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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:30 03/09/2007

Computers and Education in Japan

Panel Discussion
Center for Global Communications
February 21, 2000


Takashi SAKAMOTO, Director General of National Institute of Multimedia Education
Shumpei KUMON, Executive Director of GLOCOM
Steve McCARTY, Professor Kagawa Jr. College, President of World Association for Online Education and Volunteer for Global University System in the Asia Pacific Region
Sam SHEPHERD, Executive Director of Japan-US Educational Commission (JUSEC)
Edward JONES, GLOCOM and affiliate of JUSEC



Other Participants:

Mike OSWALD, Director of University of Southern California Regional Office
Michio KATSUMATA, Nikkei Newspaper, Manager of International Projects
Tadao KOBAYASHI, Fuji Xerox Manager of External Relations


Use of computers in the Japanese education system was discussed and suggestions for improvement were made. Two related questions regarding Japanese K-12 education were addressed:

  1. What is the current computer education situation in Japan, and how can it be improved? This question focuses on computer literacy training.
  2. What is the current computer-assisted education situation in Japan, and how can it be improved? This question focuses on how computers are being used for educational purposes.

Summary of the discussion:

Question 1: What is the current computer education situation in Japan, and how can it be improved?

SAKAMOTO: Currently, 36 percent of Japanese schools have Internet access and these figures continue to rise. However, computers are not taught as a subject in elementary or senior high schools. At the junior high level an elective course on technology is currently being offered which includes instruction on information and computers. In addition, vocational high schools usually teach computer courses. However, at present there is not systematic instruction on how to utilize computers. The national government is launching a new standard curriculum in 2003 under which information technology will be taught as a compulsory subject. In addition, at all general and vocational high schools infomatics will be taught as a compulsory course.

As far as teacher training is concerned there does exist limited pre-service training on computers, but this usually is limited to two hours per week. Instruction focuses on how to use computers and on their importance in the information society. At the in-service training level teachers are taught how to utilize the computer as a tool for teaching various subjects ranging from math to the social sciences.

McCARTY: Two essential literacies necessary for education in the 21st Century are networked computing and written English. Experience shows that in-service training can never be often enough or long enough. But unlike conversational English, where much outside help was needed, schoolteachers can learn to teach by experimentation if the two literacies of networked computing and written English are made national goals for Integrated Studies courses from the 5th to 6th grades and for Information-related courses from junior high school onwards.

KUMON: I don't think it is necessary for us to introduce computer education into general educational programs. All we need to do is to provide them with an environment in which computer networks are everywhere. All of a sudden people started to talk about the need for computer literacy. However, in an industrial society where machines pervade every aspect of our life we never talked about machine literacy, car literacy or TV literacy. We did make use of audio video education and of cars, however, there is no need, particularly in primary schools, to teach children how to turn on the TV or to drive a car. They learn this at home from their parents, outside the school. In a similar way we should be able to learn how to use computers in our everyday life, outside of school.

MIYAO: As Professor Kumon says, children learn how to use computers outside of school. What is needed is the instruction of teachers on how to use computers for educational purposes. We need to create an environment, free from centralized pressure, which will allow teachers to freely make use of computers in the classroom.

SHEPHERD: I think the problem is a systemic one in that available technologies are not being used in schools. We have classrooms full of children who are completely computer literate but these technologies are not being utilized as tools for learning. In a highly centralized system such as in Japan there needs to be a concentrated effort to train teachers to utilize computers as one would use a blackboard. We need to make these technologies accessible in the classroom.

SAKAMOTO: Professor Kumon raised some very important issues. The government has announced a national strategy to connect every classroom to the Internet by 2005. This is important when it comes to issues such as information ethics and the digital divide. We must teach about the importance of computers and computer skills in schools. If we do not there will arise a discrepancy between people in terms of their information reach. Children from rich families will have a huge advantage over children from poor families. This will create a large digital divide. Relating to information ethics, we need to protect children from harmful information such as pornography. In the school we can build firewalls and teach children about good information sources. A school can provide a good environment.

KUMON: Regarding the danger of a digital divide and the moral content problem let me compare the current debate with that conducted during the TV age. In those days we didn't talk about an analog divide but our general attitude was that if you watch too much TV you will become an idiot. The overwhelming conclusion was not to introduce the television to the classroom. Regarding the ethical question it was said that if one watches too much TV moral standards will decrease as one will be exposed to violence, pornography and cheap soap operas. The conclusion: the less television the better. But why now do we suddenly talk about the danger of the digital divide? Is it really true that if one uses the computer too much he or she will become too smart? I refer to a recent study conducted by Stanford Professor Nie. His research concluded that the introduction of the computers--and in particular the Internet--was creating a 'lonelier' crowd of people who were losing social skills and pursuing their own narrowly defined areas of interest. As such it might not be true that too much exposure to the Internet might create a digital divide. It might be the opposite.

JONES: An important distinction needs to be made here. In the old divide, relating to the TV, we could not produce programs. When it comes to the computer and the Internet we are the producers and the consumers. That is where the power lies.

SAKAMOTO: There have also been experiments conducted under the MUD system (Multi user dungeon) where introverted students were given positive roles to play and it was found that after several hours of playing these roles these same students displayed much more active roles in real society. Computers can be utilized as tools for collaborative learning where children can learn from each other and develop new networks.

DOLAN: One other issue regarding the Digital Divide is that in Japan one can access the Internet through their cell phone using NTT Docomo's i-mode service. I believe that this will diminish any digital divide to a large extent because anyone able to afford and operate a cell phone can access the Internet.

Question 2: What is the current computer-assisted education situation in Japan, and how can it be improved?

SAKAMOTO: In the past teachers used to teach their knowledge to children. Now teachers are shifting their focus to one aimed at assisting and stimulating student learning. Many teachers are using the Internet to reach this objective. Not only do teachers ask their students to utilize the Internet for research purposes, but teachers also encourage multi-media projects covering local issues such as culture and the environment. In addition, a very important ingredient in this is collaborative knowledge creation and learning. Here students from one classroom, let's say in Tokyo, will collaborate with classrooms in Tottori and Ishikawa on specific topics such as rice cultivation and agri-chemicals. Assisted by computers, children are able to learn on their own. However, not every school is equipped with technologies that can provide this type of learning.

DOLAN: Earlier it was quoted that 36 percent of K-12 classrooms in Japan have Internet access. Does this give a sense of crisis in term of Internet access and what that means to education in Japan? Or do we think that things are proceeding in a positive direction and that there is no need to press for reforms or move the trajectory along?

McCARTY: There is no crisis but things need to be made clear in terms of national priorities. There needs to be intelligent leadership at the national level. My experience with local initiatives is that they are often short lived as a result of group rivalries and jealousies. A national initiative is necessary to provide clear goals and standardized skills at each level.

Suggestions for improvements of computer use in education:

  1. Create a general understanding that computers could be utilized as important tools for education needs to be cultivated and undertaken as a national initiative.
  2. Need to provide networked computers to every classroom to enhance established educational goals and to promote new methods of learning such as collaborative learning.
  3. Need to share collaborative computerized experiences through publications.
  4. Need to coordinate between central, regional and local governments as well as private business to provide computers to every child (alternative financing methods).
  5. Need to give students easy access to networking technologies and opportunities.
  6. Need to effectively and efficiently update technology (computers and networks).
  7. Should contract out government-funded initiatives in this field to non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations.
  8. Must stress the importance of regional and local leadership in promoting and providing necessary learning environments, and to encourage organizations such as PTAs to ensure that their children are being offered these services.
  9. The national government should develop networks and make them accessible to all.
  10. Need to equip schools with technicians capable of maintaining these systems.
  11. Teachers must be trained how to use computers as effective tools for learning.
  12. It is important to teach the values of good netizenship to all users.
Debate: Education
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