Offering Online Learning in Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2001

i-campus is hoping its Web-based learning system will go over well in Japan. With lifetime employment fading away, there could be a need for this kind of service.

by Michael Thuresson

i-campusKEEPING WITH JAPANESE CUSTOM, Takashi Hasegawa, president of i-campus KK, brought back some gifts when he returned to Japan from his stay in America. In February 2000, shortly after arrival home, he launched his computer-based education company i-campus, giving Japanese the opportunity to virtually attend one of the world's most prestigious educational institutions, Stanford University, and a convenient new way to learn English.

Hasegawa worked in Silicon Valley for several years in the 1990s as an investment analyst with Nomura Research Institute, the research arm supporting Nomura's VC activities. His job was analyzing potential investments, and when he discovered Stanford's computer-based distance-learning course program (established in 1992), he knew he was looking at a winner. The Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) currently has some 5,000 students worldwide, with some 85 percent based in the US. The program distributes interactive lessons developed by Stanford teaching staff by CD-ROM and provides weekly, real-time virtual lessons with professors offered via the Net. Hasegawa says he saw the program's potential for the Japanese market right away. "Many Japanese are already going to the US to study entrepreneurism, and, of course, Stanford is a world-famous institution," he says. In 1999, Hasegawa negotiated an exclusive license from Stanford for Japan, and last year, he obtained seed capital funding from several prominent Japanese companies (including Forval, Natasei, and Orix).

Company i-campus KK
President Takashi Hasegawa
Location Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Phone +813-3511-3063
Founded February 2000
Employees 8
Services Virtual classroom, educational CD-ROMs (covering Math, Physics, Computer Science, and English) based on Stanford's Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY); also offers ESL courses
Partners Stanford University, Dyned (ESL contents), Symposium (virtual classroom software)
Investors Nagase, Forval, Orix, Franchise Advantage, Future institute
Capital ¥185.1 million

There are currently some 50 students registered with i-campus, ranging from kindergarten through university students, as well as working adults. The curriculum is divided into two parts: the math and science-focused EPGY program and ESL (English as a second language) training. The ESL program is broken down into three broad levels based on TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores and an integrated computer-based placement test (students are further grouped by abilities within these three levels), while the EPGY science and math classes are divided into two levels, one for advanced students (advanced high school placement or university-level), and one for secondary and elementary school students.

There are also individual English as a second language (ESL) courses aimed at business people and junior and senior high school students. ESL courses cost from ¥8,000 to ¥20,000 per month for four virtual sessions (live group sessions are available at additional cost).

All EPGY students receive the Stanford CD-ROMs and participate in the weekly virtual lectures with five to 10 other students. The main difference between the four EPGY levels is that students in the top two levels participate in the online Stanford lectures, and the lower level students attend classes conducted by i-campus instructors. Course fees, ranging from ¥10,000 per student per month at the elementary level to ¥72,000 per student per quarter (three or four lecture hours at the university level), aren't cheap, but Hasegawa is banking on the Japanese willingness to pay top dollar for top quality. "Right now, the lower two levels are the most popular for our students. The Stanford lectures are proving difficult because of the course material and the high-level of English required," he says. Clint Hamada, math instructor at i-campus, adds, "We have found that the students who possess the English ability to be successful in the ESL program also tend to possess above-average mathematical ability as well."

i-campusThe online classes are "held" on i-campus's server, and the "classroom" is a software program designed by US educational software developer Symposium that allows for multimedia content, such as PowerPoint slides, animation, and graphs. No extraordinary home PC configurations are necessary for students, other than possibly having to buy a PC microphone for verbal feedback. Symposium's software is designed to simulate typical teacher-student interaction, and includes tools such as a hand-raising button and the ability for the teacher to call on students. "Obviously, you can't simulate the face-to-face interaction," says Mark Caissey, an i-campus ESL and computer science instructor. But, he adds, "I think it's effective to the point that we are simulating roughly 90 percent of the real classroom experience.

Some teachers agree that trying to create the interactiveness that goes on in a regular classroom via computer is an intriguing approach, particularly for advanced students. For students who are intrinsically motivated, i-campus' services could provide an opportunity to learn at a pace that fits their abilities, as well as the opportunity to learn from professors and experts who would otherwise be unavailable. "When it is not possible for a student to attend an actual class, online interaction can be a viable replacement," says Julia Bertrand, an experienced educator and teacher of gifted and talented students at an American school here. Others point to i-campus' ability to cater for individual student needs and teacher idiosyncracies, something that the traditional, classroom-bound Japanese education system -- largely based on rote learning and large student-to-teacher ratios -- is unable to provide (see sidebar). "The positive benefits of this technology far exceed the limits of the traditional classroom or teacher," says Jacqueline Whited, another teacher of gifted and talented students, adding, "I can imagine many gifted learners thriving within the i-campus program. Even if it was only for a part of their day, some students need this level of self-directed, self-paced, intellectually challenging information." Whited also points out that i-campus's technology could provide a great way for the average classroom teacher to meet the needs of students requiring enrichment or exposure beyond the teacher's means.

Students at Nakadai Higashi elementary school in Osaka prefecture are using PCs and the Net to videoconference with their counterparts at a private school in Seoul. During the first session, held last year, students conversed in English, as it was the only language common to both sides. To speed up communications during subsequent sessions, each group used their native language, with teachers serving as interpreters. But language isn't the only obstacle slowing down international understanding; the Japanese were frustrated to discover that the Korean school had high-speed broadband Net access, while theirs was substantially slower. The education ministry says it will install computers and Net access in all Japanese schools by 2005.

Another potential business catalyst is increasing pressure on Japan's workforce and recession-bitten companies to globalize and become more IT-oriented. Continuing education, especially English or technical vocational classes, is a growing trend. "They're in a large and growing market," says Mark Ferris of Tokyo-based venture capital and strategic services company Building2. He adds, "In Japan, as employment practices change and there is less lifetime employment, there will be increased need for continuing education." i-campus, with only one location now, plans to expand to around 50 franchises across Japan in the next five years (see "Yearning for Lifelong Learning," page 41, October 2000).

There are some concerns, however, about the quality of communication that actually takes place in a virtual environment, and one challenge will be convincing consumers that education is not diluted when the delivery medium varies from the conventional classroom or lecture. "Presumably, companies like i-campus will need to focus on a specific niche area. These may not be the most profitable areas, so the return on investment needs careful analysis," says Ferris. Whited agrees, adding, "I can see the benefit of such instruction for students who are home-bound due to medical reasons."

Another point to keep in mind is the synergy that develops between student and instructor in a one-on-one, live classroom situation, considered to be one of the strengths of traditional classroom instruction. If, for example, all factors were equal, says Bertrand -- including course content, quality of instructor, and quality of material -- and the choice was between an actual classroom and an online classroom, the traditional classroom would be the most effective. "Communication -- from both teacher and student -- and learning come from using all of our senses. Communication via computer doesn't allow the student to hear the instructor's tone of voice or see the facial expressions or body language that would be evident in a classroom," she says. Whited similarly advises caution: "Although I may be biased, I don't think online interactive instruction will replace the traditional personal touch in the near future."

Hasegawa, however, is already thinking about what sort of niche would fit i-campus' computer-based methods the best. One of the targets, he says, is Japanese returning home after living in foreign countries, who are "often frustrated by the education system here and should find our program very interesting." Hasegawa also plans to launch i-campus's virtual classroom product over Japan's emerging 3G wireless networks. He couldn't disclose which wireless carriers the firm is talking with, but he expects a press release in May or June this year. Although it's certainly a niche, how effective the 3G cell phone interface will be at simulating English or science studies remains to be seen; there are sufficient game, chakumelo, and teen idol sites on the wireless Web to distract even the keenest mobile learner.

But Japan has both a notorious soft spot for famous foreign brand names like Stanford, and a reputation for finding unprecedented uses for cellphones. Also, Japanese parents are well known for pushing their kids to attend after-school cram sessions at special, for-fee institutions known as juku, almost a requirement if the children are to do well on high school and university placement examinations. Anything that helps deliver such enriched learning to students at an affordable fee may be a hot item. These factors, combined with the popularity of English education and Japanese youth's interest in all things computer-related, could conceivably stimulate demand for new, virtual learning methods.

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