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Computers to the fore in digital revolution

Japan. The home of high-tech hardware has been slow to introduce it in schools, but changes are in store, reports Michael Fitzpatrick

Japanese leaders are demanding a new education system and they want computer-savvy future citizens. Realistic demands, you may think, in a country famous for producing much of the hardware that goes with the digital revolution. But the reality is that Japan has been woefully behind the rest of the world in computer and Internet use, even in schools, until very recently.

Makuhari Sohgoh Senior High School, which opened last year on the outskirts of Tokyo, is expected to be the first of many schools that will drag Japanese education into the 21st century.

Makuhari, a result of a merger of three public schools in Chiba prefecture, is unusual in Japan not only for its scale - it has 2,200 pupils - but also for its technological resources and its diversity of choice. The school attracts the envious attentions of Japan's many private schools; so much so that the government has made it a showcase of what it hopes to achieve in its crash course in drastic social change.

The most radical departure from the national norm is its choice of a comprehensive elective system - almost unheard of in Japan, says the school's vice-principal, Tetsuro Kobayashi.

"I don't know about the Western system, but in Japan the comprehensive elective system is highly unusual. Students can choose their elective classes, according to their interests and career plans, from among 200 classes and 18 subjects including Chinese, French, music composition and drama. Students can choose 10 per cent of the classes they take in the first year, 50 per cent in the second and 90 per cent in the third year, excluding PE which is compulsory." In line with Japan's recent boom in computerised communication the school utilises the latest in smart building technology and IT hardware. Teachers even carry lap-tops.

"A computerised communications network is installed in the school building, " says Mr Kobayashi. "And each teacher uses a lap-top computer with which they enter students' grades. Student attendance is checked through an ID card. " The cards are inserted in a machine in each classroom before the start of each lesson. The machine creates attendance records for each pupil and counts the number in each class.

The cards can also be used on other devices throughout the building where a swipe on a touch-panel will reveal a student's grades and other statistics. The same screens are linked to a network that allows the students to leave on-line messages for fellow students or their teachers, or search a database with information on the school and its staff.

"Other high-tech facilities include cable TV in all of the 54 classrooms, overhead video monitors that display announcements from the school and an ultra-modern computer room that looks like a UFO," says Mr Kobayashi.

The egg-shaped computer classroom is suspended from the main atrium of the 17 billion yen (nearly Pounds 83million) school, which also boasts five grand pianos and an indoor swimming pool. But with just 40 computers between the 2,200 students there is no great emphasis on computer studies and it hasn't yet joined the rush by other schools to create an Internet link and website.

The intention, explains Mr Kobayashi, was not to prioritise the use of IT facilities in learning, but rather to create an experiment where pupils could experience a more modern style of education.

"Our school is unconventional in that we emphasise independence and communication and co-operation," he says. "We hope students will develop their survival ability through education. We aim to develop all of our students' abilities and talents and improve upon their power to think, judge and behave for themselves."

This is a far cry from traditional methods of education in Japan where the unwritten school motto is usually: "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down."

The school is popular, too. So great is the competition for places that only one in five students could be admitted on recommendation by their junior high schools last year. The figure is one in two for those who take the entrance exam.

"Although it takes me over an hour to get here, I chose this school because it has many courses and I can study what I like," says 15-year-old Chisako Muramatsu.

By Japanese standards it is a very large school and so students come from a very wide area. It also has a relatively low pupil:teacher ratio with 150 teachers and an averageclass size of 40. However, some teachers complain that the sheer size of the school makes it a difficult environment in which to work.

Makuhari Sohgoh is one of 45 new "comprehensive high schools" across Japan that offer a broader curriculum choice and allow students to select their coursework. The schools were created in response to a call by politicians and business leaders to transform Japanese education and thereby create a more dynamic workforce.

The conventional Japanese system of students learning by rote is now considered a major obstacle to Japan maintaining its edge in a global economy. Some opinion-leaders are going as far as to say that Japan's antiquated education system is responsible for its present economic woes, even though the country is consistently placed at the top of international education comparisons.

Part of the revitalisation plan means more computers in the classroom, according to Japan's education ministry (Monbusho).

"Along with cultivating in elementary and junior school students the abilities necessary for coping in an increasingly information oriented society, Monbusho is responding to the spread of information by enlivening the school educational scene through the use of information resources such as computers," says a spokesman.

In order to accomplish this, Monbusho says it is working towards systematically installing computers designed for school use, providing and improving software, and providing teachers with opportunities for training and research. In addition, multimedia and communication networks are being used for developmental research in the area of two-way instruction carried out via fibre optic cable networks and communication satellites.

Only a year ago, it seemed as if Japan was going to miss out on the global communications boom - now one in three high-school girls carries a mobile phone and Japan has shot up from 12th place in terms of Internet use to second in the space of two years. The education system can look forward to a similar shake-up.

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