Japan’s students struggle to embrace online learning amid COVID-19

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While much of the country has more or less returned to some semblance of normalcy, students have almost been left behind in terms of their studies.

Japan’s university students have had a rough six months and the immediate future isn’t looking much brighter.

While much of the country has more or less returned to some semblance of normalcy, students have almost been left behind in terms of their studies.

“It’s like we’re still stuck in the state of emergency,” wrote @rpdjyz3zVGL10o, including the hashtag “Daigakusei no nichijyō mo daijida” (“The daily lives of university students are also important”). “Please listen to the voices of university students. I’m a freshman who has never attended a real lecture, and I’m at the end of my tether.”

Unfortunately, the universities are doing little to rectify the situation. According to a survey conducted by Twitter user @DaigakuIkitai55, 44% of domestic universities continue to hold classes online, while 51% have banned students from entering campuses altogether.

Some media commentators argue that online learning can be just as effective as the in-person academic experience. True, there’s a view that online learning slashes commuting time both to and from campus, which leaves a large chunk of time for concentrated studying.

However, being cooped up in an apartment and milling with fellow students in a lecture hall are different things entirely.

Statements posted on Koukouseishinbun.jp, a forum for teenagers and college students to voice their feelings about tertiary education, attest to this.

“I miss seeing my friends and attending lectures with other people,” one student says.

“I miss the days when I could just go up to professors and talk to them about my major or inquire about overseas study programs,” says another.

In August, Diamond Online encouraged 123 students to talk freely about their online experiences. The results were depressing.

“I spend more than 10 hours a day at my computer, attending lectures and working on assignments,” said one female student. “There’s no time for anything else. I never get to see anyone or go outside. I don’t know why I even bother with the university experience.”

Others complain about the poor quality of online lectures.

“My lecture was supposed to be 90 minutes, but the professor left after 10 minutes and just gave everyone stacks of assignments,” a student says. “Is this what university learning should be like?”

Even the University of Tokyo, arguably the most esteemed institution of higher education in the nation, fell short of providing online courses that met with student approval. Although the campus was the fastest in the country to embrace online lectures (classes were available from April 3), 70% of the students who were surveyed said that online learning was, at best, a close approximation of the real thing.

And how do teachers feel about the current situation?

University lecturer Yoshikazu Tateno says in an essay on Note.com that he now includes only 80% of what he had taught in classrooms in pre-pandemic days in his online lectures. He now realizes that he used to “cram too much” into his in-person lessons.

Some of it may not have reached the students at all,” Tateno says. “Perhaps 80% percent may actually be the right portion.”

From a lecturer’s point of view, online classes give Tateno opportunities to “be selective with the material and to streamline the lecture for maximum effect — no more rambling or wasting time over unnecessary anecdotes.”

However, professors in the fields of science and engineering typically bemoan the lack of physical lessons, arguing that online experiences deprive students of actual experiments and data collection that is conducted in real laboratories. The same can be said for arts students, who have equally been deprived of spaces in which they can create and practice their crafts.

The average Japanese living space can’t accommodate such endeavors, leaving one arts student to wonder why they ever signed up for university in the first place.

However, all is not lost.

Waseda University is reportedly planning to introduce a hybrid method of online and in-person classes. Lectures will be distributed online, and students are expected to listen, take notes and prep for in-person debates and discussions that will be held further down the road in university classrooms. The aim is to foster flexible thinking and encourage active participation.

Contrary to speculation that online classes will end up driving students away in droves, the numbers say otherwise, at least according to recent statistics published by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

From April to August, a total of 11,411 students dropped out of their universities before getting their degrees — 0.38% of the entire student body. This rate is virtually identical to last year, which indicates that most students are choosing to tough it out.

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