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Japanese Schools in Five Years
Electrifying Education for a Competitive Edge
By Robert L. Seltman

This article was originally written for KTO April 1999

Computer Learning expert Kazunori Nozawa just came aboard at Ritsumeikan’s newly constructed high tech campus near Lake Biwa. Nearby, the latest ‘state of the arts’ branch campus of Ryukoku has a full foreign staff rich in media 'know-how.' Otani University, the birthplace of Buddhist education in Kyoto, has just inaugurated a newer theology, computer majors. Across town, Kyoto Sangyo continues to expand their already impressive computer facilities. All are setting the pace in a hot and heavy hardware war, which will determine the future of Japanese learning long into the future.

According to Professor Nozawa, from the academic year of 2002 computer literacy education on the high school level will officially start nationwide. Students, who enroll at the university level after 2005, will have fewer problems in computer literacy. This modest analysis masks his enthusiasm for a more important pattern… the way Japan methodically pursues her objectives. Professor Nozawa, who has worked extensively with technically progressive educators Down Under, in the US, and in Europe, says "Both the American and Australian use of computers in the classroom seemed to be quite identical. They have more individually oriented projects, after they have acquired the basic skills. Since the network infrastructure has been better built in both America and Australia, they naturally have more advantages in using computers in the classroom than in Japan. Japan seems to be improving the situation very quickly, but there is still a gap to catch up. However, a tech-giant like Japan will quickly set up a more ideal computer environment in the educational system, with more computer-literate teachers, in the near future."

Nozawa’s hypothesis of a great leap forward contrasts to the limp retreat backward in other developed countries. Reports, from places as divergent as Australia and Sweden, suggests Japan, the turtle, may be positioned to win the race. Australia, following the lead of England’s Open University, pioneered the art of ‘flexible delivery’ and student-centered distance learning. No matter where you live, whether isolated in the out back or down the hall, or what you do, crocodile dandy or single-mother, there is an education methodology for you in Australia. But a financially strapped educational system has one Australian technological college now holding hands with an insurance company, providing accreditation and training for their own in-house school, in order to pay the bills. While Australian national policy is well meaning there is not enough money in the till. Sweden, another socially minded state in dire straits, now requires universities to meet their obligations to serve labor markets. In other words, pursue education contracts with employers to help foot the bill. Japan has in place already a copesetic relationship between industry and government, not a dying populist dream but one born of pragmatic paternalism. The Thatcher slash and burn reductions in education will not happen here, everyone from education-mama to corporate power broker appears bully on technological spending.

But what does this mean to the grassroots teacher? First, it is important to learn what exactly we are talking about. There are two drifts in electronic Ed; Synchronous, done in real-time, and includes Moo, Mud, and other forms of chat rooms and video conferencing, all designed to energize students and encourages them to keep pace. Asynchronous, perhaps more suitable to shy dictionary carrying coeds, is done when you are ready, like e-mail, working at leisure. Internet research, word processing, and programming are all part of the asynchronous family of computing, while a pocket phone call to a teacher, pleading to pass you in class, is an example of student-centered learning, gone into a synchronistic head-spin. Teachers will need to learn to walk the line between life-less technocratic madness and the fatigue of front line student interaction.

Japanese teachers will be trained in computers systematically, as we can see already with the proliferation of Internet programming on TV, designed to bring web literacy to the populace. For foreign hire you will be on your own, though ‘how-to’ books are plentiful and computers a bit more affordable. There are several excellent distance degrees in educational technology, courses designed for teachers to get up to speed in their wired classrooms, and assure their employability in the all too near future. To catch the rhythm of the Japanese thoughts on this subject Nozawa suggests "More and more computer literate teachers in secondary and tertiary education level throughout Japan are using computers in their classrooms to teach basic subjects. If there is the limitation in using English as the communication language, there would be a problem among foreign teachers to learn more about what Japanese teachers are doing in Japanese. EFLJ (English as a Foreign Language in Japan) is a very active mailing list and has about 400 members including some bilingual foreign teachers. Academic associations such as LLA (Language Laboratory Association of Japan), CIEC (Council of Improvement in Education through Computers), and JSET (Japan Society of Educational Technology) are very active." For English-only teachers JALT (Japanese Association of Language Teachers) has a very active computer ‘special interest group’ called CALL SIG.

To prepare a student for networked bookkeeping, electronic mail, and on-line research, the ‘salary-man’ task-based future of much of the world’s hardworking middle class, teachers will need to learn new skills and reorient old pathos. We will learn to build link reference files as primers for our students, in preparing them for a day at the monitor, as we secretly say a prayer of thanks for still being employed. Japanese education rides like a flea on the back of the great economic animal. What is good for Mitsubishi is what we shall be taught to teach. Making it subversive is our secret heart-felt goal as teachers. Savvy web-surfing sensei can help their students become more effective in self expression by showing how minority interests exploit the net for disseminating information to effect public opinion. Researching for the first time in this New World library, web based revolutionaries and community activists can learn to initiate change with simple authoring tools. By holding the ‘mouse that roared’ in their own hands, students have a weapon of inordinate potential.

The demographic switch to an aging society will force Japan to expand continuing education and dismantle the singular linear model of age appropriate education. As people are pushed back into the job market at forty, by more brutal management styles, a need for re-tooling in technological skills will grow proportionately. Universities have already begun to address the needs of single mothers, older students, the handicap, and a skills-oriented employment market. The day when college students can pachinko, drink, or ‘arubito’ their way to graduation is setting. In the sunrise is a more lean and mean educational reality, of which computer literacy and solid technological tenacity reigns de rigueur. Pedagogical prosperity in Japan’s future means moving in the electronic flow, wired in, as a netizen of the World Wide Web.

Copyright © Robert L. Seltman. All rights reserved.

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