Digital Divide: Majority of Japanese Schools Offline During Coronavirus Shutdown
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In March, the Japanese government took the unprecedented step of urging schools across the country to close in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus. While a number of institutions moved classes online, the vast majority made no attempt to introduce remote learning. A Ministry of Education survey found that only 10% of public schools provided some form of online instruction to students during the break, including uploading recordings of lessons to video-sharing sites, and that even fewer, a mere 5%, livestreamed classes over the Internet.
Although schools have gradually reopened in June and July, experts warn that Japan is not out of the woods yet, stressing that educators must address the low rate of online readiness in case a second wave of COVID-19 infections prompts authorities to order another long-term shutdown, further disrupting students’ educations.
Below is a look at what is being done to bring Japanese classrooms online.
A Smartphone and a Tripod
Daisan Sunamachi Junior High School in Kōtō, Tokyo, is a rare case of a public school moving lessons online during the shutdown. Hamaishi Shigeaki, a teacher at the school, says diving into the uncharted waters of virtual learning was an eye-opening experience. “I initially felt that students found online lessons less rewarding than being in the classroom,” he explains. “This turned out not to be the case, though. When we surveyed the student body, I was surprised to find that the majority of pupils viewed the experience as positive.”
Lessons at the school resumed in June, but as a preventive measure only half of the students were allowed to attend at one time, joining either morning or afternoon sessions. When not in the classroom, students were expected to follow along at home using the online meeting platform Zoom.
The day I visited, the pupils in attendance, each sporting masks, sat at every other desk as part of social distancing protocols. The teacher conducted the lesson as usual, writing out problems and explanations on the blackboard. The only indication that the class was taking place online was a smartphone attached to a tripod in the middle of the room.
The setup allowed the school to remain on schedule. “Students came for only half a day, but by using Zoom they were able to attend the regular six hours of lessons,” Hamaishi says. “This was a big hit with the kids.”
The school would likely have remained offline during the coronavirus pandemic if it were not for the efforts of Ushioda Kunio, the supervisor of a volunteer-run educational support organization. Ushioda, who spent his career at the telecommunication giant NTT before retiring, says an impending sense of crisis compelled him to get involved. “Even while at NTT I had repeatedly pointed out to the school that it needed to install an up-to-date IT system so it could offer classes online,” he explains. “But plead as I might, I wasn’t able to get the administration or teachers on board.”
A turning point came when Ushioda learned about the GIGA project. Standing for Global and Innovation Gateway for All, the project was launched by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology in 2019 to support schools in installing high-speed and high-capacity Internet and to provide needy students with laptops or tablet with which to access the web. “I used the program as leverage,” Ushioda recounts. “Here the education ministry was throwing its weight behind bolstering information and communications technology at schools. This made it easier to convince staff to bring their classrooms into the digital age.”
Schools have been reluctant to provide online access to classes out of fear of disadvantaging students who lack Internet access at home. However, the coronavirus pandemic has been a wake-up call for leaders and educators about the need to be proactive in addressing the problem.
Kōtō has been one of the few local governments to take concrete actions. Since last year it has distributed 80 tablets to schools around the city for use by students who do not have computers or mobile devices of their own. Authorities have also supplied Wi-Fi routers to households not connected to the Internet.
Overcoming Initial Hesitance
Setting up to stream lessons online is relatively simple, requiring just a camera-equipped device like a smartphone, a stand or tripod, a high-speed Internet connection, and a web conferencing platform such as Zoom. “It’s not rocket science,” exclaims Ushioda. “But few teachers knew enough about live streaming to want to give it a try.” One of the first steps he took to sell the idea of online teaching was to provide a live demonstration on a tablet set up in the staff room of the school. “The teachers were surprised at how straightforward it works.”
Although Ushioda succeeded in piquing the interest of teachers, he still had to convince staff that remote learning was worth their while. “I was concerned that it would fall by the wayside when classes started full time again in July ,” he explains. To keep this from happening, he stressed the need to be prepared for a possible resurgence in the coronavirus triggering another shutdown, adding that online capabilities would also allow classes to continue even during the normally disruptive seasonal outbreaks of the flu. “I won them to my side by focusing on the merits.”
Hamaishi says that while online classes have been placed on hold since the school has resumed its regular schedule, teachers are prepared to start them up again as the need arises. “It’s there as an option for students who, for whatever reason, are chronically absent but still want to follow lessons.”
Keeping Students Engaged
The disruption in education caused by the coronavirus has been felt across the country, but it has had the biggest impact on students who, due to factors like economic circumstances or unstable home environments, were already struggling. “The best way to help children break the cycle of poverty is to give them an education,” explains Imamura Kumi, who heads Katariba, a Tokyo-based NPO providing educational support to needy children. The group recently launched a project to supply computers and Internet access to students free of charge.
While Katariba sees online classes as a positive step, there remains the challenge of assuring that students get the individual help they need to stay on top of their studies. “Children perform better when parents and other grown-ups are involved in their education,” explains Keiō University professor Nakamuro Makiko, a member of the project.
Nakamuro points to research from the University of Toronto showing that children earn higher grades and develop better study skills when an adult takes an active role in their education. “Technology has made it possible to learn from anywhere, but kids still need someone watching over them who can help with problem areas and make sure they stay on track. Students who lack this kind of support are at risk of falling behind or dropping out entirely.”
She stresses that if online classes become a normal part of the Japanese education system, it will take more than just streaming lessons for digital learning to be truly effective. Schools must ensure that students not only have the technical hardware needed to study from home, they must also make certain they can access the academic assistance they require
The merits of offering classes online go beyond just the current health crisis. It is common for schools to have a native English speaker on staff who assists the main language teacher, normally a Japanese instructor. But the supply of foreign teachers has not kept up with demand, a situation that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. Using Zoom or similar apps, though, schools can connect with foreign instructors residing in Japan or even overseas.
Digital learning can also help schools respond to rising absenteeism by giving students with irregular attendance an online environment where they can continue their studies.
Japanese classrooms are taking baby step toward incorporating online elements. Programs like the government’s GIGA initiative will help speed this process along, equipping students with the electronic tools they need to become the drivers of tomorrow’s innovation.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on June 26, 2020. Written by Fuji TV News Analyst Suzuki Makoto. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)
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