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Correspondence Education in Japan Gradually Going Online

North American education has undergone successive changes in our time, but the impact of educational technology has been especially revolutionary. The online education boom, utilizing the Internet for enhanced learning, rapidly spread from universities to schools at all levels. Yet just when even the most traditional institutions such as Ivy League universities jumped on the bandwagon, the pendulum has swung the opposite way with the so-called dot-com bust, and it is fashionable for the moment to seek the faults or limitations of e-learning. But in developing countries there is no such luxury, and virtual universities are being developed all over Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and so forth. In East Asia and especially Japan, the progress has been rather gradual relative to the technology available, probably for cultural reasons.

The Japanese government-supported Advanced Learning Infrastructure Consortium (ALIC) invited me to make a presentation in Japanese on July 25th, part of e-Learning World 2002. The recent history of correspondence education in Japan is involved in showing why changing to providing lifelong online education is a gradual process. Administrator, designer and student interfaces of the WebCT Learning Management System are also demonstrated. The PowerPoint presentation in Japanese can be viewed with MS Internet Explorer even if the PowerPoint program is not installed in your computer, but without a Japanese OS or fonts, only the Japanese in the many screen shots is readable http://waoe.org/president/ariake/forum2002.html. Or see a summary in Japanese and links to e-Learning WORLD at my Japanese language home page: http://www.kagawa-jc.ac.jp/~steve_mc/

In 1999, for the world's most widely read educational technology journal, I predicted that online education in Japan would grow out of correspondence education, because of their advantages including accreditation at the university level. Unlike the U.S., in Japan and many non-Western countries an educational program needs government accreditation before opening its doors to students. But I also discussed cultural factors that would probably slow the acceptance of online education in Japan:

"Japanese Culture Meets Online Education" EDUCAUSE: Educom Review, 34 (3), pp. 42-44 (May 1999): http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/html/erm993a.html

To the cultural factors, recently I added gender considerations, after observing and researching some differences in how women respond to online educational opportunities:

"Overcoming Face-to-Face Dependence in Distance Education: Gender and Cultural Considerations" (PowerPoint presentation) Osaka Prefectural University (February 2002):http://www.waoe.org/steve/gender-culture/f2f.files/frame.htm

For the technology of learning management systems for online courses or virtual universities, including the issue of Japanese versus English versions of the software for Japan, see:

"WebCT for the Language Teacher" (English-Japanese Web page) Ritsumeikan University teleconference (November 2001): : http://www.waoe.org/president/ritsumeikan/index.html

Now as for correspondence education in Japan, sure enough, the process of going online has been too slow for e-learning enthusiasts domestically as well as abroad. The reasons are discussed in the above references and include a very face-to-face culture, gender inequality, ineffective English education, misconceptions of e-learning as human-machine interaction without a social dimension, and economics. Correspondence courses are in effect selling paper, publishing their own books and learning materials. Everyone can understand buying materials by mail order. What most people do not understand yet is that e-learning can broaden one's world socially as well as intellectually.

The above points are detailed in an interview for the feature article of the September 2002 Hiragana Times, "Reaching out to Students - Education Online." The magazine will be on sale in the world's major cities from August 5th. It is for Japanese language learners, so there will be English and Japanese versions of the interview side by side, plus screen shots of my bilingual Web pages. But notice how a paper publication is not so easily available as Web-based references!

As detailed in the Tokyo e-Learning World presentation, correspondence divisions of prominent universities have areas for students to log in, so we are not sure how much the students can work online. But Tamagawa and Nihon University Websites did not advertise that students could even submit reports and so forth electronically. Perhaps they are afraid of losing potential customers who are not Net literate. Only the graduate division of Nihon University makes it a selling point that a learning management system is utilized and that students use laptops equipped with video cameras for teleconferencing.

My wife Chisato was one of only about 5% of students to graduate from the Nihon University Correspondence Division, and the few who graduate credit the regional circles where adult students can get together for mutual support. Japanese people tend to see independent study alone as lonely, and online education has been saddled with that old image.

The younger generation will see the computer more as a communication device that expands their social circles. Our younger son Nikki started using a Macintosh computer from start to finish by himself at age three, and he taught all the neighborhood kids who would gather around for CD-ROM games. At age nine he started enjoying the Benesse Be-Go CD-ROM/Web hybrid system for studying English. Through e-mail and the Web there is interaction with an instructor and other students around Japan. Though he may be more ready for computer-based English than other Japanese elementary school children, the cute animated characters provide virtual interaction in games and so forth that children generally enjoy. At age ten Nikki recently insisted on another year with it. See the BE-GO for Juniors Website in Japanese at: http://www.be-go.com/junior/index.html

An attractive interface is one important ingredient of e-learning for adults as well as children. The WebCT Learning Management System (see references above) is difficult for designers and administrators behind the scenes to master, but students have an attractive and integrated environment for their online studies. It includes communication tools: Web-based e-mail, bulletin board, chat and a whiteboard for illustrations. Studying with such 21st Century course tools is a kind of empowerment, because the same tools used outside of class can broaden one's social, intellectual, interest and career horizons.

When the general public better understands the benefits of e-learning, the educational institutions and hi-tech companies will be ready with the technology as a selling point for more effective and sociable learning. Just as a home page is becoming one's calling card (meishi) for the 21st Century, correspondence education is also gradually turning into lifelong online education.
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