The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

In a world still in the grip of a pandemic, businesses have quickly learned that they must be nimble in the face of challenges, ready to embrace new technologies and mindsets to come out the other side of this crisis in one piece.

Those very same attributes apply equally to the tertiary education sector, with some suggesting that universities in Japan may now be more willing to offer web-based options as a direct result of Covid-19.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has, until recently, been slow to embrace the concept of online learning, even though such classes have been successfully introduced in other countries. Instead, MEXT has preferred to stick with the tried-and-tested model of students physically attending lectures in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Just as it has with other business sectors, the coronavirus has forced a rapid rethink by authorities and a swift pivot by educational institutions.

“We were not offering any courses online before Covid-19, due to university policies, but, because of the coronavirus, we have switched many of our courses—including lectures, seminars, and workshops—to online delivery,” said Philip Sugai, a professor of marketing in the graduate school of business at Kyoto’s Doshisha University.

Part of the reason behind the decision concerned the uni­versity’s international students, many of whom have been unable to return to Japan due to travel restrictions imposed either by the Japanese government or that of their home country. The university now permits students to earn credits even if they are not physically present on campus.

“The biggest challenge has been making the change so quickly, especially for courses that were designed to be case-based or project-based,” admitted Sugai. “Shifting to an all-online delivery has created challenges in ensuring that students can still learn the key lessons from the cases and projects, and that they do not face any limitations even though they are participating remotely.”

Educators at NUCB Business School, the postgraduate school at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business (NUCB), had to be similarly quick on their feet to meet the changing needs of staff and students at the height of a health crisis, but were maybe more fortunate than some as the school already operated an online facility for a limited number of courses.

“The Online Studio was used for courses as part of certificate programs, such as the Women’s Career Empowerment program,” said Usman Muzaffar, coordinator for international development at the university. But English-track programs had not previously made use of the facilities.

“As it has for many other institutions, Covid-19 necessitated a swift response for the sake of the health of our students and faculty members,” Muzaffar said. “Building off the Online Studio model, we have now set up 10 smaller studio facilities so that multiple courses can run concurrently.

“Prior to the outbreak, online courses were an idea to be explored in the future, but have now become the necessary standard. We are learning every day how to maximize the potential of the hardware and online platforms to circumvent their limitations,” he added.

Maintaining the integrity and high standards of the NUCB programs was the “chief concern,” Muzaffar said, as business school courses are taught in the case method style, meaning that class participation and group discussions are vitally important, and are reflected in how students are evaluated.

“Based on feedback from our course instructors and partic­ipants, we can confidently say that we have been able to emulate the pace and efficacy of class discussion to an extent that we feel no need to adjust the structure of our courses or student evaluation methods,” he said.

Ensuring that the required standards of education were maintained was also the primary focus at the Tokyo campus of McGill University, which offers an MBA program through its Desautels Faculty of Management.

“More than the method of delivery, the focus is on maintaining the quality of education,” said David Hackett, director for the McGill MBA. “Online is a different medium than being in the classroom, so the content needs to be optimized for that. The length of a class, the method of delivery, how interaction is done—it all has to be reviewed.”

Arguably the best prepared education institution was Tokyo Online University, which started its internet-based courses in April 2018 and has been largely unaffected by the health crisis, beginning its 2020 academic year on schedule in April.

“Most courses are completely online with no on-campus requirements, but some electives require campus visits,” said Yasuhisa Kato, a professor on the Faculty of Information and Mana­gement. “Currently we are redesigning those electives through synchronous video conferencing and an asynchronous discussion forum.”

Professors create online content as Microsoft PowerPoint slides and then record lectures in the uni­versity’s studios. Through the proprietary Learning Management System, called @ROOM, and the portal system, @CAMPUS, students can register for courses, study, and participate in student activities. Typically, courses include video lectures, quizzes, dis­cussion forums, and final exams that are delivered via @ROOM on the cloud system.

A student participates in a course offered by Tokyo Online University.

The advantage of online learning, Kato said, is that students can learn anytime, anywhere.

“At our university, most students have full-time jobs. They cannot earn a degree at other, traditional universities,” he said. “Also, there are geographical factors involved; while there are many universities in urban areas, there are only a few in rural parts of the country. We are offering more opportunities to people who want to study in higher education.”

One disadvantage that has become apparent, Kato added, is that anyone studying remotely has fewer opportunities to speak with fellow students before or after classes, and to get to know each other. The Tokyo Online University has gone some way to getting around that problem with a campus social network service, limited to students, faculty, and staff.

Elsewhere, instructors are using a panoply of technology to get their messages across, including Camtasia for video recording and editing, Photoshop for pre-recorded content, Zoom and Microsoft Teams for live classes, as well as Slack, Dropbox, and regular e-mails for student discussions outside of live lectures.

“I am teaching an e-marketing class this term, and having to do this 100 percent online is actually an advantage, because all the students can access the exact same tools all at the same time, and I can have them share their screens and confirm that they have understood a specific tool or software in real time,” said Sugai.

NUCB’s Muzaffar agrees that the screen “enables the course instructor to conveniently see all the course participants in a compact interface without being limited by the range of vision when calling upon participants to speak.” He also believes that, while educators and students worldwide tend to prefer teaching and learning in a “live environment,” digital platforms are going to play an increasingly important part in future education.

“The shift in higher learning engendered by Covid-19 can only offer possibilities for institutions that want to provide more opportunities to students facing physical, spatial or temporal limi­tations to their educational advancement,” he said. “Although there is no substitute for the traditional university model.”

Professors are using a range of tools and platforms to deliver online courses.

McGill’s Hackett anticipates that the “long-term result will be more hybrid classes, courses that are handled both online and in the classroom.

“The online portion will be optimized to do what online does best, things like on-demand viewing and being able to replay sections you didn’t catch the first time. The in-class portion will do what it does best: offer rich information from being in the same room as professors and interacting with classmates,” he said.

Sugai agrees that while Japan “will move to embrace online or distance learning more widely over the long term,” he does not anticipate this shift will threaten the traditional university model.

“You’re seeing students in the United States protesting their tuition payments because education online is not viewed as being similar to in-person education,” he said. “Because we are all human beings and thrive on face-to-face interactions, I think that courses delivered in person will continue to account for 50 percent or more of how universities offer their content.

“The exciting thing will be if we can shift the remaining percentage online so that students can be doing internships, project-related work, or other types of initiatives that will further enhance their business education in addition to what they learn in person in our classrooms at Doshisha University.”

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
The exciting thing will be if we can shift the remaining percentage online so that students can . . . further enhance their information and management education.