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MOOCs: A Professor’s Reflections on Online Education

Massive open online courses have been on the rise in recent years, and in 2013 the University of Tokyo started its own MOOCs. These courses aim to provide widespread access to higher education via the Internet, but how effective are they in practice? We spoke to the university's Professor Fujiwara Kiichi to find out.

Fujiwara Kiichi

Fujiwara KiichiProfessor, Faculty of Law and Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, University of Tokyo. Specializes in international and Southeast Asian politics. Born in 1956. Earned his BA and MA from the University of Tokyo, where he also pursued doctoral studies. Studied at Yale University graduate school as Fulbright scholar. Held positions including researcher at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and assistant professor at Chiba University. His works include Heiwa no riarizumu (Peace for Realists), Sensō o kioku suru: Hiroshima, horokōsuto to genzai (Remembering the War: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and Now), and Sensō no jōken (The Conditions for War).

Massive open online courses have spread to an extraordinary extent worldwide over the past few years. The most popular of the MOOC platforms is California-based Coursera, which boasts over 7 million registered users and provides courses from leading international schools including Stanford, Yale, the University of Toronto, and the University of London. 

In September 2013, the University of Tokyo started offering lectures in English through Coursera. Its first courses were From the Big Bang to Dark Energy by Professor Murayama Hitoshi and Conditions of War and Peace by Professor Fujiwara Kiichi. More than 80,000 students from 150 countries and territories signed up and over 5,000 completed one of the two courses. As well as lecturing, Fujiwara was responsible for overseeing UTokyo’s first online classes. He talked to us about the pros and cons of MOOCs and the divide between universal and local education.

Open Courses Held in English

INTERVIEWER The rise of MOOCs is creating learning opportunities for many who previously were unable to receive higher education. What kind of global impact are these courses having?

FUJIWARA KIICHI One advantage of these courses is that they’re available to anyone with an Internet connection. The Open University of Japan and Britain’s Open University are examples of similar programs open to all, but they provide distance learning via television broadcasts. Taking courses on the Internet allows for a greater degree of freedom, with little restriction on when you can watch course programs.

A second feature is that the classes are conducted in English. Generally, English is the lingua franca of academic research, so there is the advantage that these classes can reach large numbers of students around the world, even in non-English-speaking countries. This isn’t possible with classes in Japanese. Another point is that university classes can usually be attended only by people who have passed the entrance exam and paid tuition fees at the institution where they are given, but this restriction doesn’t apply to MOOCs.

On the other hand, the lecturers don’t know what sort of students will be taking the course until it begins. I thought most of the students for my course would be from Western Europe and the United States, but in fact they came from many other places too, including India, Serbia, and Syria. I think it must have been especially hard to get online in Syria. Looking at the bulletin board discussions that took place alongside the course, I felt the scale and range of participants.

Going Beyond Fixed Notions

INTERVIEWER You taught Conditions of War and Peace on Coursera from October 2013. Why did you choose war as a topic?

FUJIWARA War and peace is a subject where it’s difficult to find a correct answer. In Japan, the mass media is currently painting pacifism and defense of the pacifist Constitution of Japan as a symbol of folly, and rejection of these shibboleths seems to be all that’s required to establish one’s position as a “realist.” However, on the global level the topic of war and peace continues to spark fierce debate. In many parts of the world, war is a part of everyday life and it’s clear that military force is needed to prevent conflict. Armies can bring peace or destroy it; this is the paradox at the center of military power. The topic has the potential for endless expansion.

On the bulletin board, for instance, some students responded to a statement that conflict is inevitable with dissenting views including specific examples. Others put forward the idea that countries don’t have permanent allies, only permanent interests, or that when considering conflicts, whether historical or recent, it’s necessary to ascertain what sort of conclusion they reached. There were many lively and interesting discussions.

My hope and aim for the course was to make students think for themselves and put them into a position where they had to produce their own answers. I wanted to make it difficult for them to reach a conclusion without going beyond their fixed notions. That’s why I chose this topic. It’s the kind of trick that teachers use in their classes on a daily basis.

  • [2014.08.28]
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