contribute to closing the digital divide, too.
These sister schools could in turn invigorate sister city relationships that are stagnant amid COVID-19 but don’t need to be as I argued in my commentary, “COVID-19 Brings Sister Cities Closer Together,” in The Japan Times, on Feb. 8. Perhaps these initiatives could lead to the creation of new sister cities.
Classes like the above will help the younger generation gear up for the economy and workplace of the future better than the lecture style, text-based, rote memorization approach still in effect. The format may have changed due to COVID-19 but if the style itself does not, Japan and the world will never get out of its education crisis. Online, remote education to different degrees is here to stay. Let’s embrace and maximize it for the betterment of our kids, the schools and the world.
Robert D. Eldridge was a tenured associate professor at Osaka University’s School of International Public Policy and is the author (in Japanese) of “Japan’s Educational Recession and the Path Out of It.”
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