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A digital twist on Japanese universities: "Many of us expected to have our worst semesters online"

The arrival of autumn in Tokyo's Hongo neighborhood promises the yellowish leaves of the ginkgo trees and a great Number of students. As if awakening from a slumber, the resumption of classes at the University of Tokyo breathes new life into its main campus. Students and teachers return in droves, collectively forming a vibrant intellectual community. And yet this year, the promise of autumn for universities is uncertain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the start of a conventional fall period, as transmission risks related to campus life, from large lecture courses to nomikai (drinking parties) , have led schools across Japan to conduct classes partially or entirely online and restrict access to the campus. Although life for many in Tokyo remains (for the most part) normal, universities are an exception.

Regardless of the scheme or contours of academic life promulgated by each university, college or department, the professors – the promoters of university education – work tirelessly behind the scenes. Many must work harder to maintain the same level of education, transforming into video creators, technology gurus, and mentors of the pandemic era, all while providing compassion and care to their students. Its challenges are manifold, as the already difficult task of teaching, whether in person, online or hybrid, is compounded by international students stranded abroad.

"Our guiding principle, even during this situation, is to try to make it possible for students to continue learning, wherever they are," says Shion Kono, associate professor of literature at Sophia University. In Sophia, as in the spring, most of this fall's classes will be held online; Kono and some of his colleagues have already developed a set of tools for web-based learning.

This is not to say that the transition to online learning has not worn down teachers, and the absence of face-to-face interactions and face-to-face classes have altered the college experience for students and teachers alike. The emergence of "zoom fatigue," or the drowsiness and malaise that arise after long hours of on-screen classes, has added another level of difficulty to a lifeless college education on campus.

Evolving Education: While some colleges are cautiously reopening, in many others virtual office hours, recorded lectures, and Zoom classes will be the norm. | SPENCER COHEN

Professor Yujin Yaguchi of the University of Tokyo, who plans to continue primarily online learning this fall, says that "to form a community you need some physical interaction "and noted that the success of online learning is, in part, dependent on the foundation of an established face-to-face contact relationship. As president of the junior division of the university programs in English at Komaba (PEAK), Yaguchi expresses a particular concern for the integration of the program's first-year students, many of whom are international students, into the university community. Unlike most other college freshmen, PEAK students begin their higher education careers in the fall, rather than the typical beginning of April.

However, Yaguchi, as well as other professors, have praised facets of online education. Zoom, he says, is a medium that "(defies) the challenge of physical placement and makes it possible to have more diverse students." For example, Hiroshi Ohta, a professor at Waseda University's School of International Liberal Studies, taught a student from South Korea in the spring, something that would not have been possible without the switch to online courses.

"Quality education can be delivered online," explains Matthew Strecher, a professor of modern Japanese literature at Sophia University, who says it draws on the energy of classroom teaching. “Many of us doubted it and expected to have our worst semesters online. I had a great semester. We all came out of this with a new set of skills. ”

The success of this fall will depend, in part, on the ingenuity of teachers to find creative ways to circumvent the limitations of online education. This past spring, Christopher Pokarier from Waseda University set about creating YouTube videos, shot in Tokyo, for his Introduction to Business and Corporate Communications Design classes. In one clip, Pokarier stands at the gate of Akasaka Palace in Tokyo and emerges from a guard tower, before launching into a conference on asset protection. "From the transformation of teachers into" effective digital content creators for a full semester, "something that may continue long after the pandemic subsides. Waseda will remain "predominantly virtual" in the fall, and Pokarier expects virtual office hours, recorded lectures, and Zoom classes to be the norm.

Some schools, however, plan to reopen cautiously, with classes offered in a hybrid – both online and in-person – model. Matthew Fukushima, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Toyo University, notes that, like other teaching assistants, he was offered the option of working in person or remotely in the upcoming term. While it has opted for distance work, Fukushima says the university has stipulated precautions, such as limiting the size of face-to-face classes to a maximum of 99 students and regulating the days each faculty can teach on campus, for those attending -course work per person. Students must also scan a QR code on their seat or record their seat number in each class.

But that doesn't mean that everyone returns voluntarily. A professor at a small university on the outskirts of Tokyo, who asked to remain anonymous, explains how professors have been pressured to return to weekly face-to-face classes, despite their own scruples and concerns, saying that it is "a measure to get students back to school. ”

Unlike in the United States, where many of the trials and tribulations of resuming college education in person emanate much of residential campus life, Including dormitories on or near campus, the difficulties are somewhat divergent in Japan. As the anonymous professor points out, the faculty and administration must move to campus, knowing that the students themselves "have come straight from the train" or from jobs on time partial across the city.

And yet the non-residential nature of Japanese university education has allowed for a more fluid adoption of the app. Landing the Pandemic Era. University life is yet to fully return, but the community has remained active and prosperous, albeit largely online, a feat that would not have been possible even a few years ago.


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