Japan is taking overdue steps to provide its students with relevant IT skills, Michael Fitzpatrick reports
Japan, as any Japanese education minister will tell you, has got it all wrong. Yes, Japan does have an enviable academic and economic record. However, business and government leaders are now demanding drastic changes in education and elsewhere to ensure Japan's survival in the coming "information century".
For a start, the Japanese will have to become more cyber-savvy than they are now, so the government is kickstarting computer-related education projects up and down the country and encouraging colleges to make more use of IT and the Internet.
Computers are still viewed with apprehension by managers and executives who are products of the ultra conservative postwar education process. Until recently, few Japanese used PCs or the Internet at home.
With a view to creating new, free-thinking, dynamic citizens who actually have ideas instead of just following orders, the high-tech Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC) was set up in 1990. The hope is to produce graduates with the skills necessary to stay ahead in an increasingly globalised, complex world. Part of Japan's richest and most highly regarded university, SFC has fused social sciences, natural sciences and humanities into a new field of policy management. Kimio Uno, a dean at the campus says: "Economists work closely with psychologists; international financiers inspire historians and political scientists hope to break new ground in policy analysis with the help of semioticians and computer scientists. What unites them is the drive to discover new issues and solutions to old problems."
The campus is fully networked, in this very un-Japanese pilot programme. Students are all online and can comment in real time on curriculum, content, and instruction quality.
"It is rare to find IT like this used in Japanese education, especially at a social science college such as ours," says Uno. "We consider network skills to be a fundamental requirement for students and we also emphasise language skills - there are ten language choices on campus."
The efforts to upgrade the 4,000 students' computer proficiency is impressive. All first-years buy laptops at a reduced price from the college. Homework is set and handed in online. Students are expected to create web pages in Japanese and a foreign language before the end of the first semester.
"Before they come to us the average computer skills are poor. It's not a widely used technology in Japanese schools. Generally, students have little experience of using PCs," says Uno.
"We have access to web pages in a classroom situation. And students can make a presentation in class using their web page if they want. Lecturers can call up information from their own home pages for a lecture. Online debate is also encouraged: students let their views be known about the quality of the food in the cafeteria, for instance."
SFC's approach to degree studies is proving popular. The campus gets ten applications for each place, but, like SFC undergraduate Yoshiaki Tada, successful applicants have to pay some of Japan's highest annual fees. Tada says it is worth it, however: "What makes SFC so unique is the powerful computer network and the curriculum of studies. The students are each given an account of 100MB to use for studies and are recommended to take computer programming classes. Most students have home pages to use for studies or just for fun."
Nearly half the students are women but a quick poll of the available 12,000 personal web sites (www.sfc. keio.ac.jp) shows that it is the boys who are more likely to make something of the new medium. Women students often content themselves with a picture of their pet and a Japanese-only introduction. Women are still not expected to be serious about university study in Japan so, not surprisingly, Japanese women still have a harder time in the job market after graduating. But a place at SFC, because it is a high status Keio college, means a better chance at finding work at a big-name company. However, SFC graduates are increasingly finding Japanese companies do not come up to their expectations, says Tada. "After graduation most students get a job at top-class companies but quit very quickly because of the gap between the ideal and reality," he says. "This is a big problem at SFC right now. The people who quit go on to a next job or decide to make their own company. I've started a design firm with a friend, for example."
Japanese companies still thrive on consensus decision making, strict hierarchy and subjection of the individual to the general good of the company. Graduates from SFC who have learnt the virtues of public debate, dissent and questioning of authority will not fit easily into an office where all faxes are placed on the boss's desk first and emails are seen as too "individualistic".