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Reforms in Computer Education that are Possible for Japan

Early in 2000 a panel discussion on "Education in the Information Age" took place in Tokyo at the Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) of the International University of Japan (see details of the event below). Focused mainly on the K-12 level in Japan, topics were computer education and teacher training, education and information networks, and the future prospects for Japan's education in the information age. Here are some responses in written form to the questions raised:

What is the present situation in Japan's computer education at elementary and middle schools in Japan, including teacher education and in-service training?

Some model elementary schools are networked already, while one computer online in the teachers' room and aging computers or word-processors elsewhere is more typical. The Prefectural Education Centers have networked computer classrooms for in-service training, but as with English, they can never reach enough teachers often enough for long enough. But teachers are the best learners, and they see the future trends in society. Teachers are probably above average in written English, so it is something they could manage, whereas most of them lack confidence in spoken English. A paper test culture engenders fear of guessing and experimentation, which are necessary for learning both networked computing and foreign languages. But schoolteachers can be expected to put their efforts into self-development with computers, insofar as their busy schedules allow.

A junior high school teacher in Kagawa team taught a class over the Internet from the Prefectural Education Center, and has published widely about it. But then he was transferred to a most remote school on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. A similar fate has befallen English teachers even in Tokyo who have adopted communicative language teaching. The protruding nail gets pounded in, with envy and jealousy often the motivation. But that junior high school teacher would have been wiser to separate his online education research Web pages from his motorcycle club Website.

The situation of introducing a new dimension into education could be compared with oral English, where outside help was needed in the form of the JET Program of Assistant Language Teachers recruited abroad. In my experience of offering in-service training to secondary school English teachers, in-service training can never be enough, and local initiatives are discouraged by petty politics or group turf rivalries. Because conversational English has not appeared on university entrance exams, everyone in the educational process has tended to make light of it.

Similarly, if computing skills and Internet literacy do not appear on entrance exams, there may be an attitude that it is all right to play with such things in elementary school, but not from junior high school where serious cramming for entrance exams starts. This is called the backwash effect, where the expected contents of entrance exams wash back to affect what parts of the curriculum are taken seriously.

How can computer education in Japan be improved?

A year ago I invited a class of 40 elementary school students along with their teacher and the principal to a computer lab at my college to experience the Internet, and the approach would work with any class from the fourth grade on. But just recently when I invited a junior-senior high school of the private prep school type, they declined my invitation. It seemed that they did not want to take any time away from cramming for exams a year or more away. Thus the backwash effect seemed to account for their lack of motivation. The U.S. has offered a possible solution by trying to make everyone take such exams by computer. So the Ministry of Education could announce its intention to computerize such exams, and universities would probably follow suit for their own exams.

Among the differences between conversational English and computing, teachers can see the need for computing and study it on their own. Then written English is much more comfortable for the general public including teachers than oral English, so the self-reliance of teachers can be counted on -- if they are allowed to experiment and learn by doing. So it is not necessary to hire many new people, but educational authorities should consult with experts who are literate in both Japanese language computing and written English.

>Currently there are plans to introduce integrated studies from the 5th grade, and information courses in secondary school. So educators in Japan are watching the situation closely and getting interested in the Internet, which is over 80% in English. Therefore I suggest establishing goals of two literacies, in networked computing and written English, then adjust the curriculum from 4th or 5th grade to aim for these goals.

The Ministry of Education is currently turning to cram schools (juku) in desperation to introduce oral English into elementary schools, but regular schoolteachers could learn with practice and general guidelines to handle written English via the Internet. Then also, JET program ALTs would not have to be increased, but new criteria for hiring them could include evidence of their networked computing skills such as having their own home pages.

Where possible I suggest eliminating word-processors, which are obsolete, and leapfrog to networked computing from the start. This is to counter the perception up to now of interacting with a machine and begin a paradigm shift to seeing computers as nodes in a national and worldwide network. That is, computers are now the most effective means of communication, nationally and globally. This paradigm shift also means moving away from a paper culture of one-way, top-down communication, towards interactive two-way communication. Regular feedback and adjustments are needed, as the technologies are new to everyone and constant experimentation is helpful.

A face-to-face culture where administrators must travel to Tokyo from every region harks back to the Edo Period. The old idea of the Sensei already having mastered a field is also outdated, as lifelong education is needed by educators more than anyone else. So central government agencies should be networked with all the schools not just as a database of information and rules but as a circle that benefits everyone including the students and local communities. While there will still be a hierarchy of authority, the whole system can work better if each partner in the process has a stake in it with open channels of communication.

What is the present situation of "education using computers and information networks"? Are there any good examples in Japan?

In two hours even elementary school students can be introduced to the Internet, including international communication in English. The 4th graders I invited had learned the Romanization of Japanese, such as writing their names in the English alphabet. I asked the teacher to prepare just by teaching questions and answers about their name and age. I found from my sons what was most popular among kids and ran Web searches in Japanese and English. I prepared a colorful Web page full of graphics for the event, which was on their screens when the students arrived. There were links to Websites on local schools, local history and culture, such as a streaming audio concert with "kan-kan ishi" stones found in the town.

The students at first needed only to use the mouse and click the items in order. Some were in English, but they were numbered. I explained things in Japanese like the back button, so the kids quickly learned Websurfing. Near the end, one location was the Japanese-English search engine goo of Nippon Telephone and Telegraph, so they could see that anything they were interested in could be found.

The final experience was going into a Web chat environment in Los Angeles that conducts talk show type events with a host present. I arranged for some colleagues in the U.S. and Europe to enter the chat room at the same time and ask simple questions to the students like their name and age. There were also strangers who happened to drop in. Most of the 4th graders could respond in some way by at least inputting their names, although keyboarding was new to most of them. They experienced the vivid sensation that people are out there beyond the screen, so they realized in a way that computers are not like other input and output machines up to now, but rather a powerful new way to discover interesting things and to communicate with new acquaintances anywhere in the world. The Principal later reported that the students were pleased with their experience. This approach can evidently work with any class from the 4th grade on. For college students as well, there is great excitement when they start conversing with actual people abroad through the computer.

How can the present situation of "education using computers and information networks" be improved? (examining the Monbusho approach, business approach, etc.)

While local initiatives do help, change is more possible in Japan if approved at the top, the national level, in this case involving Ministry of Education officials. Outside consultants would be needed to work with them, then the training in new educational technologies could start with teachers of teachers at teacher education universities. Schools of education, without even changing the curriculum, could offer parts of their courses online in virtual learning environments. As they are gradually introduced in Japanese translations, administrators nationwide could use the virtual organization environments that will be available in the future for their networking and seminars.

The correspondence division of Nihon University recently announced a graduate course where students would each borrow a computer with an attached video camera. This probably means that they expect the students also to connect to the Internet and use a program like Net Meeting for videoconferencing. This would help to overcome the sense of isolation that causes most students to drop out of correspondence courses. So schools of teacher education, even if they can meet in person, should also experiment with these technologies in their computer labs, as distance education becomes more popular and easier to manage.

Two literacies needed for 21st Century Japan are networked computing and written English. With the Internet over 80% in English, computing and English can be combined at both K-12 and higher education levels, for example by teaching Internet English in a computer lab. This combination of literacies can begin to be taught even in elementary schools, with Integrated Studies courses planned for broad and flexible content from the 5th grade. The opportunities to combine networked computing and written English will increase as more classrooms have computers connected to the Internet, and more information-related subjects are required at the junior and senior high school levels.

Like the Course of Study that currently governs the study of English, objectives and recommended approaches could be detailed at each level, namely grades 5-6, 7-9 and 10-12. Guidelines from the Ministry of Education would designate goals of knowledge and skills such as Web-searching in Japanese and English, various networked technologies, Netiquette, Websites to seek out or avoid, and so forth. The Ministry of Education could work with NPOs and volunteers from academic societies who combine Japanese-English bilingualism with a wide knowledge of the online world both domestically and abroad. 

Steve McCarty
Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan
President, World Association for Online Education:
Website Map:
In Japanese:
Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection (online library):
(an Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library 4-star site)

English Discussion at GLOCOM
"Education in the Information Age"

Time: February 21, 15:00-16:30.
Place: GLOCOM Hall (in Roppongi)

Takashi Sakamoto, Director General,
National Institute of Multi-Media Education
Steve McCarty, Professor,
Kagawa Junior College
Samuel Shepherd, Executive Director
Japan-US Educational Commission
Shumpei Kumon, Executive Director, GLOCOM
Edward Jones, Senior Research Associate, GLOCOM
Moderator: Daniel Dolan, Assistant Professor, GLOCOM
Computer education and teacher training in Japan
Education and information networks in Japan
Future Prospects for Japan's education in the information age Views from Japan
The discussion summary will be put up on our website

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