Carefully examine use, impact of digital educational materials

Some people in the field of education have voiced concerns about the digitization of textbooks. Before work is accelerated to spread the use of digital textbooks, efforts must be made to dispel these concerns by carefully examining the effects of and issues related to digital educational materials.

The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed the governments of cities nationwide and the 23 wards in Tokyo with jurisdiction over public elementary and junior high schools. According to the survey, 86% of the governments said they were “greatly” or “slightly” concerned about the introduction of digital textbooks, while 7% expressed no concerns.

A panel of experts at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has urged the government to look into the effects and issues of digital materials for one year over the new academic year, and to seek the full-fledged introduction of digital textbooks in the 2024 school year.

However, in the survey, 40% of the governments said “more than three years” were needed for examining the effects and issues. As issues to be examined, many respondents cited the level of children’s “understanding and retention of learning,” “teachers’ teaching skills in ICT (information and communications technology)” and “the telecommunications environment both inside and outside schools.”

Children’s understanding and retention of learning affects the foundation of education. If children’s academic abilities decline as a result of hastily moving forward with digitization, the harm would be irrevocable. Examining the effects and issues should be carried out thoroughly, without setting the time period at one year.

A University of Tokyo team has released research results suggesting that the use of paper is more helpful for people to retain memories, based on an experiment in which participants recorded their schedules by hand in a planner and on tablets and smartphones. The team said the findings show the effectiveness of learning using printed textbooks and notebooks.

A succession of studies have been published in Japan and overseas showing that paper is superior to digital devices in terms of memory retention and deep understanding. In the survey, some governments also said that paper materials allow people to read thoroughly and improve their ability to read and think, while others said such materials are easy to handle and help people concentrate on learning.

Digitization is an urgent task in the administrative and business sectors, where efficient operations and more convenient services are being sought. For children’s learning, however, it is desirable to use paper as the base and digital elements as supplementary educational materials.

Education minister Koichi Hagiuda has stated the intention to test the use of digital materials with an eye on the combined use of printed and digital textbooks, saying, “Fully shifting [to digital textbooks] by the 2024 school year is not a prerequisite.”

Digitization also enables the use of audio and video materials, which can help students with reading and writing difficulties to learn. It is hoped that as it proceeds with the trial use of digital materials, the ministry will work with textbook publishers and other entities to consider the best possible ways to use such tools.

Improving the teaching skills of teachers is also crucial. Training in digital teaching methods must be enhanced.

Local governments with a weak financial basis have not been able to make progress in training teachers and securing ICT support staff to handle problems related to digital devices. The ministry needs to pay due attention, in order to prevent the introduction of digital textbooks from resulting in educational disparities.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 29, 2021.