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Japan univ. lecturers worry over crumbling class quality as virus forces courses online

From left, signs for the Japan Sports Agency, the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology are seen in this file photo. (Mainichi/Kazuo Motohashi)

TOKYO -- Many university lecturers across Japan forced to move their classes online due to the novel coronavirus say they cannot maintain the quality of their courses, a Mainichi Shimbun survey of faculty members at 66 institutions has shown.

The Mainichi sent the survey to a total of 111 lecturers by email in late April, asking them about the impact of the coronavirus state of emergency on their teaching and research, and obtained a response rate of 62%.

According to the education ministry, 737 universities are considering or already implementing distance learning classes, and at least two-thirds of Japan's colleges are expected to do so eventually amid the pandemic.

Very few universities had remote courses before the coronavirus crisis, due to strict regulations on staff postings and instruction methods, meaning most lecturers and students had little to no experience of conducting classes online. The situation led one respondent to comment, "University teachers can't just become YouTubers." Another said their "preparation time has gone up fivefold" compared to regular classes.

Furthermore, there are stark disparities in faculty members' familiarity with information technology, and many respondents said they could not guarantee the standard of their lectures. One professor at a private Tokyo area university wrote that "(public broadcaster) NHK's radio language programs are of better quality" than their own attempts at online teaching. Another respondent noted that "there are no set standards for class content, so each lecturer has to shoulder the entire responsibility on their own," while a third professor called distance learning "basically the same as studying by yourself."

Respondents were also concerned over how the shift online could damage universities' role as a place of learning in the literal sense. Comments along these lines included, "Even the necessity of having a physical space and environment for learning could be disregarded," and, "Maybe every university in the country will end up being like the (distance learning institution) Open University of Japan." One respondent worried that "just a few very popular professors' lectures could be distributed by multiple universities, leading to risks of a sharp cut in teaching staff."

The education ministry set aside 2.7 billion yen (about $25.3 million) in the fiscal 2020 revised supplementary budget to assist universities and other institutions build online learning systems to keep classes rolling during the coronavirus pandemic. An official in charge of the program in the ministry's higher education bureau told the Mainichi, "This could be a major opportunity to boost class quality. I'd like us all to share the problems that come up across the country as well as advanced approaches being taken, and improve the situation as we go."

(Japanese original by Hideo Suzuki, Opinion Group, and Tomohiro Ikeda, Science & Environment News Department)

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