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E-Learning in Japanese Universities

By Martin E. Bush / November 2002

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This article presents an impression of current e-learning activities within Japanese universities based on visits and consultations conducted during the author's sabbatical, as well as a survey of recent literature on the subject. Although there has been a lot of activity in areas such as videoconferencing, so far use of the Internet within most Japanese universities has been restricted mainly to e-mail, marketing and distribution of printable material. There is growing concern about the prospect of competition from prestige universities overseas offering Web-based courses, but given the conservative nature of the Japanese higher education system it seems likely that Japan will continue to lag behind other countries in this arena for the foreseeable future.


Given that English is currently the de facto language of the Internet, it is hardly surprising that the countries boasting the highest levels of Internet penetration are those in which the general population consists primarily of fluent, if not native, English speakers. At a recent international symposium on e-learning in Japan many of the speakers voiced their concern that this puts Asian countries in general at a severe disadvantage in terms of competing internationally in the Web-based e-learning arena (Bush, 2002).

Language is surely the main factor that explains why the Japanese have been slow on the whole to embrace Internet technology despite their very strong high-tech manufacturing base, but it is not the only factor. Given a population with a roughly similar level of ability in English, Korea has made better progress, due it seems to greater commitment on the part of the government. In Korea there are already—as of March 2001—nine "cyberuniversities" in operation, with a further seven scheduled to begin operation in 2003 (Jung, 2001). These are private ventures that focus on vocational courses and "lifelong learning" for mature students; roughly half of the students enrolled in their courses are over 30 years of age, some living overseas. Some traditional universities in Korea have also begun to set up Web-based distance learning courses. There have been rather fewer initiatives in Japan, although in the last few years there have been a number of significant developments.

The Japanese Higher Education System

The Japanese education system has been very successful in the sense that Japan has one of the best educated populations in the world, with around 50 percent of people leaving school now progressing to some form of higher education. On the other hand, university professors generally complain that students are rather less academically able and less motivated than they used to be (Arimoto, 2001). Of course this phenomenon is not unique to Japan; the trend towards mass higher education has given rise to similar quantity-versus-quality trade-offs in other countries too.

The higher education system in Japan is broadly divided into two sectors: public (i.e. state-funded) and private. With the exception of Keio University and Waseda University, which are both private, the public universities are generally considered to be more prestigious. In Japan, 73 percent of all university students attend private (as opposed to public) universities, while 92 percent of all college students attend private (as opposed to public) colleges (Yonezawa & Baba 1998). By contrast, in the USA less than 30 percent of undergraduate students attend private universities, and in Europe universities remain primarily government funded.

There is also another distinction: The vast majority of colleges and universities are campus-based "attendance institutions," but around 40 are "correspondence institutions." Different rules apply to these two groups (Sakamoto, 2001). In particular, prior to 1998 the rules governing attendance in institutions specified the amount of class contact time students must receive, so the use of e-learning to replace face-to-face teaching was effectively prohibited. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) relaxed the rules in 1998 to allow up to 30 of the statutory 124 credits (for an undergraduate degree) to be based on "synchronous two-way distance education" such as teleconferencing. The rules were relaxed further in 1999 to allow up to 60 credits to be taught this way. Then in 2000 they were further relaxed to allow these 60 units to be based on "asynchronous two-way distance education"—i.e. Web-based e-learning—possibly in collaboration with foreign universities. (The phrase "two-way" means in practice that professors are mandated to respond to e-mail queries from students.)

Meanwhile, the rules governing correspondence institutions were also progressively relaxed. Originally, up to 94 credits could be obtained through some form of distance education with the remaining 30 to be delivered in the form of traditional lectures. The rules were then relaxed to allow up to ten of these 30 lecture-based credits to be delivered via broadcasting or multimedia technology, and from 2001 it was possible for all 124 credits to be based on asynchronous two-way distance education.

Japanese universities have never attracted many foreign students. Statistics on legal migrants show that while 193,779 Japanese students studied abroad in 2000, there were only 64,011 foreign students within the Japanese higher education system (Intrasai, 2001). The provision of distance e-learning courses will do nothing to address this imbalance. Indeed, the imbalance will probably grow—especially if studying for a qualification from a foreign university via the Internet is counted as "studying abroad"—because the emergence of the Internet has magnified the importance of becoming fluent in English. The problem is exacerbated by declining numbers of people leaving school, and by the fact that qualifications from well-known foreign universities are highly valued since it is generally considered that they require students to work harder than in most Japanese universities, not to mention the foreign language skills gained. On the other hand, given the current economic climate and career uncertainty more adult workers are showing an interest in engaging in distance learning courses.

Given Japan's current economic gloom, its government has been increasingly criticized in recent years for being over-bureaucratic and inefficient. MEXT has had its fair share of this criticism. To quote one observer, "As the custodian of continuity for Japanese higher education, [MEXT] has, through its own institutional rigidities, contributed significantly to the current roadblocks and the frustrations being experienced by would-be technology innovators. There is a clear dissonance between [its] far-sighted policies and public pronouncements about the application of ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] within higher education (and education generally) and other existing policies, procedures and practices" (Brumby, 2000). Many Japanese academics also say that the upper management within most universities is too conservative (Bush, 2002).

Current E-learning Initiatives

The term "e-learning" does not have a universally accepted meaning. Some authors use the term to refer just to Web-based education, whereas others use it more broadly to refer to other forms of electronic delivery too. This must be borne in mind when looking at statistics related to e-learning. For example, when the chairman of IBM Japan recently said that 36 percent of their in-house training is now achieved through e-learning (Bush, 2002) this sounded impressive, but it is not immediately clear quite what it means.

According to the country report from Japan at the June 2001 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) workshop held at NIME (OECD, 2001), a total of over 200,000 students were enrolled in correspondence colleges and universities in the year 2000. As for the traditional campus-based institutions, 34 percent of universities and 29 percent of colleges were "using the Internet" in 2000 while a further 17 percent and 23 percent (respectively) were "planning to introduce online education." Faster expansion has reportedly been hindered by a shortage of funding and of staff with the appropriate skills (Bush, 2002). By contrast, the country report for UK states that "all HE institutions make use of e-learning in some form or other [and] in the main this involves the use of intranets."

Use of the Internet within most Japanese universities has so far been restricted mainly to e-mail and Web sites for external marketing and internal distribution of printable material. Some now have intranets that include online databases for things like student registration, but in general they are less well developed than the intranets within typical British or American universities (Bush, 2002). No doubt one of the reasons for this is under-staffing; levels of administrative and technician support within most Japanese universities is relatively low.

The general picture in terms of e-learning is also one of relative inactivity, with most initiatives having been started by enthusiastic individuals with little support from their institutions. In the words of one such individual, "In Japan or other non-English-speaking countries in Asia, the Web publishing technique of educators seems to be still in the primitive stage, and many educational institutions are publishing their Web pages mainly for advertising purposes" (Azuma, 1999).

However, the picture is changing quite rapidly as a result of several initiatives that began in the late 1990s, around the time that the rules governing face-to-face teaching began to be relaxed. One such initiative involving several well-established Japanese universities is the "School On the Internet" project (SOI, 2001). This began in 1997 and now offers over 800 hours worth of archived lecture videos about Internet-related topics, delivered to recipients via video streaming over the Internet. Communication amongst students and faculty members is conducted via e-mail, bulletin boards and Internet Relay Chat. A total of around 7,000 students have enrolled for SOI courses.

The National Institute for Multimedia Education is at the forefront of many of the current initiatives. The Institute was also established in 1997, neighboring the University of the Air-Japan's equivalent of the UK's Open University. A key alliance between government agencies, universities and IT-related companies was formed in 2000 called the Advanced Learning Infrastructure Consortium (ALIC, 2002); it is intended to ensure a degree of integration between the various initiatives that are now underway.

Although Japan has been slow to introduce asynchronous Web-based e-learning, there has been substantial use of teleconferencing to support inter-university synchronous distance learning-predominantly by the public universities. Over 120 universities and other institutions are linked to the satellite-based Space Collaboration System which has NIME at its hub, and some other universities now "share classes" with foreign (mostly American) universities. In a recent paper (Sakamoto, 2001) the Director General of NIME, Takashi Sakamoto, said that "some universities [in Japan] have started to provide distance education via the Internet and videoconferencing [and] of particular significance is the growing number of Japanese universities that are linked in this way to universities overseas." He cited various collaborations between one or more universities in Japan with universities in the USA, and also with universities in Vietnam, Singapore, Germany, and France.

In global terms, the two most popular commercial Web-based e-learning platforms are currently WebCT and Blackboard. As of January 2002, only 15 Japanese institutions-out of 2,200 institutions worldwide-claimed to be using WebCT (WebCT, 2002), while Blackboard claimed 1,900 "clients" worldwide but named only two in Japan (Blackboard, 2002). Japanese versions are reportedly imminent for both. NIME has chosen WebCT as the basis for the e-learning platform it will offer for future Web-based course delivery, but no doubt the number of users of both will grow quickly once the Japanese versions are available.


In the 1980s, when Japan's economy was the envy of most other countries, many analysts attributed its success mainly to the general stability, continuity, and emphasis on "incremental improvement" that characterized most Japanese institutions. However the flip side of this culture is inflexibility; speedy introduction of e-learning requires revolution, not evolution.

While there have been a number of important developments, the general feeling that "Japan's institutions of higher education have seriously lagged in anticipating the need to utilize IT and to adopt a learner centred point of view" (Arimoto, 2001) is widely shared. There are a number of reasons for it, as we have seen. While it is only a matter of time before the traditional campus-based universities in Japan adopt the new methods of teaching and learning that the Web has enabled, competing for students internationally is a different story.

The emergence of the Internet has consolidated the role of English as the de facto global language. Consequently, Japanese universities will need to form alliances with universities overseas if they are to compete effectively in the global e-learning arena. (This is also true for universities in most other Asian countries.) Web-based courses presented in Japanese will no doubt attract mature learners and perhaps some Japanese nationals living abroad temporarily, but they are unlikely to be of interest to a significant number of foreign students.


I would like to take this opportunity to convey my sincere thanks to all the individuals I met during the course of this work for their time and hospitality, and their willingness to talk to me so openly, and of course to South Bank University for allowing me to take paid sabbatical leave.


(ALIC, 2002) Advanced Learning Infrastructure Consortium Web site. []—valid on 20 Jan '02

(Arimoto, 2001) The Relationship Between Reforms in Higher Education in the Knowledge-Based Society and Globalisation, A. Arimoto, NIME 2001 International Symposium: "How Can IT Help Universities to Globalise?", held (31 Oct - 1 Nov) at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2001

(Azuma, 1999) Creating Educational Web Sites, J. Azuma, IEEE Communications, March 1999, pp. 109-113

(Blackboard, 2002) Blackboard's Web site. []-valid on 20 Jan '02

(Brumby, 2000) Clearing the Cyberstructure Pathways: A Post-Symposium Discussion, E. Brumby, NIME 1999 International Symposium: "Roadblocks on the Information Highway," held at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2000 []—valid on 20 Jan '02

(Bush, 2002) Sabbatical in Japan: Collected Visit Reports, M. Bush, South Bank University Technical Report SBU-CISM-02-01, 2002

(Jung, 2001) Promises and Challenges of Virtual Universities: Korea's Experience, I. Jung, NIME 2001 International Symposium: "How Can IT Help Universities to Globalise?", held (31 Oct - 1 Nov) at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2001

(Intrasai, 2001) Higher Education and Globalisation, J. Intrasai, NIME 2001 International Symposium: "How Can IT Help Universities to Globalise?", held (31 Oct - 1 Nov) at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2001

(OECD, 2001) OECD/Japan Seminar on E-Learning in Post-Secondary Education, held (5-6 June) at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2001 []—valid on 20 Jan '02

(Sakamoto, 2001) Trends and Issues of e-Learning in Japan, T. Sakamoto, 7th OECD/Japan Seminar on E-Learning in Post-Secondary Education, held (5-6 June) at the National Institute of Multimedia, Chiba, Japan, 2001

(SOI, 2002) School On the Internet project Web site. []—valid on 20 Jan '02

(WebCT, 2002) WebCT's Web site. []—valid on 20 Jan '02

(Yonezawa Tertiary & Baba, 1998) The Market Structure for Private Universities in Japan, Education & Management, vol.4 no.2, pp.145-152, 1998


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