Universities feel their way online amid coronavirus epidemic

The Japan News / Yomiuri Shimbun
April 26, 2020


From the article:

Universities that have closed in response to the state of emergency declared to contain the spread of the new coronavirus are rapidly preparing to conduct classes online. Yet many issues must be dealt with in order to do so, including the financial burden on students of communication costs, teachers’ skill in conducting classes online, and the safety of teleconferencing software.

Makiko Kishi, a 42-year-old associate professor at Meiji University’s School of Global Japanese Studies, held an online seminar using the U.S.-developed teleconferencing software Zoom on April 8. Kishi told her students from her home, “You can write your impressions and reactions [to the classwork] freely in the chat box.”

Her university is scheduled to start its online classes on May 7. Prior to the start, she exchanged ideas with her students on April 8 on how to create a class where they can deepen their understanding of the subject.

Several hundred students can take part in a class online via Zoom, exchanging video, audio and short messages called “chats.”

Students’ reactions were diverse. Misuzu Uchida, 21, said, “At a teleconference, it’s difficult to see the responses of others, so I feel uneasy. I like real classes better.”

Haruka Toyoura, 22, said: “I’m not good at speaking in front of a large number of people. I like teleconferences, where we can express our opinions in the chat box.”

Kishi noted that “unless a teacher indicates the flow and the objective of the class, and has students’ opinions and responses sent back in the chat box, the class could end up being a one-way lesson.”

There are other formats for conducting online classes: for example, students downloading educational materials from a private-use site, or universities distributing videos of lectures to students.

Taking part in a teleconference requires a high-speed communication system. “Some students may go over their limit for transmission and became unable to take part in classes,” worried Sho Muto, 20, a student at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Hosei University.

Muto lives alone in Tokyo. He rents a mobile router for a monthly charge of about ¥4,000. If his transmission volume exceeds 10 gigabytes over a three-day period, he can no longer use high-speed communications.

He had an online study meeting for 4½ hours earlier this month with friends who, like him, are aiming to become an announcer, and the volume of data transmission for that session was about 4 gigabytes.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry on April 3 asked telecom business operators to reduce the financial burden of telecommunications on students. NTT DOCOMO Inc.; KDDI Corp., which offers network services under the au brand name; and SoftBank Corp. have come up with measures to support students, letting them continue to use their services even if they exceed their limit by up to 50 gigabytes with no additional charge.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has included ¥2.7 billion in the supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 as funds to support universities that move ahead with online classes, but the telecommunication expenses are nonetheless borne by students themselves. On April 6, the ministry notified colleges and universities across the country that they should limit the volume of transmissions by reducing the use of web-conferencing for classwork and preparing low-capacity educational materials.

Rikkyo University, which will start online classes on April 30, held a training session for its teaching staff using Zoom on April 6. Forty percent of the about 200 participants said they were using the teleconferencing software for the first time.

“Depending on the circumstances, our classes may remain online during the autumn semester, too. We have to brace ourselves for this and make preparations accordingly,” said Kazunori Yamaguchi, dean of the College of Business at the university.

At Ritsumeikan University, there was heavy access to its website from the morning of April 6, the day the university started its online classes. It was temporarily difficult to connect to the website that day. Later the university was closed and the faculty staff members meant to support online classes were forced to stay at home, so online classes were postponed till May 7.

Zoom is fast gaining popularity for conducting online classes, but problems in terms of security have been pointed out.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said in March it had received a report from a high school saying that while a teacher was conducting an online class using Zoom, an unidentified individual(s) dialed into the classroom, yelling profanity and shouting the teacher’s home address in the middle of the instruction.

According to multiple media, including CNN, education authorities of the City of New York instructed schools in the city to stop using Zoom for online classes due to security concerns. Taiwan authorities also ban the use of the software for public duties.

In Japan, too, there have been reports of teleconferences being disturbed. Regarding Zoom and other teleconferencing software, the National center of Incident readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC) calls on users to sufficiently examine the risks involved before adopting such systems, and to consider possible countermeasures.

“It’s difficult to conduct online classes using plenty of video, which would involve high communication costs,” an official at a private university in Saitama Prefecture said in a worried manner. “Although relevant manuals for teaching staff are needed, our campus has been closed, and communications among our faculty staff members and teachers have not been proceeding well. We’re also concerned about the teleconferencing software in terms of security, and we don’t know which system is safe.”