Test Time for Universities

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003

As the number of college-age students dwindles, schools fight to stand out amid the crownd. One university's answer: Give the freshmen laptops, wire the campus and teach mass communications.

by Dipika Kohli

Edogawa University shares its quaint campus with Edogawa Women's Junior College in Kashiwa, Chiba prefecture. It has nearly 1,500 students and less than half a dozen buildings. Edogawa is typical of hundreds of campuses across the country struggling to stay vital in an age of fewer and fewer high school graduates. But the faculty at Edogawa claims it has an edge: a wired campus and popular courses on new media.

Edogawa has been teaching the "communications" courses since the university was founded in 1990 -- well before the Internet was a household word. "There was a notion that we would be entering an age where the sheer amount of information people come across each day would only continue to increase," says Jiro Ohnaka of the university's Educational Affairs Division. "How could society deal with the changes caused by such a flux in the volume of information? We saw a need to develop this as a subject of study."

So did the Ministry of Education. In the early 1990s, the ministry published a guidebook for using multimedia studies in schools. And beginning this year, high school students will be required to take a course in information technology.

Today at Edogawa, mass communications is the most popular major with incoming freshmen. In the battle to stay relevant to the country's 18-year-olds and get them (or, more likely, their parents) to shell out the JPY1.45 million in tuition and fees for freshmen, Edogawa's gambit seems to be paying off. But even Edogawa faces an uphill climb in the future. In 1990, the number of 18-year-olds exceeded 2 million, but this figure is predicted to fall to 1.2 million in 2010 and continue falling after that. The number of new high school graduates in 2002 was roughly 1.3 million, down by 12,000 from the previous year. Of these, only 44.8 percent advanced to university, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Hence Japan's 686 universities and junior colleges are in competition with one another, each vying to attract new first-year students from a dwindling pool. Universities have taken to promoting lifelong learning as one way to boost admissions, but as Tetsuya Kagami of Chukyo University writes, "Japanese universities still target the 18-year-old population as their main customers."

Edogawa University's Mass Communications Department is one example other struggling universities may want to emulate. The faculty is an eclectic mix: A former pro baseball player teaches management courses, and a motorbiker who traveled 14,000 km across the former Soviet Union lectures on international relations. Several professors are former television directors, including Akira Ichikawa, dean of the Department of Sociology and a lecturer in mass communications courses; he spent 20 years with NHK making educational and cultural programs for children and teaching people in Bangladesh and Pakistan how to do the same. At Edogawa, he leads seminars of about 10 students each in visual communications and international cooperation.

"I always have to give my opinion in each seminar class, and I think that I'm now better able to make solid presentations," says Ayano Kohza, a student of Ichikawa's.

Ichikawa stresses a practical, hands-on approach. "We believe in self-discipline," he says. "Book knowledge isn't the only thing that's important for students. These days, interactive communication -- meeting face to face with people from other cultures and learning how to work together -- is very important."

The mass communications classes also appeal to budding journalists in a country where journalism courses are minimal. Second-year student Naoyuki Fujimoto says he wants to be an "international journalist." Masashi Yamaura of Nagano came here to become a television producer. He and other students told this reporter they enjoyed the open-ended assignments and the opportunities to express themselves in class.

The students of Edogawa seem a little more focused and energetic than the stereotypical carefree university student we read about, who is supposed to be on a four-year party sponsored by mom and dad. "Once students enter middle school, there are no connections made among the many subjects they are required to take, and rote memorization becomes the norm," Judith A. Johnson, a professor at Yamaguchi University, writes in an article entitled "Japanese Education and Teacher Training In Transition." "Generally speaking," she says, "teachers do not welcome questions from students and students are discouraged from voicing their opinions."

The education ministry says it is trying to get universities to educate students so that they "develop creativity, the ability to adapt themselves to a dynamic society and the willingness to learn autonomously."

In trying to achieve this goal, Edogawa has embraced one very important tool without hesitation: the Internet.

"The Internet is changing everything," says Ohnaka. "Using this invaluable resource to nurture the talents of our students is our greatest challenge."

Edogawa's "e-campus" encourages use of the Internet and makes it convenient for the students. Upon entering the university, all students receive a laptop computer. Fifteen hundred Internet plug-in points on campus -- more than one per student -- mean that individuals can hook up to the Net anytime in labs, student lounges and the library. The campus also boasts computer labs, an audiovisual resource room, a television studio and a video-editing room.

The declining birthrate in Japan is really starting to take its toll on universities, many of which are guilty of going with the status quo for too long. And the problem will get worse over the next few years. Edogawa University is an example of an institution that took the threat seriously and has carved out a niche in an overcrowded sector. @

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