Are Japanese Universities Ready to Embrace Online Learning?

Professor Insung Jung, International Christian University, Japan

How well Japan’s higher education system has risen to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its level of preparedness for a digitally-transformed post-COVID future, were the issues tackled by Professor Insung Jung from International Christian University, in her Lingnan University Global Higher Education webinar.

When a state of emergency was declared across 47 of Japan’s prefectures between April and May of this year, many Japanese universities began to offer emergency online teaching – albeit after a few weeks delay. However, Prof Jung was keen to differentiate between emergency online teaching and online learning. "Online learning is more planned, takes time and has a specific purpose," she explained.

While the nation may have a reputation for embracing tech, studies have shown that Japanese universities have been lagging behind their international counterparts in the adoption of online learning. Prof Jung believes there is a cultural component to this lack of enthusiasm, noting that Japan has a “high-context” culture in which face-to-face meetings are prized.

By autumn, across the country, 80.1 percent of teaching was in a blended mode and 19 percent was face-to-face, she explained. Of the blended teaching, less than 20 percent was purely online. For the country’s 2.9 million university students, internet access was often a worry, either due to a lack of broadband connection and/or because of the cost of mobile data. There were also geographical discrepancies, with 32.7 percent of courses in the Tokyo area delivered in an online mode, compared to 3.8 percent around Hokkaido. This was despite Hokkaido having a higher COVID infection rate.

Prof Jung went on to analyse the hurdles to a long-term digital transformation of Japan’s higher education system.

On a macro-level, the outlook was not rosy, she said. The student population was falling by 12-15 percent annually, in a country where around 80 percent of institutions were private and therefore dependent on student fees.

The national policy to tackle this problem is based on competitive funding and promotion of university-industry partnerships, but with no real, integrated assistance. Support to universities from Japan’s National Institute of Informatics is for developing and sharing research products, not for sharing educational products.

At the meso-level, two main organisations are engaged in the development and sharing of educational resources in Japan at institutional level: Japan Massive Open Online Courses (JMOOC) and Open Education Japan. With neither receiving direct funding from the Japanese government, the number of JMOOC participating universities has stagnated, with poor infrastructure support for the creation of courses and relatively low enrolment numbers. While the success of Open Education Japan, which aims to disseminate and promote open educational resources, is also hampered by the closed culture of Japanese educational institutions.

Many universities in Japan have their own campus-wide organisations or teams which oversee teaching and learning matters including the creation and diffusion of open educational resources. So though Prof Jung applauded the efforts of faculty down at the micro-level, she believed there was, again, a lack of overall planning and support.

"Yes, we can do emergency online teaching because faculty members are really dedicated and they can learn quickly within the time frame, but I have my doubts whether it can lead to real online learning," she said.

Prof Jung concluded by considering the post-pandemic future. She acknowledged the way in which the competency and confidence of individual faculty, in the development and utilisation of online learning and open educational resources, had increased during this year’s crisis. At the meso-level, she could also see a possible extension of educational services to lifelong learners and professionals via online programmes. However, there were no changes in national-level policies and funding schemes, or systemic support, currently in the pipeline, she noted.