My earliest encounter with the wonder of Japanese technology was at the British Museum in 1991. I was 9 years old. The “Japan exhibition” showing at that time featured a robot that could paint a naturalistic portrait of a human subject. Exhibition staff orchestrated a mini lottery to see which attendee would be the lucky subject for a demonstration of the robot’s skills. I drew the long straw, and my preconception of Japan being a country full of androids, conveyor-belt pavements, and talking cars was reaffirmed.
The cold dash of reality came when I arrived in Japan in 2006 to start teaching English at an eikaiwa (conversation) school. I was surprised to discover that cassette tapes were still being utilized for the majority of the listening activities we conducted in classes. I remember spending a considerable amount of time before lessons ‘cuing up’ cassette tapes to the correct part of the audio track. One teacher become known for his impression of “being electrocuted” during kids’ lessons, when he rewound cassette tapes and they made that high pitched reversed squealing noise. The kids loved his tomfoolery, but even he couldn’t hide the fact that the technology wasn’t exactly cutting edge. Far from it – it was almost 20 years since CDs, and 10 years since MP3s, had become mainstream technology.
After working at the eikaiwa school for a few years, I moved into university teaching. Perhaps things would be different, I thought. Perhaps all the best cutting edge technology had been preserved for Japanese higher education institutions. However, as we shall see, this was not necessarily the case.
Availability of computer technology in Higher Education institutions
I have taught at five universities in Japan, which, for the purposes of this article, I’ll creatively call University ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’. Below are the technological facilities that were provided to the English teaching staff and students at each institution:
University A: one outdated laptop for the use of four full-time native-speaker English teachers. The laptop was not connected to a printer, and network connectivity was sporadic.
University B: no computers for the use of part-time English teaching staff. Two computer rooms were available for computer-based English lessons. However, due to “security concerns”, the university did not provide teachers with log-in credentials for use with these computers.
University C: one outdated computer for the use of the whole part-time teacher department. Two computer rooms for computer-based English lessons. Log-in credentials provided. Unfortunately, most web-technologies (including Flash) were not available on the computers, due either to draconian anti-virus measures, outdated browsers, or both.
University D: no computers for part-time English teaching staff. No computer rooms available for computer-based English lessons.
University E: relatively up-to-date computers provided to all part-time English teaching staff, two computer rooms available for computer-based English lessons; a computer in every classroom.
As we can see, with the possible exception of ‘University E’, the situation with regard to the availability of technology to English teachers and learners in Japanese higher education institutions is far from the technological utopia that the typical image of Japan suggests. The disparity between the vision and the reality tends to come down to three main issues: the problem of the upgrade cycle, the problem of virus protection and the problem of hardware accessories.
The problem of the upgrade cycle
The technology, where it is available, tends to be at least 3 to 5 years out of date. This situation is perhaps understandable when we consider the finances involved. Because technology advances so rapidly, it’s easy for whole institutions to get left behind, and very expensive for them to stay ahead of the curve. However, although it would clearly cost a lot of money to buy a room full of new computers, it might cost more in the long run to support a room full of old computers, not to mention the educational cost of missing out on the learning opportunities provided by the latest and greatest technologies.
The problem of virus protection
In my experience, universities in Japan tend to adopt somewhat draconian anti-virus measures, ranging from a reluctance to provide log-in details to teachers (see University B, above) to limiting what programs can be installed on computers.
Again, this is understandable in some respects. Viruses can and do infect computer networks, and can hide inside files downloaded from the internet (especially executables) so it makes sense to restrict which programs can be installed on institutional computers. However, when it gets to the stage that anti-virus measures actually make computer systems just as unusable as they would be if infected with a virus, surely it’s time to rethink this strategy?
The problem of hardware accessories
Oftentimes Japanese university computer facilities lack essential hardware accessories, such as microphones and headphones. Many of the most popular and innovative websites for English learning at the moment, such as English Central, Cambridge English Online, English Listening Lesson Library and Rhinospike require up-to-date computers with Flash installed and headphones or microphones connected.
Unless things change, many educational institutions in Japan will continue to use yesterday’s technology today, and today’s technology tomorrow. They will continue to reduce the usefulness of the computers that are available with overzealous anti-virus measures, and neglect to provide the appropriate hardware accessories for the best Web 2.0 English learning sites.
Let’s hope that things do change.
They already are at some institutions. I heard from a colleague recently that he had successfully convinced the management of his university to purchase iPads for the use of an entire class of students. Of course, it’s a huge financial outlay, but it’s also a huge educational boon, especially if the right techniques, ideas, products and services are adopted.