A Japanese government scheme to drive digitalization in classrooms, accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, faces an uphill struggle, as an insufficient percentage of elementary and junior high school students are utilizing newly provided digital devices on a daily basis.

Teachers' lack of familiarity with the new technology, which has been supplied by the central government under the GIGA school program, is creating a challenging situation, with faculty not fully trained to put it to proper use. Only about 30 percent of all of the students use the devices daily, with wide variation among schools.

Teachers undergo a digital training session at Toyoda Elementary School in Kumamoto on Dec. 12, 2023. (Kyodo)

Progress has been mixed in municipalities across Japan concerning their training of teachers to achieve the objectives of GIGA, or Global and Innovation Gateway for All, an initiative aimed at providing "one device for each student with a high-speed network."

As an example of how local governments are tackling the issue, the Kumamoto City Education Center held a session to provide digital training to teachers at Toyoda Elementary School in December.

During the session, Mihoko Arakawa, a 47-year-old supervisor from the education center, instructed more than a dozen teachers who were role-playing as students using tablets in a classroom.

Mihoko Arakawa, chief instructor at Kumamoto City Education Center, sits for an interview in Kumamoto on Dec. 12, 2023. (Kyodo)

She had the teachers create their own stories with animation effects. They made slides featuring handwritten drawings, which they downloaded onto their tablets and showed to each other. Some were puzzled over how their colleagues were able to create slides using the tablets or took an interest in others' work.

Noriyuki Matsuo, 54, who teaches science at the school, said he would use tablets in his class "as a new teaching tool," saying he expects that the devices will help children in their ability to express themselves more thoroughly.

Others such as Tomomi Shimokawa, 44, who has just resumed her job as a school teacher after years of child-rearing, said, "I sometimes get bewildered with digital reform and struggle to keep up," even though she is well aware of technology's importance.

Many teachers still prioritize the use of notebooks, pencils and other analog writing materials in their classes, arguing that tablets are "less likely to leave a lasting impression" on their students.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which promotes the GIGA school concept, is aiming to partially cover the costs for local governments to form and operate "GIGA School Operation Support Centers" in order to bolster the use of digital devices.

Through cutting-edge information and communication technology, the hope is teachers will also be able to firmly establish interactive lessons to accommodate a variety of students based on their educational needs and understanding.

Mihoko Arakawa (L) shows a teacher how to use a tablet in Kumamoto on Dec. 12, 2023. (Kyodo)
A teacher (far L) shows slides he created with a tablet in Kumamoto on Dec. 12, 2023. (Kyodo)

According to the education ministry's survey, some 70 percent of public school teachers across Japan received digital training in fiscal 2022.

By prefecture, Wakayama logged the highest ratio of 95 percent, while there were prefectures with ratios of 50 to 60 percent. Since fiscal 2023, the Kyoto Prefectural Board of Education has made it mandatory that all teachers at prefectural junior and senior high schools and special-needs schools receive digital training.

Teachers undergo training using tablets in Kumamoto in December 2023. (Kyodo)

Another education ministry survey conducted in fiscal 2023 found that only 28.4 percent of all sixth graders in Japan had used digital devices "almost every day" in classes during the first five years at elementary school. The finding shows that the disparity in familiarity with digital instruments is widening among teachers, said an official in charge at the Kyoto education board.

Kazunori Sato, an associate professor of educational technology at Shinshu University, said enabling teachers to continue using digital devices will "depend on whether they realize that they can make their work more efficient and improve their working conditions thanks to the use of the technology." He stressed that there is still a need for ongoing digital training among teachers.

He also noted that it would be good to have a "companion," such as a technology advisor at the school or municipal level who can think about how best to utilize the terminals in classrooms together with the teachers and their students.

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