The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Back in 2012, the US writer Clay Shirky sounded a warning to academics: pay attention to MOOCs or face the consequences.

Massive open online courses, better known by their acronym MOOCs, emerged in 2008, but were beginning to go mainstream when Shirky warned of their impact on more traditional education.

“Once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class,” Shirky wrote, “it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.”

Open courses, freely available online for an unlimited number of students, were to Shirky the latest in a line of Internet innovations that was set to disrupt an industry.

As the MP3 had facilitated massive changes in the way we listen to music, and the torrent had transformed the movie industry, the MOOC would force academic institutions to adapt or die, he argued.

Many pointed out at the time that there were holes in Shirky’s argument. Teaching 1,000 people comes at a cost of quality. And students in such large groups are often expected to assess themselves.

There is little time for the one-on-one mentoring and private consultations with academics that provide so much value to students.

That, however, does not mean MOOCs have no value. It is simply that Shirky overstated their threat to traditional academia.

MOOCs are perhaps best considered separate to traditional academia. While they may influence university policies and teaching methods, their courses are aimed at a different customer base and more on-the-job-training-focused.

While stressing life skills and critical thought less, at base they are designed to pursue profit rather than knowledge. Shirky, however, has a point.

Healthy space
Today, companies such as Coursera and Udemy are going strong. Japan has its own nonprofit council—JMOOC—looking to expand and change education here.

And reality has bitten: much of what we talk about when discussing MOOCs today is simply online education. Many businesses have found that, to make money, they need smaller class sizes and to be paid for their efforts.

“The definition [of MOOCs] has been co-opted over time to mean online education,” says Shannon Hughes, head of marketing at Udemy. Her company offers more than 35,000 courses and has 9 million students enrolled.

“What we are seeing now—as we do more to localize our product and get instructors who teach in local languages—is that markets just come online,” Hughes says. “That’s definitely what we have seen in Japan as we have attracted more courses on the site.”

The company, which charges students on a per-course basis and creates its programs in-house, has attracted investment from venture capital funds such as 500 Startups.

“We had been impressed by the opportunities in online video education, and were believers it was a global story that would scale,” Dave McClure, founder of the fund, told The Journal.

“I also worked at PayPal with friends who later became the founders of YouTube, and have always been a fan of the potential for combining online video and education.”

Typical students of these courses, according to Hughes, are 30-somethings or 40-somethings looking for career progression by keeping up with the latest technologies or advances in their industry.

A smaller set of students tends to focus on personal development by learning skills in areas such as meditation or photography. “There is a lot of urgency around people who come to us to prepare for job interviews or who are looking to advance their careers,” she says.

“At the same time, there are people learning on Udemy for their passions.”

Other organizations have different ways of getting students to part with their money. While Udemy charges for courses, Coursera charges for the certifications students may need to prove they have completed certain studies.

“While access to a lot of course content is free, we do ask learners to pay a fee for certificates for both single courses and Specializations, multi-course series that teach specific skills in depth,” according to Coursera.

“A [certificate] is a way of declaring that someone has successfully completed all assignments and examinations of a course, after verifying a learner’s identity with facial recognition and keystroke analysis.”

The company, which last year received an endorsement from US President Barack Obama, does not produce its courses in-house, instead partnering with major academic institutions.

“We think that having great instructors from great institutions doing the teaching is a powerful way to achieve educational results,” the company says.


Mutual benefits
As in many other industries, education has found itself in a trade-off with technology. Universities offer their services to Coursera in exchange for massive reach: three-quarters of its more than 16 million students are from outside the United States.

The company has a large presence in China, India, and Brazil, and 48 percent of its students are from the developing world, where economic growth and improved literacy mean large opportunities.

In Japan, growth has been slower to take off. “While many of the major universities in Japan have tried MOOCs, it will probably take a while before that becomes the norm,” says James Riney, head of 500 Startups Japan.

“That said, independent learning-style MOOCs, where Udemy plays, may pick up sooner.”

Academics working in Tokyo agree. Ted O’Neill, director of PR for the Japan Association for Language Teaching, believes that MOOCs will eventually catch on, citing the intense competition between universities to attract students.

“I think there will be some faculty who will be under pressure to put together MOOCs as advertising for their universities,” he tells The Journal.

“And we will see some who experiment with MOOCs to experiment with being a learner again.”

In his own field of interest—language—he feels MOOCs have limited use. “I have used tools like this for learning Japanese, and they aren’t going to help me write emails or speak up in meetings,” he says. “So I can’t see MOOCs helping with these areas.”

Nevertheless, Japan is seeing some movement in online education.

Growth of MOOCs - Cumulative number of courses started/scheduled

GROWTH OF MOOCs – Cumulative number of courses started/scheduled


Yoshimi Fukuhara has an office in Meiji University’s swish new Global Front building on its Surugadai campus in East Tokyo. He is working to bring large-scale online learning to Japan with JMOOC.

So far, his association has helped 102 courses get up and running, and attracted enrollment from 455,000 people since launching in 2013. But Fukuhara has bigger ideas.

“We still need to get more content,” he tells The Journal. “I think we will get there, though. We have about 100 courses now.

“We need to get up to 500 or so, then students will be able to study whatever they want. Getting there earlier would be better, but I expect it will take about three years.”

JMOOC, for Fukuhara, offers Japan a chance to improve both its traditional education model and its standing with the international community.


“Overseas, work on open education began around 2001, and the first courses became available in 2003,” he says. “Over time, there has been a paradigm shift. The approach of institutions has gone from being teacher-centric to being focused on learners. Lecturers have learned how to put more emphasis on their students, so they are learning, too.

“There is a lot to learn in terms of communication and activities. So, in Japan, we need to also look to change the way people think. So far, there has been no revolution.”

Fukuhara rues pre-MOOC era teaching methods, according to which the teacher tells students what to write and they simply do so.

For him, and many others interviewed for this article, education has to adapt to the realities of the modern world: the pace of change is increasing, so skills learned at the age of 25 are likely to be worth little at the age of 45.

Such issues demand a new method of educating, which many believe MOOCs offer.

But, does that not mean companies such as Udemy and Coursera—which are well funded and heavily registered—have an edge over organizations in countries such as Japan?

“Our idea is to expand in Asia, with collaborations in places in Thailand and South Korea,” Fukuhara says, pointing out that the courses are made by Japanese, in Japanese, at his organization.

“The merit of our content is that it originates in Japan. Things that are made in Japan can give insights into the way Japan does business.

“A lot of Japanese factories are located in Southeast Asia, and the people in those countries want to study Japanese language and customs. So we want to work with MOOCs on courses in those countries.”

Ambition alone may not be enough for JMOOC. It has no financial help from the government, and is reliant on membership fees from companies and institutions involved. Membership costs ¥500,000, while special sponsors pay ¥5 million.

Moving from a relative shoestring budget to a full-fledged global competitor also has another problem: Japan’s larger neighbor, China.

In the first half of 2015, deals were signed in China’s education technology sector worth $317 million. And Coursera is among the companies moving into the market.

“Coursera partners with five institutions in China which, collectively, offer more than 70 courses [to 1 million students],” the company says.

“Because of our Global Translator Community, we are able to offer more than 125 courses in Chinese, either [led by a native speaker or with subtitles].

For Hughes at Udemy, however, there is reason to believe that both the global and Japanese markets still have plenty of room for growth.

“The need for people to learn new skills is not going away anytime soon,” she says. “That is becoming increasingly important for being successful. I’m confident that won’t change over time.”


Richard Smart has been living and writing in Japan since 2002.
Typical [MOOC] students... are 30-somethings or 40-somethings looking for career progression.