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HOME > 30th JAMCO Online International Symposium > Digital Innovations in University Education in Japan
Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic
The Shift to Sustainable Education

JAMCO Online International Symposium

30th JAMCO Online International Symposium

February 2022 - March 2022

For a Sustainable World – Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis

Digital Innovations in University Education in Japan
Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic
The Shift to Sustainable Education

Research Professor
Taisho University


In 2020, digital innovations made rapid inroads into university education in Japan as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which in turn required a thorough overhaul of the teaching practices developed to that point by academic staff. The sudden changes brought disruptions. This paper shall draw attention to the problems that occurred in the teaching environment.

The closure of campuses and the shift from face-to-face teaching to online guidance opened up new opportunities in teaching practices in certain respects. This paper shall make comparisons with the situation prior to the pandemic and give specific examples of how the introduction of online classes altered the teaching environment.

The digital innovations at universities were also an opportunity to transform their teaching to give it a global reach, and the author shall give ideas about the sustainable systems this would require.

The Launch of Online Classes: Disruption and Exploration in the First Year

The suddenness of the government’s initial declaration of a state of emergency in response to Covid-19 thrust universities in Japan willy-nilly into online classes. There was no alternative to remote learning. Classes were tense, with students and teachers alike nonplussed with the unfamiliar mechanics. This first year was not without new discoveries about teaching practices different from those in face-to-face lessons that only the online classes were able to bring about. It also revealed the problems inherent in such classes.

  • The Challenge to Produce Video Teaching Materials

    In April 2020, universities in Japan were informed that all classes were to shift to on-demand or online learning. This had the author, who is involved in the teaching of English at Taisho University, engaged in a number of tasks, including the setting up of a system for teaching and creation of learning materials, and the coordination of part-time lecturers. Quick decisions were made about how to conduct classes remotely in the wake of the guidelines laid down for universities. Although the specialized subjects were left to the respective staff, an urgent question arose about the means for ensuring the quality of the teaching in the common subjects like English, which involve numerous part-time lecturers, and within the unfamiliar circumstances of remote learning. In setting up classes, the regular staff discussed: (1) how to avoid unevenness in the teaching provided by the relevant teachers; and (2) how students could use devices to take their lessons without too much difficulty. Ultimately, they opted for on-demand classes. A flow was created whereby the full-time staff first of all produced videos, which were streamed to students for them to watch and do assignments. Their assignments were then sent to the teacher of the class for marking and comment.

    In a 100-minute period, the class concentrated on three points, each covered in an approximately 15-minute long video by a full-time member of staff. The students watched the three clips and did their assignments, which they submitted to their part-time lecturer to check and comment upon ahead of the next class.

  • As for quality, there was no denying the rushed nature of the videos. Granted they had been put together by amateurs; but one was painfully aware that there were not of an acceptable standard. Shortcomings, which might not be minded all that much in a face-to-face lesson, such as the monotony and formulaic nature of the lessons, manner of speaking, the tone of voice, etc., were conspicuous in the videos. The unpreparedness of the staff in digital technologies was the initial problem to confront with the adoption of remote learning. Even though they were aware that face-to-face classes based on dialogue with students are a very valuable means of teaching, they took a laidback approach, thinking that nothing was required of them. They were suddenly forced to act.

  • The Hurdle Posed by the Digital Divide: Teachers

    Both teachers and students were divided between those who could and those who could not use information and communications technologies. This was a major hurdle in the shift to online classes.

    The divide among teachers was noticeable according to age. The younger staff adept at using digital devices on a daily basis had no reservations about shifting classes online. Some of them were well-prepared, possessing a range of devices to make the classes effective.

    It was a different story, however, for the older teachers. Although they routinely use the internet to exchange emails and obtain the information they need, they were completely at sea when it came to the use of video-conferencing systems in online classes, such as Zoom or Teams, or conducting classes with Google Classroom. They faced two major problems in starting up online classes. First, they could not get an overall picture of what such classes entailed; they could not see what was required and how they ought to prepare so that their face-to-face classes could go online. Second, the lack of familiarity with digital terminology meant they could not follow any explanations about how to operate the systems. The magnitude of these two problems was all too apparent in the phone calls and emails with the part-time teachers in the preparation stage. Having been content to leave digital-based learning to the younger teachers, they were confronted with the reality that classes were impossible if they themselves could not use the devices. Universities made arrangements to help the inexperienced teachers, but as soon as any problem was resolved, other new ones cropped up. The modus operandi of these teachers with regard to information and communications technologies was a major hurdle. Another big problem for staff with online was that they could not make prior checks, which meant classes were constantly clashing with one another. Anxiety was a constant factor when it came to the real thing.

  • The Hurdle Posed by the Digital Divide: Students

    One might have assumed that online classes would be smooth sailing for the young students deft with mobile devices, but this was not always the case. A divide also existed among the students. The new students had to prepare themselves for entering a new institution of learning as well as for online classes, which got the whole family involved. In many homes, siblings were also taking classes online and the parents were working remotely as well. Battles erupted in the family over who would get access to a computer. Parents moreover worried about children unfamiliar with the workings of computers. In quite a few instances, students were receiving help from parents who were taking care not to stray on to the screen themselves.

    With the second-year and higher year students also, the circumstances were not all that different between them and the first-year students. There were constantly problems with students not au fait with computers being unable to get into their classes, or of students disappearing midway through a class because they were not properly set up for wireless connections. A problem with online classes was whether students were properly listening to and following what was being said. Efforts were made to avoid cluttering the screen with too many windows. Students were asked to show themselves at the start of the class in order to check attendance and then turn off their camera again unless they were raising a question or had something to say. Teachers were unable to keep an eye on their students as is the case with face-to-face lessons. They issued and checked assignments to ascertain the degree of comprehension. As a consequence, one saw keener participation in classes, with full attendance and submitting of assignments by the students, which was unthinkable in face-to-face lessons. The upshot of this tendency, in which similar methods were employed in other university classes, was students being kept busy with a vast amount of assignments.

    Students in their fourth and final undergraduate year had a hard time doing their job hunting online. A computer was essential for taking part in the joint briefings and the group and individual interviews conducted by employers. Facing job interviews at one’s own home instead of in person was not easy. Universities did take the time to give online career counselling to their students, but because they were unable to do this in person, students found themselves unprepared for job interviews and faced a tough slog in landing pledges of employment.

    In some of the online classes, the students showed a flair for information and communications technologies. This was the case with the mock lessons for students of teaching facing teaching practice. Third-year students wanting to teach English at junior or senior secondary schools in Japan do teaching practice in their fourth year. This, however, was impossible with the closure of campuses in 2020. The students instead were made to come up with mock online lessons. Third-year students taking the role of teacher taught English via Zoom to their colleagues assuming the role of school children. Despite worries in their own minds that they might not be any good, the students were all adept at information and communications technologies when the lessons actually got underway and developed in a worthwhile manner. The students were very competent with their materials, skillfully using PowerPoint slides and incorporating illustrations and audio as a matter of course, far exceeding the expectations placed on them. They also skillfully created learning materials for English from mobile devices. They took care to highlight important points in different colors and alter font sizes to make sentences easier to read and comprehend, and strove to make learning a fun experience by producing the occasional video. The teachers need not have worried; their students came up with materials that were far more compelling than what they themselves were producing.

  • Maintaining International Contacts through Online Cultural and Language Immersion Programs

    The digital innovations created a new style of foreign immersion programs. Students were able to engage in international contacts with students in other countries, hone their foreign language skills and learn about other cultures without necessarily having to leave Japan. Taisho University has every year held cultural and language immersion programs with the University of Hawaii, the University of Munich and Dongseo University in South Korea. But students could not be sent to these locations owing to the restrictions on international travel. Each of these institutions instead organized online programs to provide the students with cultural and language immersion for a period of around three weeks. The aim was to help the students brush up and boost their understanding of English, German or Korean through live interactive classes with the relevant university. The programs did boost students’ understanding of other languages and cultures. Collaboration with these three universities meant they were interacting online with students in the United States, Germany, and South Korea.

    Let us take the University of Hawaii program as an example. The students taking part in it had a two-hour English lesson and an interchange with the students in Hawaii five mornings a week. This was done at home. The objective of the lessons was to improve the students’ practical English skills. There was speaking and listening practice, and learning about US and Hawaiian culture. For the interchange, three students in Japan were teamed up with a student in Hawaii for a fun cultural exchange. They shared views about what was covered in the lesson and talked about life and culture in their respective countries. The program not only involved students of Taisho University; students in another country were sitting in on the lesson as well, making it possible for students around the globe to interact.

    A subsequent questionnaire found a high degree of satisfaction among the participants. In the English lessons, this came from being able to learn about US and Hawaiian culture, and in the interchange, by being able to speak in English to the US students. Many students in particular felt that they had improved their ability to express themselves in English. The benefits of this online foreign study were: (1) the low cost of participation; and (2) being able to stay in Japan but at the same time get an experience of another country. Some students particularly liked being able to take the immersion program and pursue job hunting as well. As to the problems with the online immersion program, we can cite: (1) the network glitches; and (2) the absence of a real experience of studying abroad.

    The participants in the programs run by the University of Munich and Dongseo University more or less voiced similar sentiments. Given that many students got more out of these programs than they expected, it would make sense to consider a greater welcoming of such online immersion programs and ways of keeping them going in the future.

  • Issues with Online Exams

    January 2021 saw the Japanese government declare a state of emergency over Covid-19 for a second time, just as students were facing their final exams for the academic year, which made in-person examinations difficult. Although students and staff had gradually become accustomed to online classes, the question arose as to whether it was possible to conduct the usual exams in an online setting. In an on-demand class, students could be given assignments and made to submit reports. However, with some subjects it was impossible to evaluate students without an exam being conducted in real time online. When it came to holding such exams, a range of issues cropped up that had to be addressed, starting with how to issue the exam questions, whether the students ought to keep their cameras on during an exam, whether they might be tempted to cheat if this was not done, and how they were to submit their answers. Ultimately, universities opted to send out the questions to the students at the start of the exam and have them keep their cameras on throughout, and send in their answers once the exam finished. An issue is that it is impossible to tell any of the evaluation has been unfair. Universities need to establish the means to make it fair.

Online Classes enter their Second Year: New Issues and Possibilities

The government declared a state of emergency for the third time in April 2021 around the start of the Japanese academic year. The universities, which still had issues to sort out, steered toward a hybrid approach, providing lessons that were a simultaneous mix of face-to-face and online. This was made possible by setting up cameras in all of the classrooms to show what was taking place in a lesson for students unable to come to campus. It was done because many of the students in the previous year had expressed a desire for face-to-face classes.

  • The Desire for Online Classes among Students

    The universities figured that 60 percent of students were wanting face-to-face classes. However, once classes actually got underway, they found that the opposite was the case. Sixty percent of the students were taking part in classes online, while 40 percent wanted a face-to-face format. The desire for the former was very much due to students having become accustomed to the ease of taking their classes online from home. The fervent desire of the previous year for face-to-face lessons had waned. In April, the proportion of students wanting online classes, which had stood at 60 percent, ultimately exceeded 80 percent. Attendance no longer reached the 100 percent seen in the previous year, and there were also more students not handing in their assignments. It was a sign that the students after a year had familiarized themselves with the mechanics and were also able to find some leeway in the online classes. It was also a period when they were slowly starting to seek a return to life as it had been prior to Covid-19.

    For fourth-year students, the benefit of online classes is that they can take classes and seek out employment at the same time. They point out that the time they spend on commuting to and from campus can be used instead to visit more prospective employers. They have already gone through numerous online interviews by the time they come to their final job interviews. It would seem to have had an effect; the students appearing on camera are different people when they come to receive online guidance for their graduation theses. In the year before, students’ homes were appearing in the background to the extent one feared they were giving away too many personal details, whereas this year more of the students are conscious of every bit of their surroundings and have been trying to create their best impression. Students, who a year earlier appeared downcast and glum on the screen, are impressing their teachers by looking and answering directly at the camera.

    Teachers have been able to get a sense of the effectiveness of online guidance in small groups like seminars. There are considerable advantages in being on familiar terms with one another; all of those smiling faces on the screen create a friendly atmosphere. Unlike the year before, there are no nervous faces staring at the screen. One can see the students expressing themselves differently. Having become accustomed to the mechanics, they are able to share their summaries on the screen, experiencing no difficulty in projecting the relevant materials and without the need to make copies for the right number of people, which had been the case until now. Whereas in the past it had been impossible give out copies of pages and pages of materials to everyone, this year they can be shown on and discussed from the screen, helping save paper, and making the students confident about online seminars as a natural and genial way of doing things.

    The pursuit of contacts beyond the immediate community can be cited as an advantage of going online. They can be made with anyone around the globe if the environment is there. A postgraduate students stuck in China has been able to take all of her classes online in the same manner as students in Japan. She has been able to sit lectures and receive guidance on her Master of Arts thesis without any inconvenience. Another example is the students outside of Japan on study abroad programs. They have been able to take part in seminars and share real-time details about their classes abroad and what the Covid-19 situation is like in those locations. Such initiatives, where online classes have the ability to transcend time and space, deserve to be pursued much more.

  • Online Classes: The Emptying of Campuses and More Work for Teachers

    The university campuses are quiet because many students have opted to take their classes online. One neither sees nor hears students in different parts of the campus laughing, strolling about or chatting with their friends.

    Prior to the pandemic, the students’ energy pervaded the classrooms. Before a class they would be talking and laughing with friends, and once it got underway, they presented themselves in various guises in the classroom. There would be the gaze of students listening intently to the lecture, the students who were chattering in hushed tones with those around them, and even those taking a nap. One has memories about how each of the classes stood out; each had its own atmosphere, even those that took place in the bigger classrooms.

    The student vibe vanished with the coming of Covid-19. The students taking face-to-face lessons do so masked up and keeping a certain distance from their colleagues; it is now the norm for classes to reverberate to the tapping of the keys of the computers they have with them. Although teachers talk to both sets of students – those in the classroom and those taking the class online – even those in the former group will be following what the teacher is saying from their computer screens. Even when there is face-to-face in a classroom, the students and the teachers are almost never directly looking at and talking to each other.

    The hybrid classes mean a lot of work for the teachers. They have to direct the students present in the classroom and also pay constant attention to the screen for those taking the class online. They are distracted by the 60 percent of the students taking the class online and paying less attention the remaining 40 percent present in the classroom. The classes are more complicated and busier than those conducted in a solely online format, because any online students turning up late have to allowed to join in, and the teachers have to respond to any questions texted in by the online students, in addition to any raised by the students present in the classroom. Online classes are able to give others outside a classroom access to the learning once confided inside its walls, and are without doubt a sustainable method when it comes to the conducting of classes in the future.

  • Online Initiatives by Taisho University Connected to Sustainable Development Goals

    Since 2019, Taisho University has been involved in a range of activities connected to sustainable development goals (SDGs), mostly within its immediate vicinity in Tokyo’s Sugamo area. It espouses the concept of treating Sugamo as a wider campus. The businesses in the local shopping district are being encouraged to switch entirely over to renewable sources of energy by harnessing the energy from a solar generation plant in Niigata prefecture. Initiatives of this kind have students tackling the problem of climate change and enable them to learn the specifics of regional revitalization.

    The activities connected to SDGs were also restricted during the times the government had declared a state of emergency over Covid-19. All events relating to them took place online. In September 2021 there was a series of lectures in both online and face-to-face settings about how the individual fits in with sustainable development goals for Global Goals Week. Experts and UN staff gave talks and provided ideas about how individuals can think and act on such goals as something directly relevant to their own lives. They spoke on a wide range of topics, such as finding a compass for and after the pandemic, the role of education in building a sustainable society, and the current state of Japan in regard to gender issues, all of which provided for a lively exchange of views in the talk sessions.

    Taisho University’s campus festival Ohdaisai in November 2021 included a seminar about the environment, which discussed environmental regeneration from the perspective of sustainable development goals.

    This initiative would have been cancelled if the online tools had not been available. The advantage of online is that it allows participation at any time and from any place. If anything, it brought about greater participation in the seminar, suggesting ways of breathing more life into activities connected to SDGs.

Ideas for Sustainable Education

The digital innovations in university education in Japan have only begun. Primary and junior secondary schools were ahead in learning via information and communications technologies, while the universities as a whole lagged. The advantage of harnessing such technologies is that they can provide learning without the limitations of place. They can make education more flexible, offering greater possibilities in remote teaching that involves people in other countries. By using computers to have students learning together by discussion, and by harnessing them for tutoring at the individual level, such as providing guidance to prospective graduates, the hope is that this will transform classes from being a passive experience to the kind that fosters the ability of students to think for themselves.

The digital innovations ought to be regarded as an opportunity, and the following are three ideas for furthering sustainable education in universities in Japan.

  • (1) Producing Content with NHK for University

    The nation’s public broadcaster, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), has content for schools in its NHK for School. It is teaching material of a high quality, from which even adults can learn much, the works being the creation of professionals in program production. Considerable thought goes into the projects, and time and care are taken in the production. The author’s experience last year of producing videos for English subjects showed that it is impossible for teachers, when they are more or less amateurs, to turn out material of the kind that will satisfy students. NHK for School has subjects organized for different days of the week with an ample line-up for each school grade, and it strives to instill a curiosity for learning among children.

    The NHK series, NHK Special: A Century on Film, for example, could be used for the intellectual development of university students. The author made use (in DVD form) of an episode in the series focusing on the impact of the Vietnam War on US society in a past lecture about racism in the United States. Even though every student was familiar with the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they got to see him on film making his emotional appeal to the crowd. The crowd responded to Dr. King’s words in the manner of a jazz performance that has calls and responses. The excitement, which could not be conveyed by text alone, was present in the images. They got the students focused on various events in the history, politics and economy of the United States, e.g. the March on Washington, the civil rights movement, and Black Power.

    Part III of the current A Century on Film Premium series being aired on the NHK BS Premium channel, Sekai wo kaeta onnatachi (The women who changed the world), could be used in future classes about gender issues. Moreover, the episode Nanmin Kibō eno Tabiji (Refugees: The journey of hope) could be used to use to foster information literacy concerning refugee issues.

    If any English class were to make use of NHK World Japan or NHK World News (which takes news directly from other broadcasters around the world), it would be important not so much to have the English arranged around the materials, but rather for students to be able to gather information from them in real time as a matter of course. These classes could nurture information literacy among the students, but copyright issues would have to be resolved before using any such content.

  • (2) Pursing Education with a Global Reach Online

    The advantage of going online is the expansion of the places of learning. The limitations with face-to-face locations disappear and it is possible to connect with anybody in any place around the world when information and communications technologies can provide an environment for learning. If overseas immersion programs come to a halt, students can do the immersion online and still have contact with students in other countries. Distance is irrelevant in remote teaching, allowing for contacts with the likes of the United States or Germany, or even Africa for that matter.

    Universities outside of Japan have established online campuses which have put together curriculums that enable students around the globe to take classes and receive degrees from where they are. Australia, for example, closed its borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant students had to forego their scheduled cultural and language immersion programs. There was considerable disappointment among those wanting to take them. The University of Southern Queensland, however, presented invitations for an online symposium, which attracted participants from around the globe. Students in Japan could share views on environmental issues and climate change with students in other countries, and they have subsequently maintained contacts via email and social media.

    The author took online classes from New York University more than a decade ago. There were none of the video conferencing systems that exist now. Participation was by email via an internet link to the class. It had students downloading vast amounts of reading material and entering their comments for an assignment ahead of the weekly class. In joining a class, one gained access to the comments of other students around the globe. One did not just make unilateral assertions; there had to be discussion. If students failed to take part for a while because they found it too much of a hassle or had not been prepared, they would get emails from the coordinator, asking for example, why they had not written anything for some time or whether they could sum their views on a certain topic, or else provide a rebuttal against a certain person’s comments. Detailed and careful instructions came frequently. Although contact was solely by the internet, the keen guidance and the caring personality of the coordinator, showing due attention to each student and getting each of them to tackle their assignments to the end, proved invaluable. Competent coordinators play a major part in effectively sustaining learning via information and communications technologies.

  • (3) Online Training for Academic Staff as Faculty Development

    Faculty development has universities as a whole undertaking studies and training in a systematic manner on the likes of what and how things are being taught. In specific terms, it aims to develop the capabilities of the staff in research and teaching and develop systems of teaching.

    Taisho University has also had staff, among other things, regularly sharing their views on how to maintain the quality of teaching and making changes to the syllabuses. The digital divide among teachers is a problem of online classes causing unevenness in the quality of the teaching, and it has been a factor in the unfairness for the students in maintaining the quality of their education. Although faculty development is centered on boosting competency in research and teaching, it should also include the sharing of knowhow for coping with learning via information and communications technologies.

    A large university where the author has previously worked on a part-time basis established a course for teachers in February 2020 about online. The readily accessible site has provided lessons about how to access Zoom, Zoom for amateurs, and suchlike.

    A number of lessons were created to allow staff to take those suiting their needs. Arrangements were also in place to organize lessons to deal with any subsequent problems cropping up in online lessons, and to respond carefully to emails from staff about things they did not understand. Being able to share their problems and bring their questions into the open, more than anything else, was of great help to the teachers lagging behind in information and communications when they were guiding students in class.

    Universities improve their learning via information and communications technologies by creating arrangements for technical support, and by providing more live chat support in non-face-to-face settings.

Taisho University was established in 1926 among several denominations of Japanese Buddhism: Tendai, Jōdo (Pure Land), and the Buzan and Chisan branches of Shingon. Today it is rooted in the local community as a comprehensive institution made up of six faculties and 15 departments. Taisho University will mark its centenary in 2026.

The practice of wisdom and compassion is the founding philosophy of Taisho, while its academic policy is to instill the qualities of compassion, self-reliance, moderation, and coexistence. The objectives of these is to nurture people with a comprehensive understanding of humanity and who can contribute to their communities.


Research Professor
Taisho University

Holds Bachelor of Arts degree from Dokkyo University and Master of Arts degree from Columbia University. Specializes in teaching English as a foreign language and intercultural communication. Has been teaching at Taisho University since April 1997 (initially holding the post of Associate Professor). Headed the Culture & Language Faculty in 2010-2013 and 2015-2019.

Also involved in the programs and textbooks for learning English produced by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), appearing in programs such as Sankagetsu Topic Eikaiwa: Tokyo machikado listening (A three-month course in topical English conversation: Listening to what is happening on the streets of Tokyo), and Eigo ga Tsutawaru! 100 no Tsubo (100 ways of getting your point across in English).

Author of various works, including Mini Eikaiwa tossa no Hitokoto (Short English conversation: Instant phrases), Sankagetsu Topic Eikaiwa: Kokoro wo Tsutaeru Eigo (A three-month course in topical English conversation: Conveying one’s feelings), NHK Shuppan (NHK Publishing) Cyber Text, e-learning Gym and Dr. English’s Listening Check-up (Japan Times).

Past Symposiums

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