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Editorial: Intro of digital textbooks to Japan's classrooms must benefit learning

An education ministry expert panel has finalized a report on using digital textbooks in Japan's classrooms. The report pegs academic 2024 as the year to begin introducing the textbooks in earnest, and suggests using them primarily alongside paper textbooks.

    Digital textbooks, viewed on computers and tablets, have the same content as their printed equivalents. Hopes are high that they will help deepen students' understanding of the material covered, as they can be paired with videos. The children will also be able to write comments in the text to be displayed on the digital blackboard and shared with the rest of the class. Furthermore, the text can be enlarged, or read out by the device, so digital textbooks should also prove useful for children with disabilities or immigrant students.

    However, we cannot say that there has been sufficient study on the educational outcomes of using digital texts.

    Some critics have pointed to a risk of students thinking they understand but not actually taking in the material just by looking at it on-screen. Many experts also insist that reading comprehension is bettered by students having to read carefully off a paper page.

    What is important is that children build up the capacity for independent thought. We would like to see a thorough search for methods on how to use paper and digital texts together, leveraging the best aspects of both to achieve the best results.

    There are many issues that need to be resolved on the road to full introduction of digital texts. The national government pays the full cost of textbooks for compulsory education, but this system only applies to the paper versions. It would be natural for the state to pay for digital texts, too, but debate on systematic reform with simultaneous use of paper and digital editions in mind is needed.

    Meanwhile, for students to use their digital textbooks at home, every household must have the appropriate digital communications infrastructure in place. How to help destitute households cover the cost of installing this and paying for the service is a major task to consider going forward.

    Teaching staff must also have the technical skills to use digital texts to the best effect. To prevent educational inequality from emerging among schools and regions, there ought to be thorough digital text training for teachers.

    This school year, the education ministry is conducting digital textbook pilot programs in about 40% of Japan's primary and junior high schools. In addition to learning outcomes, the ministry is investigating the texts' impact on the children's health, such as on their eyesight.

    Rather than starting out with a particular launch date for the digital textbooks, the education ministry must carefully work through all the potential problems associated with them, and make sure they are used to actually improve learning.

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