EDITORIAL: Quality learning must be at the center of the expansion of online university courses

The government plans to relax the upper limit on the number of credits students can take in online courses.

The Ministry of Education is considering this step with a view to introducing the regulatory change in the fiscal year that begins in April 2023.

In an age where everything is online, expanding the use of information technology is inevitable.

But to ensure effective and beneficial use of information technology in education, teachers and students must understand both the advantages and disadvantages of online learning and make constant efforts to improve.

Needless to say, the proposed relaxation of regulations for online college courses must be done without harming the quality of teaching.

Online courses were widely introduced in Japan in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The biggest advantage of distance learning over the traditional face-to-face approach is that it allows students to take classes anytime and anywhere and easily connect even with universities and foreign students.

Currently, students are only allowed to take up to 60 credits, of the 124 required for graduation, through online courses. At a meeting on January 16, the Ministry of Education’s Central Board of Education essentially approved the proposal to remove the cap under certain conditions.

The Ministry will determine the specific criteria that establishments must meet to benefit from this measure. He intends to avoid setting the bar high so that the benefits of online learning are not diminished.

But there is also a downside to online learning. The quality levels of online college courses vary widely.

There have been reports of how video conferencing and other online technologies have led to closer communication between teachers and students and improved academic performance for learners. But opposite effects have been observed in some cases.

Many students have complained of mental and physical health issues due to their dissatisfaction with online classes and the stress of not being able to communicate face-to-face with classmates and friends.

It is also essential to improve the system to provide care for students who are struggling to adapt to online learning.

A recently uncovered case of attendance cheating involving around 100 Waseda University students highlighted the challenges faced by schools offering online courses.

The University of Tokyo has decided to fail about 100 students at its business school for taking a shortcut in an online course by broadcasting video lectures at home simultaneously instead of one by one.

These students abused the advantage of being able to access the course whenever they wanted. Their cheating was discovered by a computer-savvy instructor who checked the replay history. But some experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg as no such checks are carried out in many cases.

The Central Board of Education is also considering the proposal to relax accreditation standards for academic staff to make it easier for universities to open new faculties and departments in response to changing societal needs.

This regulatory review also raises concerns about a possible decline in the quality of higher education. Some universities, for example, might be tempted to reduce the number of professors and other full-time teaching positions and instead hire part-time instructors to teach classes to reduce staffing costs.

If relaxed staffing standards are widely abused for such cost-cutting efforts, this measure would only do more harm than good.

There has been a growing erosion of academia’s credibility due to a series of scandals that have plagued universities, including an alleged tax evasion involving a former chairman of Nihon University’s board of trustees.

It is essential to take the necessary measures to ensure that the proposed relaxation of regulations will not have adverse effects.

–The Asahi Shimbun, February 20

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