Online education void leaves millions without schooling in Japan

Many schools in other countries have been quick to put their students into new online arrangements following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when Prime Minister Abe announced the sudden closure of schools from March 2, Japanese students were told to come back to school to pick up sheets of school work. For most schools in Japan, there is no alternative available.

Yoshi Okamoto, executive director of a cram school chain, says he believes the dominance of paper-based education in Japan is partly to do with parents’ belief that paper-based systems best recreate exam environments. Chikako Nagaoka, a lecturer at the Research Center for Instructional Systems at Kumamoto University, adds that many teachers are not proactive in pushing for change either as Japan’s one-way lecture style of teaching leaves little room for online innovation. 

According to OECD surveys, Japan ranks lowest in OECD countries for technology use in education. To illustrate, according to a study by the Japanese government last year, 78% of local governments surveyed were not currently using online education systems, and 73% had no plans to introduce such schemes. This is despite Japan ranking among the highest globally for student assessments.

In the seven prefectures where Prime Minister Abe declared a nearly month-long state of emergency on April 16, more than 95% of compulsory schools had already remained closed since March 2. The website of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology lists a few examples of online education use cases. Still, in reality, many public schools are completely closed due to a lack of online schooling environments with insufficient incentive to do otherwise; the Ministry’s regulation does not allow students to receive credits without offline schooling.

Credit: Kyodo

Rochelle Kopp, a professor of management at the University of Kitakyushu, has noticed private schools have generally been much better prepared for the transition to online teaching than public schools. Private schools are more likely to have online systems in place already, and due to the higher incomes of parents, it is easier for schools to ask parents to buy hardware for students if needed.

Some public schools are pressing on with their own online schooling techniques. One example is Koseigakuen Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo, which has been using online tools for lectures, communication, submitting assignments, and further learning resources. Nevertheless, this has caused disparities in education across regions and left students and parents urging for equal educational opportunities.

As for hardware, although public schools in Kumamoto Prefecture have had access to iPads since 2018, Japan ranks below the OECD average for both access to computers for school work and quiet places to study. To address this issue, Prime Minister Abe recently revealed plans to make a laptop or other terminal available to every student in Japan by 2023.

Many Japanese firms have also offered free access to online learning tools to help students. Moreover, Japan’s big three mobile phone carriers – NTT Docomo, au, and SoftBank – have announced that they will partially waive some data charges for users aged under 25. This comes amid worries that some students may run out of data to access educational resources. Nonetheless, Japan still has a long way to go in education to live up to its technology legacy.

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