What Online Education is, with particular reference to Japan

Published in the UK, Open Learning Systems News, Issue 77, pp. 54-55 (September 2001).

- based on a WAOE (World Association for Online Education) Views discussion list post -

Recently I was asked about Net education in Japan. Here are my thoughts on the field and its current state in Japan.

Internet educational technology is becoming another literacy that challenges and empowers scholars across all disciplines.

E-learning can take place online or offline with CD-ROMs and other electronic materials including those downloaded from the WWW to one's hard disk. Online education is associated with distance education but can work better when the teacher and students are together in a computer lab with each terminal connected to the Internet.

For educational programs there is both the open Web and password-protected Websites or Intranets accessible only to registrants. Using the latter, from which the open Web is also accessible for learning materials such as virtual libraries, institutions or individuals can set up and administrate low-cost virtual classes.

The beauty of Web-based approaches is the low cost and relative ease of HTML programming. Learning and teaching online is not beyond the ability of educated people, so it is becoming a medium of choice and a meeting place for the community of scholars worldwide. By contrast, high-cost technologies depend on all participants having similar hardware (such as digital video cameras), training and so on, so global development is probably furthered most by the relatively easy and level field played out on Web browsers.

Low-cost online classes can take two approaches, one of which is to cobble together various free services, such as synchronous MOO or Web chat rooms, asynchronous BBS or Web boards, plus the instructor's regular Website, setting up a syllabus, readings and links. Then there are integrated virtual learning environments that are password-protected, culminating in virtual universities. These environments can simulate most aspects of courses from registration to quizzes and monitoring the progress of students. The instructor basically fills in fields of a wizard at the designer interface, editing what appears at the students' interface on the Web.

The technology takes some training, which is available online, and considerable work is also required to design a student experience driven by pedagogy rather than technology or economics. It takes more time to teach a good online class than a face-to-face one, so the cost-saving initiatives of many administrators have been misguided. Diploma mills with names similar to famous universities have also become numerous amid illusory perceptions of the ease of teaching online.

Many universities use global technologies for their captive audience with everyone within commuting distance, whereas it would be an entirely different matter to market their online courses elsewhere. Or they find one or two partners in other countries and call their work international or global. Such collaboration remains a long process of building mutual understanding with intercultural sensitivity.

WebCT is a dominant name in the huge market for courseware, and Nagoya University has produced a Japanese language version. There are many other platforms, such as Blackboard. The World Association
for Online Education (WAOE) has used some free platforms and paid monthly fees for MetaCollege, which was developed at the University of California. Officers and members (WAOE is free) have experimented with various virtual learning environments and have set up their own online courses.

Incidentally, some of us have been participating in entirely online academic conferences since 1996, a great concept especially for those outside of North America, but still little utilized. Our NPO WAOE also conducts directors' meetings, annual members' meetings and elections as well as everyday communications entirely online. Officers are in about 12 countries and have never met offline.

The situation in Japan is a short history but still a long story, developing along the lines of existing traditions: correspondence education, national vs. private universities, where proprietary issues can be more important than which courseware works better. Teachers can seek permission and plan for the green light by learning about online education and practicing it para-institutionally while still conducting regular classes such as EFL if possible in a computer lab.

Collegially, Steve McCarty, Professor, Kagawa JC, Japan
President, World Association for Online Education (NPO)
Online Library: Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection