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EDUCATION IN JAPAN – SHUTDOWN REVEALS HARSH INEQUALITIES

TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the closure of the nation’s school of February 27, a political debate over the digitization of the nation’s analog education system, that had for years played out in prefecture and national government ministries, was suddenly resolved.  There would be now be digital curriculum for the nation’s 16,000,000 children, and in 4 days the school system would need to learn how to make it work.

For many educational observers, Japan’s reluctance to embrace digital education trends and move away from its analog roots has been somewhat of a mystery.  On the surface, Japan seemingly has every advantage that would allow for its school system to be global leaders in pioneering digital education strategies.  Perhaps being a victim of its own success, the sense of urgency to update the education system was always countered by Japan’s continued high performance on global skills tests like the PISA.

Japan’s education system has been largely functioning under the same structure since the 19th century.  It was following the Meiji Restoration (1868) that Japan made the conscious decision to modernize its education system after the systems being used by the West at the time.  As ministers were sent abroad to learn about the dominant education models of the time, Japan slowly began to evolve its education system to resemble the Prussian model.

While technology most certainly is, and has been, present in Japanese schools, it is the traditional textbook and paper based classroom that remains the dominant influence in school systems.  For years, school administrators, teachers, and politicians have been arguing about what can or should be done about updating the education system to allow for and emphasize digital literacy and content.

Among the many obstacles that have prevented Japan from modernizing their curriculum design to accommodate more digital strategies are budgets, teacher training, school infrastructure shortcomings, a lack of accredited digital content, and inequality concerns as many children do not have home access to computers or high quality Internet.  Nearly all countries have national level commitments to providing quality education to children, and view education as a right.  Japan is unique in its commitment to not only meeting a minimum standard, but to providing equality in education for all children.

The closure of Japan’s schools brought in a wave of free digital content offerings from private companies trying to support nervous parents, teachers, and students.  Offerings from online providers included apps for Math, Japanese language, English, programming, and entrance exam preparation.  The government quickly assembled lists of free offerings and encouraged schools and parents to make use of the products to help children stay focused on their studies.

The unprecedented and sudden closure of the nation’s schools has likely resulted in several years’ worth of gains over the course of three months.  And as Japan sifts through their lessons learned from their sudden entry into digital content strategy, there are some painful truths which have become apparent.

Private vs. Public School Inequality

Almost immediately, severe weaknesses in the capacity for public schools to adopt an online strategy became apparent.  The public school system in Japan has for years been debating when, of even if, it could introduce technology into its standard teaching methodology.  Classes are taught almost exclusively from paper textbook and use paper-based assignments.  Parents are often required to approve paper based assignments at home, sign off on them, and have the children return the assignments to their teachers.  Despite the administrative inefficiencies apparent in the parent-teacher communication process, the need to ensure equality and access to technology at home has prevented Japan from modernizing its educational approach.

As a result of these inefficiencies, Japanese parents make up for educational shortfalls by either enrolling their children in after-school schools called Juku’s (cram school), or by sending their children to private schools where they will have more access to technology.  The prevalence of children attending private junior high schools and high schools is far more common in the urban population centers.  Private schools, having access to higher per-student funding from parents and the flexibility to create their own curriculum strategies, have been increasingly utilizing digital content as supplementary resources for years.

When the schools were suddenly closed at the beginning of March, many of the private schools were able to emphasize existing digital contents that they have been using, while searching for options to migrate lessons to lesson management systems such as Google Classroom.  Public schools, on the other hand, were caught completely unprepared.  Public schools, lacking existing digital contents to use as an initial stop-gap measure, instead went to the copier machine and started making paper copies for kids to take home.

The gap in digital content strategies became increasingly apparent as the nation adjusted to the first few weeks of school closure.  Universally, parents were struggling to assume the role of home-teacher, and balancing work demands with the need to coordinate school work was challenging for all families.  But as society started to get into a rhythm of dealing with the school closures, the gaps grew into canyons.  As was happening throughout the world, private schools in Japan began increasing their usage and capabilities with online lesson management systems.  Parent-teacher communication was being moved to these tools, and a sense of structure was taking place.  For most public schools though, the opposite was taking place.

Public schools, having lacked the initial components of a digital system when the shutdown occurred, were largely unable to migrate to an online education system.  Parents were often left without any understanding of what their responsibilities were, or what schedule they should be trying to support their children to follow.  Without the online class management systems, it was also impossible for teachers to hold lessons or take attendance.  The result, sadly, was that many children in the public schools were severed from school almost entirely.

A Lack of Digital Core Curriculum

In the 2019 PISA assessment provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Japan’s teachers ranked last in teacher preparedness for technology, with 80% of teachers identified as needing ICT training.

Even before the Coronavirus shut-down, Japan’s online education industry had been seeing healthy growth rates.  According to Nomura Research Institute, the online education industry in Japan was expected to grow by 50% to 310 billion yen ($3 billion) from 2019 to 2023.  The growth rate was being supported, in part, by the Abe government’s decision to ensure access to tablets for all students by 2023.

Outside of the question of hardware access, Japan was assessing another issue with available digital contents when the school closure was announced.  Due in large part to its historical reliance on traditional textbooks and paper-based administration, the core curriculum for schools was almost entirely paper-based.  Digital contents could be used as supplementary materials to help children better understand the textbook material, but digital contents were not considered core curriculum.

This lack of digital core curriculum was highlighted by the free offers to schools from digital contents providers.  The services being offered were all supplements to the core curriculum being taught in the school, and had been unable to break through into being considered as core curriculum due to past resistance from schools, teachers, and highly influential textbook providers.  Clearly, many of those providers are now sensing an opportunities to increase the scope of their use as core curriculum.

Japan’s structural challenges for adopting digital content standards are made more difficult by the digital literacy of teachers in general.  In the 2019 PISA assessment provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Japan’s teachers ranked last in teacher preparedness for technology, with 80% of teachers identified as needing ICT training.

Early Adopters Leading the Way

Japan is not without early adopters who have been pioneering digital education strategies for all students in the districts.  One such example of an early adopter of technology is the densely populated Shibuya Ward in central Tokyo.  Shibuya ward has been embracing a digital strategy for several years, and has gone so far as to send government officials to European education powerhouses like Estonia and Finland to see how they are able to integrate digital technology into their regular school environment.

Shibuya Ward is an exception to standard Japanese school districts due to significantly higher tax revenue received from the ward’s many businesses wealthy residents.  And while the costs for pioneering a digital curriculum strategy in Shibuya Ward have been significant, they are starting to see results.

Children from Shibuya’s school district have access to tablets both at school and at home.  Tablets are equipped with parental controls that let teachers and parents manage the types and amounts of content that children are exposed to.  The school closures affecting Shibuya students marked the beginning of the online school term.

As Coronavirus restrictions eased and schools throughout the nation returned tho their normal class schedules and routines (with social distancing adjustments), school administrators continue to assess their digital content strategy.  The silver lining from the school closures may be the consensus that when the crisis hit, Japan’s educational system was not ready to meet the challenge with a coherent digital content strategy.  It is this recognition of the problem that may lead to a comprehensive digital content strategy in the future.

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