Tap merits of classroom tech while avoiding downsides

The use of digital materials in the field of education has both advantages and challenges. It is hoped that efforts will be made to explore ways to use digital materials effectively in a role supplementary to printed materials, while examining their learning effectiveness on a long-term basis.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is set to introduce digital textbooks to teach English to students from the fifth grade of elementary school to the third year of junior high school in the 2024 academic year. This policy direction was presented and approved at a working group meeting of the ministry’s Central Council for Education on Thursday.

The ministry initially aimed for the full introduction of digital textbooks in the 2024 academic year, but now says that printed textbooks will be distributed for all subjects, and that the use of digital textbooks will be limited to English. Given that teachers have voiced concerns over the abolition of printed textbooks, this is a reasonable move.

Digitizing education has the merits of enabling people to use video, audio, search and other functions. It is also said to be effective for visually impaired and foreign children because digital devices can magnify text and indicate the phonetic readings of kanji.

Once digital textbooks are introduced to teach English, students can repeatedly listen to English conversations and the correct pronunciation of English words, and that is expected to help improve their listening and speaking skills.

On the other hand, a succession of researchers have released study findings showing that the content of digital materials is less likely to be retained in the memory than that of printed materials. At a meeting of the council, a professor from a U.S. graduate school said, “For analytical reading, the printed format is superior.”

Printed materials have the advantage of being usable at any time, regardless of the telecommunications environment. In the future, the ministry should try to achieve synergies by continuing to use paper textbooks as the base for learning, while also taking advantage of the merits of digital materials.

The ministry said it will also consider introducing digital textbooks for arithmetic and mathematics in the 2025 academic year or later, with which students can look at three-dimensional graphics on a screen. Textbook publishers are urged to advance the development of easy-to-use digital educational materials for subjects other than English, arithmetic and mathematics.

The introduction of digital textbooks has raised concerns from parents and others about health effects such as poor eyesight and bad posture.

In other countries, some schools have selected certain classes for the use of digital devices and limited their use in class to short periods of time. It is important to carefully consider appropriate ways to use digital devices while listening to the opinions of people in the field of school education.

Many students reportedly use their devices to play games and watch videos during class. Some students reportedly bring the devices home and use them for long periods of time for purposes other than learning. Measures to counter such issues are likely to be needed.

Digitization is a trend of the times, but digital devices are merely a tool to support children’s learning. The fundamentals of learning — reading, writing, thinking and applying knowledge on one’s own — will remain the same in the future.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 27, 2022)