COVID has spurred digitalization – but test preparation continues to set the pace

Under a state of emergency that still allows for some public events amid the pandemic, STEAM Education Expo is being held concurrently with the 12th EDIX (Educational IT Solutions Expo), Japan’s biggest EdTech show. In futuristic Odaiba, overlooking Tokyo Bay, its steady flow of visitors proves the growing demand for new tools in this field.

steam-in-japan

So what are the latest challenges in Japanese educational technology?

Let us walk the exhibit hall and take the pulse.

Launching 1-to-1 nationwide

While school closures last year were much shorter in Japan than in other countries, national authorities were confronted with the urgent need for online learning strategies, which were almost nonexistent despite Japan’s fame as a tech giant. Since then, paper-based classrooms have started experiencing the “next-generation infrastructure” that had been announced but not implemented before 2020.

For them, as well as for EdTech companies, the focus is on GIGA School (Global and Innovation Gateway for All), the official program handing out a mobile device to each student and advancing new modes of learning, with clear opportunities for STEAM projects. As fear of school closures persists, the Ministry of Education highlights that GIGA School, run on a budget of over 4bn US dollars, has made classrooms across the country ready to start e-learning immediately.

However, effective teacher training will take much longer and, for meaningful tech integration, special attention should be paid to active learning, too often preached but not practised.

STEAM and STREAM gaining traction

With the new infrastructure in place and a growing EdTech sector, a few private schools are taking the lead and expanding the acronym to STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts and Math). For them, there is an array of learning kits with sensors. In fact, in the land of robotics, some prefer androids to human partners even in English speaking activities, arguing that robots help Japanese students overcome shyness.

Unfortunately, effective communication and engagement are still seen as secondary to rote-learning for standardized tests, crushing the innovative power of many new initiatives. But STEAM remains a true opportunity to leverage creativity and hands-on learning, provided that it sets itself free from exam-focused models.

And when it comes to creativity, especially in East Asian countries where the divide is deep between liberal arts and science, art teachers should be called to action so that they start joining STEAM projects. In this regard, collaboration should not merely serve the acquisition of science contents but enhance the role of artistic disciplines so that they also become agents of change.

Making sense of digital transformation

The pandemic has certainly been a catalyst for digital solutions. However, EdTech tools focusing on rote learning are still around, as developers find it too difficult to knock down the test-prep culture. At the same time, policymakers commend active learning, collaboration and problem-solving skills for a fast-changing society, but can those policies achieve real innovation or will they remain superficial? The future of both EdTech and new modes of learning in Japan and other Asian nations may hinge on the true effect of reforms in that direction.

Meanwhile, sparks of change can be noticed in sectors pushing for alternatives to standardization, along with inclusion and social diversity, which are part of the recent “Japanese-style school education” proposed by the Ministry of Education. In that context, new approaches to STEAM subjects, including the arts, may be one of the keys to unlocking the full potential of EdTech in Japan. 

About the Author
Author: Alan Gazzano
An Argentinian teacher and researcher specializing in arts education and technology, Alan moved from Buenos Aires to Yokohama in 2017, after receiving a scholarship from Japan’s Ministry of Education. A multilingual, avid reader, he has been studying and translating the Japanese language with inexplicable passion for many years.

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