Schools of the future
How tech is changing education
For those who have lived in Japan for some time, the advent of modern technology and the ubiquity of the Internet have brought about a profound change in the way life is lived in a foreign country. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of pedagogy, where new developments have enabled international schools and colleges to provide their students with a truly international education.
For a prime example at the high school level, one needs look no further than the American School in Japan (ASIJ), based in Chofu, Tokyo. ASIJ has joined the Global Online Academy (GOA), an online consortium of 24 schools from around the world that allows students to take courses that would otherwise be impossible for each of the individual schools to offer, from advanced calculus to a “medical detective” course, in which students learn the art of medical diagnosis.
Paul O’Neill, Director of Teaching and Learning at ASIJ, points out some of the advantages for ASIJ students who participate in the GOA, which he says allows “understanding complex problems from multiple perspectives, creating and collaborating across geographic boundaries, listening and responding with empathy, and developing professional networks and partnerships with a global cohort of peers.”
Head of School, Ed Ladd, adds that while ASIJ is currently the only school in Japan participating in the GOA, schools in the US are at least a year ahead of the curve with regard to this program, having ramped up their participation more fully than ASIJ. In the future, however, the school aims to have about 15 students per semester participating in the program.
The teachers at the school are also gaining from participation in the GOA, and are learning to share their expertise globally. They are also getting the chance to expand their knowledge through distance learning programs from universities.
Universities without borders
Just as students at high schools are linking up online, universities and their students are also benefiting from offering and learning through online courses, offered by online academies like Coursera. Even those who are not enrolled in universities can reap rewards from these resources.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are becoming increasingly important lifelong learning tools, as well as being integrated into universities’ educational systems. To that end, the Japan Open CourseWare Consortium now boasts over 20 universities as members, including some of Japan’s most prestigious public and private institutions, as well as affiliates and commercial associates.
The list of member universities includes the Open University of Japan, set up specifically to promote distance learning. The common ground of the consortium, Open Courseware, is defined as an “open free publication of formal course materials on the Internet,” available from top universities not only from Japan but from around the world. While this unfettered access to great course content is a major breakthrough worldwide, in some cases language difficulties make it more difficult for such courses to cross the Japanese frontier in either direction.
Such courseware presents a combination of lectures and explanations by a teacher, which can be viewed at students’ convenience, rather than at set times, combined with assignments and interactive dialog between students and instructors. These techniques are aided by voice over IP and video chats.
Pierre Bourgoin of St. Thomas University in Osaka makes the point, though, that MOOCs do not lead to credit, let alone a degree. Some of these courses do, however, provide a signed certificate following completion.
Bourgoin has expressed reservations regarding the provision and uptake of MOOCs in Japan since Japanese students (as do students elsewhere) chiefly attend college to obtain vital letters after their names. As such, he finds it hard to see how such courses can replace traditional university teaching.
The changing role of schools
Despite reservations, Bourgoin emphasizes that online courses will have a profound impact on the basic nature of schools and universities – not to mention the content of the courses and the ways content is delivered.
Since students are able to find factual answers to questions easily through the Internet, educational establishments can no longer serve as the sole repository of information. As Bourgoin says, “the idea of universities being the gatekeepers of knowledge no longer holds in a world where the Internet can provide high quality content for free.”
Today, teachers need to impart a new set of skills to students, rather than simply providing facts. These skills are outlined on the website of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and include literacy in information (how to sift through the facts themselves to obtain the relevant subset of information), competency in media (how to present the information obtained in the most effective way) and workable knowledge of ICT (information and communication technology – the nuts and bolts of the process).
Ultimately, these “mechanical” skills transform themselves into more general “life” skills, namely, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration.
In some ways this shift is liberating for teachers, who are freed from the need to act as machines imparting facts or basic skills, such as typing. The latter can easily be learned by the students themselves, as the differences between home learning and classroom learning become blurred. Online courses for skills and techniques such as mathematics and typing provide both instruction and assessment, allowing students to study at their own pace, without peer pressure.
On the other hand, the instruction of technology presents a real challenge to some teachers, especially to those who grew up in an age without computers. Sadly, this is particularly true of many Japanese schools. Although a high proportion of Japanese schools may theoretically be equipped with computers, in some schools it has been found that computer rooms are even locked in order to prevent the embarrassment of teachers who are less “tech-savvy” than their students.
It may come as no real surprise to long-term residents of Japan to learn of this relatively low use of computers in education, despite Japan’s ubiquitous access to broadband Internet services, and reputation as an exemplary high-tech nation.
To avoid the situation of instructors being outstripped by their students in technological acumen, the progressive Tokyo International School – one of the first ten schools outside the US to showcase Apple technology and the first in Japan to implement a one-to-one laptop solution for its students eight years ago — implements a peer-mentoring scheme among its instructors, which allows for staff to share knowledge and techniques.
In the Cloud
As “cloud computing” takes root as a buzzword in the technology field, it is hardly surprising that cloud-based solutions have been developed for the educational market, as they have for other areas. In the field of class administration, open-source online projects such as Moodle allow teachers to administer classes, provide source materials, and set and grade assignments, which are “handed in” by students as uploaded files.
These abilities, which have found their way into a number of schools and colleges as administrative aids to teachers, make it possible to organize a largely paperless classroom. However, where actual teaching is concerned, a newly developed system known as Language Cloud, specifically designed for the purpose of language education, assists teachers not only with the grind of grading assignments, but also provides an ever-present source of learning material for students.
“Think of it [Language Cloud] as iTunes and the AppStore for language education,” says Theresa Sherry, community manager of Language Cloud, which won the ACCJ Director’s Award in Entrepreneur Awards Japan (TEAJ) 2012. In this analogy, Sherry continues, “iTunes would be the basic Language Cloud platform where teachers and students can manage classes and assignments, while the AppStore would be the Language Cloud App Center, where teachers and students can purchase other educational apps or digitized textbooks.” In addition, the system provides metrics and assessments, recommending content and supplementary material to match the progress of the students on an individual basis.
Other selling points about cloud technology are that it allows students in different physical locations to work together on projects and cuts costs for educational establishments. Particularly in Japan, there are many advantages to the system, which is ideally suited to a country where student numbers are falling due to a declining birthrate and many universities are struggling to survive.
However, Paul Raudkepp of Temple University in Japan points out that the explosion in tuition costs that has occurred in the US has not yet hit Japan, limiting consumer demand for such learning in Japan.
Changes to come
As much as technology is shaking up our schools, Raudkepp adds that education is one of the few business areas which has not yet been seriously disrupted by technology. He adds that such disruption, when it comes, will affect smaller universities more than larger ones. The main reason being that larger universities are better able to mix traditional teaching methods with new ones, such as MOOCs (possibly offered for free), and still retain their brand.
“Once students can receive university credits for MOOC courses and then transfer those credits to other institutions the landscape will change drastically,” Raudkepp says, adding that universities will need to accommodate more students at a lower price from any location. Students will have more choice, allowing them to mix and match online and traditional learning.
Almost certainly, if there are to be changes in the way that higher education in Japan is packaged and marketed to students, these changes will result from moves made by foreign- and foreign-minded institutions. Changes such as Tokyo University’s decision to readjust the academic year to match that of the rest of the world could also put pressure on Japanese institutions to offer more versatile packages.
Although Japanese schools are not in competition with international schools in the same manner as are higher educational institutions, in due time these schools may also come to see the advantages in adopting 21st-century technology and providing a more skills-oriented, as opposed to content-driven, approach to teaching.