University E-learning

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2005

Government support and demographics bode well for virtual classrooms in Japan

by Jeff Schnack

The university scene in Japan is encountering perhaps its greatest upheaval since the Meiji Era (1868 -1912). Institutions of higher learning throughout the country are ramping up their services to maintain enrollment levels as the base of potential students declines, while at the same time government deregulation has allowed new players into the market and freed existing schools to better leverage their competitive advantages in attracting students. One wild card in this free-wheeling poker game is the use of e-learning -- information technology to enable non-traditional "out of classroom" study, testing, evaluation and reporting -- a tool that can increase a university's reach, reduce course delivery costs, and open new avenues for creative and engaging pedagogy.

With an eye toward cultivating future workers with the technical skills, business sense, and personal creativity necessary to compete in the "knowledge economy" of the twenty-first century, the Japanese government has eliminated many barriers between business and the ivory towers of academia. Recent reforms have included the elimination of restrictions on university participation in investments and venture businesses, as well as permitting professors at national universities to sit on corporate boards.

E-learning in particular has benefited from being part of the larger, well-publicized e-Japan initiative conceived and announced in January 2001 by the office of Prime Minister Koizumi. The initiative set specific goals for the nation's IT infrastructure, including the tripling of the number of Japanese universities using advanced e-learning technologies by 2005.

In support of the e-Japan initiative, Article 25 of the University Establishments Standards of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) -- the framework governing e-learning in post-secondary education in Japan -- has been revised several times over the last few years. Incremental changes have allowed

  1. the use of multimedia materials in lieu of traditional textbooks,
  2. the introduction of taped lectures in streaming video to supplement or replace physical class attendance,
  3. the use of interactive tools to allow remote testing, discussion, and reporting through the Internet,
  4. and the increased acceptance of credits earned through e-learning toward degree programs (although some restrictions still apply -- for instance, of the 124 credits required for a four-year undergraduate degree, in some instances only a maximum of 60 can currently be earned through e-learning).

Convincingly, some of these regulations have been lifted at what seems like warp speed for the Japanese bureaucracy. For instance, one recent change involved the lifting of previously stringent requirements for universities regarding the size and type of physical campus required as a base of operations -- an expensive burden that an e-learning-focused institution could, at least in concept, do fairly well without. The first official submission for government consideration on the subject was made in November 2003. Within three months, an expert panel was formed and a first round of hearings was held. By April the law had been revised, and by December 2004 Nagano City had received MEXT approval of its application for creation of a special structural reform zone in which it planned to host the nation's first truly "virtual" university. The product of that effort, Asahi Internet University, is now preparing to launch its graduate program in April 2006 and a full undergraduate program two years later -- with all university functions offered exclusively over the internet. (See their website at

So how far has e-learning in Japan come, and how far does it still have to go? For the big picture, a good starting point is the National Institute of Multimedia Education (NIMA), which recently completed a nationwide survey on the subject with 287 universities (results in Japanese only can be found on their web site at One perhaps unsurprising finding was that the institutions with the most advanced e-learning development were largely private. Forty-one percent of the private schools surveyed offered e-learning classes in at least three disciplines, and 23 percent offered e-learning in over 14 areas of study. In contrast, only 18 percent of the national universities responding offered e-learning programs in more than three disciplines. Here one can see that the perhaps less famous universities in Japan are scrambling faster to implement the newest methods, and it will be interesting to see if the larger schools move to catch up soon.

As far as the specific tools being used are concerned, the survey shows that most e-learning is still largely text-based. While 67 percent posted static content such as Power Point slides for study purposes, only 34 percent offered streaming video. And while 61 percent allowed professors and students to correspond via email or chat, only 24 percent used any form of two-way video conferencing. As for the comprehensive school management systems (SMS) that universities use to manage content, on-line attendance, quizzes, and reporting for their e-learning courses, 80 percent of the responding schools used some sort of packaged solution rather than creating their own system from scratch. Schools were asked to name their choice of SMS, and there was no clear leader in terms of market share. It can be said that this growing field is wide open.

Importantly, it is clear that schools are being very hesitant in granting full degree credits for "pure" e-learning coursework. Of the schools responding, only 40 percent offered distance learning with no need for any physical attendance at the school whatsoever, and of that group only 32 percent gave full credit for all their e-learning offerings, while an almost equal percentage (28 percent) gave no credit at all for theirs. The rest of the respondents were split, offering credits for distance learning in some disciplines but not others. One challenge to the industry is clearly the creation of a system in which the credits earned through e-learning are deemed equal to those given for traditional class attendance.

Respondents were also asked about factors that could be holding back the further development of e-learning at the university level in Japan. Some factors cited were the lack of content creation and system management skills among faculty (33 percent), doubts about the safety of intellectual property rights for contents placed on the e-learning systems (31 percent), and the lack of an effective way to evaluate student input onto chat and blackboard discussion boards (also 31 percent). But the most oft-cited factor was, understandably, the lack of budget (45 percent). Takanori Hanada, president of Osaka-based Pro-Seeds Co., Ltd. (, an e-learning vendor specializing in the creation of on-line content for communicating abstract concepts in a clear and engaging format, estimates that universities most often allocate 2 - 3 million yen for the creation of a single e-learning course, "and when you multiply that figure by the number of courses required to establish even a basic program curriculum, you can see why some universities hesitate. Also, that budget figure may not be enough to create truly valuable content that satisfies students." For universities just setting out on an e-learning venture, there are certainly risks involved.

Both established schools and up-and-comers are taking the lead in e-learning with interesting experimental initiatives. For instance, the "iTree" project begun at Tokyo University (and continuing in cooperation with the Benesse Corporation at encourages students to post and read notices on their virtual class discussion boards by linking the level of activity to an animated graphic of a tree. Viewable on NTT Docomo's i-Mode mobile phones, the tree begins each course anew as a small sapling. Every time a post is made, the sapling sprouts a new branch, and hopefully by the end of the term the class has been able to create a vibrant, fully-grown tree.

Another well-known university working hard on improving their e-learning offerings is Sanno Daigaku. Located in Tokyo's posh Jiyugaoka suburb, the university grew out of a research organization founded in 1925 by Yoichi Ueno (1883 - 1957), known as Japan's first management consultant, with the express purpose of serving the needs of ongoing adult education -- especially in the field of professional business training. Sanno's community college was created in 1950, its full university (including Japan's first management IT courses) was founded in 1979, and its first experience with rudimentary computer-based e-learning (also a Japan first) began in 1983. Its traditional paper-based correspondence courses still command a large slice of Japan's lifetime learning market, with over 250,000 annual users. But of this number, only about 3 percent are currently participating through e-learning. Akihiko Koga, manager of the e-Learning Development Center at the Sanno Institute of Management (, recognizes that it will be a challenge to expand e-learning past the subjects for which correspondence courses have long been popular: basic IT skills, language studies, and certificate test preparation. "Correspondence courses are well-established for the adult-learning market, and it will take some time for the customers to accept e-learning as an alternative," he says. "For instance, many Japanese prefer to receive a thick textbook, something tangible, as part of their study materials. Such preferences need to be properly addressed in any successful e-learning program."

One new player in the e-learning arena is Yashima Gakuen University. Targeting stay-at-home wives with a cost-effective advanced educational solution, Yashima (http:// / univ / yashima / index.asp) introduced in April 2004 a family education and human development program that is the first fully e-learning-capable curriculum in Japan. This means that all applications, course content, reports and testing, counseling, credits, and even club activities are fully accessible and operable in an e-learning environment.

Yashima Gakuen University does maintain facilities near JR Yokohama Station, and students have the option of attending class in person, or visiting the premises for consulting and other purposes. But 90 percent of the 800 students currently enrolled interact with the university exclusively via the Internet.

The school uses two main platforms from its main vendor, Digital Knowledge: a Learning Management System and LiveNow!TM, an interactive platform that allows for real-time quizzing, split-screen video feeds, and other tools to make the two-way e-classroom exciting and participative for its students.

Of course, such cases are still rare in Japan. Digital Knowledge's President, Hiroaki Haga, believes that there needs to be greater sharing of best practices across universities. "Not enough clear success patterns have been established. For instance, Yashima Gakuen has a full e-learning program; other universities use similar technologies for gathering students at satellite campuses; another group provides on-demand teaching materials to mix asynchronous and classroom learning; while some universities use e-learning more as an administrative tool to support in-person class attendance. These patterns need to be clearly understood and accepted for e-learning to grow more quickly here in Japan."

With the ongoing support of the Japanese government and the pressures of a declining population pushing increased competition, the university market for e-learning in Japan has the potential to grow exponentially over the coming years. But it remains to be seen who the winners will be. JI

Jeff Schnack is president of 3Rock consulting.

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