31st JAMCO Online International Symposium
February 2023 -March 2023
Thinking about the Meaning of Life in a Time of Global Crises
HOW UNIVERSITIES IN JAPAN HAVE HANDLED REMOTE LEARNING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The spread of COVID-19 from the spring of 2020 had a considerable impact on education in Japan, especially higher education. The biggest change was the shift from in-person to online classes. This was done on the grounds of combating the spread of the virus, but even so, the sudden shift en masse to online learning was unprecedented. Classes are currently returning to an in-person format, but this could change depending on the Covid situation.
Higher education in Japan had hitherto built up knowledge and views about remote learning through the pioneering online classes conducted by organizations, such as the Japan Massive Open Online Learning Promotion Council (JMOOC), and the international classes conducted by the likes of the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University with institutions outside of Japan. However, just about all of the universities in Japan were more or less compelled to implement remote learning without any preparations whatsoever. Even now one could say that their classes are an extension of this.
However, looking back, learning via the media had its beginnings in Japan about a century ago with the launch of NHK’s Radio 2 service in 1931 and its NHK Educational TV channel in 1959. Today there is ample amount of educational content available via broadcasting for a whole range of fields, such as small children, schools, life-long learning, and cultural pursuits.
In the 2021 symposium, I drew attention to the turmoil in the previous year, looking at how both teaching and learning were affected at the university level. (Aoki, 2021) On this occasion, the aim is to provide a bird’s-eye view of the studies and research about how institutions of higher learning have accommodated and what they have done with remote learning over the past two years. The experiences here in Japan, I believe, could be a useful guide for spreading remote learning and providing educational content to developing countries.
2.How University Education has Adapted to the Internet
Let us begin with the levels of satisfaction among students concerning the online classes that got underway in 2020. The findings of a Ministry of Education survey (2021) of universities across Japan found more than half of students were satisfied with them (13.8% were satisfied, while 43.1% were somewhat satisfied). However, the survey also pointed out drawbacks, such the inability to attend classes with friends, the excessive amount of assignments, the few opportunities for questions and other interaction, and difficulties in comprehension.
So let’s look at the types of classes universities came up with and the reforms they made to get an idea of the changes that occurred. Let’s look initially at what happened at Ritsumeikan University, as it’s a rather interesting case. (Ritsumeikan University Institute for Teaching and Learning, 2021) Ritsumeikan was among the universities that implemented online classes from the spring of 2020. Surveys about the classes for the 2020 spring semester found levels of satisfaction altogether lower compared to the classes in the previous academic year. However, levels of satisfaction improved with the passing of time when the 2020 autumn and 2021 spring semesters came round. Among the reasons for this was that both teachers and students had become more adept at online classes. Another major factor was the feedback students were getting from their teachers.
The findings also pointed out the following. By focusing on such things as encouraging a desire to learn, feedback, and the suitability of learning styles, rather than the option of whether classes would be conducted in-person or online, the aim was to improve the quality of the classes in the achievement of targets, attitudes about active learning, overall satisfaction, and suchlike. In other words, the findings underscored the primary importance of classes providing a sense of fulfillment, rather than a reliance on media platforms.
Another study concerning Ritsumeikan (Nishio, 2022) mentions a new type of online class: a multi-class joint HyFlex approach. In the remote classes, two teachers tried taking the same class. One of them did the speaking in a live setting, while the other simultaneously handled the chat component, taking questions from the students. It was a form of team teaching, as it were.
The classes came up with (six) small tests and (thirteen) drills that the students could submit again, and also passed on notices about classes and news about courses to the students. It was a considerable shift from the standard classes with a single teacher and his or her students. Nishio says, “I believe that there will have to be an active and proper evaluation of our experiences in the past two years; we cannot uncritically return to what we were doing before.” This shows how Ritsumeikan, with its Institute for Teaching and Learning leading the way, is actively pursuing new challenges.
An online search for papers about the innovations in online classes reveals a focus on so-called HyFlex classes (HyFlex being a portmanteau of “hybrid” and “flexible”). Nakajima says HyFlex classes can aim to get student participation in either a face-to-face or online setting. (Nakajima, 2021) .
In HyFlex, classes are carefully designed beforehand in terms of motivation of the learners, goals, assessment, learning activities, and suchlike. The teacher conducts the lesson, selecting the media he or she thinks are appropriate for the occasion. It is a choice of format with preconditions that requires a high degree of expertise to put into practice. The focus on HyFlex in so many academic papers shows it to be an ideal form for the online classes that commenced with the Covid pandemic.
One can already find papers about HyFlex being up into practice. Yabu (2022) describes seminars with computers at the Nara University of Education. Microsoft Teams was used to link the students taking the classes remotely and those present in the classroom. The paper was of a practical nature, sharing details about things, such as the positioning of devices, and discusses the possibilities for the future. Elsewhere, Kuroyama (2022) describes the experiences of using HyFlex in classes about introductory clinical psychology and educational guidance and careers, and points out issues that need further consideration in the future, such as assessment and student participation.
Murakami et al (2020) give suggestions on how to go about putting together HyFlex lessons. They give specific ideas in terms of rotating classes (alternating with in-person, online, collaborative formats, and so on), flipped classrooms (having students do prior study via videos and then take part in tutorials or collaborative learning in the classroom), and dispersed classes (with students taking part in-person and online). They say classes can be effective and efficient with suitable designing. However, they point out that HyFlex requires the right kind of facilities. Even in the midst of the Covid pandemic, one gets a sense of the progress in educational media, where new and ambitious initiatives and proposals are being made.
3.The Drawbacks of Online Classes
Studies by the Education Minister show that online classes are not without their negative aspects. They have shown an increase in the numbers of students who are dropping out or taking leave of absence from universities, both the private and public institutions, as well as the short-term colleges. A report (Education Ministry, Dec. 2021) said that Covid was sometimes given as a reason for students dropping out; the actual number of dropouts grew by 2,638 (an increase of about 40%), while the number of students taking leave of absence grew by about 30%. Although the study declines to give any ready reasons for the change, it speculates economic and emotional problems as the likely factors.
There is a paper collaborating this. Iida et al (2021) conducted a study on the mental health of 909 university students taking online classes. They found students were less stressed out by taking live classes compared to the classes in an on-demand format. The study also shed light on the relation between the financial burden and the students’ mental health.
Oki (2022) cites why students prefer conventional in-person learning compared to the online version. The inability to make friends was among the reasons given, as was the boredom of taking classes alone and submitting assignments from home or wherever else they were staying, which the students said was physically and emotionally draining. Elsewhere, Fushikida et al (2022) shed light on the problems with synchronous online classes. They used KH Coder software to analyze the responses the students gave, which revealed that they were having difficulty concentrating in classes. The students also mentioned the advantages from the lack of time restraints but the inability to meet up with friends, the troubles with Zoom and getting ahold of materials electronically.
The issues that were identified brought home a number of things that students had previously taken for granted, such as being able to make friends and speak with their teachers on campus. Isolation is a drawback, as it were, with remote education.
More than two years have passed from those uncertain times when Covid first burst upon the scene. I have looked at the papers that have been published up to this point in order to find out what has been happening at universities and other institutions of higher learning since then. They reveal, I believe, that the commencement of online classes highlighted once again existing problems that had not been remedied. The current changes have been an opportunity to propose various remedies.
Some universities, for example, are posting online manuals for faculty development showing teachers how to conduct online classes and use Zoom. Ultimately, this has perhaps been a great opportunity to accomplish reforms in education that had been harped about but not achieved.
Oki (2022), looking back over the past two years, says, “Students have adapted to online classes just like young people are familiar with online shopping. Their familiarity with such classes means they are nonplussed by in-person classes.” He goes on to say, “Their focus on quality means they might have reacted with anger if the online classes were not made interactive like in-person classes.” COVID-19 might have also touched off a wave of reform at universities.
(References are listed in the Japanese original)
PhD Student, Tokyo Institute of Technology
Born in 1950, Shigeru Aoki majored in education and audio-visual education at the Yokohama National University and the Graduate School of International Christian University. He joined the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) where he was involved in a number of TV program productions as program director, senior producer, and division director at various divisions including Cultural Programs, Lifelong Learning Programs, Economy and Information Programs, NHK Archives, and School Broadcast Programs. He was temporarily transferred to Japan Broadcast Publishing Co. Ltd. (current NHK Publishing Inc.), where he was responsible for digital publication at Multimedia Promotion Office. After returning to NHK, he worked at the Programing Department and held Secretary General posts at the Japan Prize (international competition for educational content), “ABU Voyage to the Future” (international co-production project of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, ABU), and “Educational Fair”— NHK’s annual autumn festival open to the public.
After retirement from NHK, he joined NHK Enterprises, Inc. (NEP) and served as General Manager in charge of “NHK On Demand” service, Corporate Officer, in charge of overseas program acquisitions, International Business Group, and Senior Vice President of NHK Cosmomedia America Inc. in New York.
He currently studies sociology of religion as a PhD student at Department of Social and Human Science, Tokyo Institute of Technology.