Students miss out as few universities resume full in-person classes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Students at Kansai University attend a class in person — leaving a space between them — on Dec. 1 in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.

Less than 40% of the nation’s universities have fully resumed in-person classes in the current semester. While the number providing mostly face-to-face classes has increased compared to last year, there are still many students who have none, depending on their department or year.

Many are feeling isolated, and universities are looking for ways to provide classes and a campus life as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Mostly online classes

A female sophomore at Chuo University has 12 classes per week, but only two are in-person. The others are provided in video format or other methods.

Taking the remote classes in her home in Kanagawa Prefecture, she finds it difficult to maintain her concentration. Some students participate in class discussions without appearing on the screen.

The woman set foot on campus about 10 times during her freshman year. “In elementary, junior high and high school, all of my classes were in-person,” she said with a sigh. “Now half of my university life has passed with hardly meeting anyone or having anything exciting happen.”

According to nationwide surveys of universities conducted by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry on their classroom policies, the number saying they wanted to fully resume in-person classes increased from 19% in September last year to 36% in March, but remained at 36% in October.

In September last year, 25% of the universities said that they planned to hold in-person lectures for “about 70%” or “80% or more” of classes, while also conducting remote classes. That percentage increased to 47% in March and was repeated in October.

All of the surveys were conducted after the lifting of a state of emergency, and a subsequent surge in infections led some universities to reduce in-person classes.

Even at universities with a majority of in-person classes, those were mainly oriented to science departments that require experiments, practical skills and hands-on training, as well as classes for freshmen. There are many students of some departments who have extremely few opportunities to go to the campus.

Among reasons for the low number of in-person classes, an official of the University of Tokyo said, “The future remains unclear, and it is difficult to make an appropriate decision based solely on the current infection situation.” A Keio University official said, “We’re keeping the number of students at about half of classroom capacity.”

Akita International University, which aims to completely resume face-to-face classes next spring, cited the impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus for possibly taking a more cautious approach to opening up classes.

Missing campus life

Campus life, including clubs and interaction with other students, provides the seeds for student growth.

But according to the education ministry survey, as many as 33% of universities have restricted the use of their facilities. Against the backdrop of continued introduction of remote classes, there are cases of students feeling increasingly isolated.

The number of students taking a leave of absence from school for pandemic-related reasons soared to 4,418 as of the end of August, an increase of 70% from 2,677 the previous year, according to the ministry.

A male sophomore at the University of Tokyo currently has no in-person classes. Up to this autumn, he took classes remotely from his home in the Tokai region, which made it difficult for him to make friends.

The University of Tokyo, where 30% of classes are being held in-person, has set up a counseling service for stressed-out students. When necessary, it contacts faculty members in charge of students and family members to ask them to help support the students.

A certain number of students and faculty members actually prefer remote classes, which is being seen as one of the roadblocks to full resumption of in-person classes.

According to the ministry survey of students in March this year, less than 60% answered that they were “satisfied” with remote classes. When asked the good points, many responded “I can take classes at my own pace/in the place of my choice.” One student at a national university even said, “I could take classes at an amusement park,” a sign that not everyone feels tension over the situation.

“Some university faculty members are in advanced years and are reluctant to teach in-person because of the risk of infection,” said a professor at a private university.

Depth of understanding

Kansai University has some remote classes of 250 or more students, but 80% of its classes are conducted in-person. The university takes thorough countermeasures, such as the use of a large number of partitions, and has reported no cases of infection transmitted in classrooms.

When the university queried faculty members in October on their level of satisfaction with student learning outcomes by class format, 91% said in-person classes were the most satisfactory.

Kansai Prof. Tsuyoshi Yamada, who specializes in the development of higher education, said that taking into consideration personal growth during adolescence, classes should be based on face-to-face interaction.

Yamada said the method should take into account the characteristics of online learning. For example, recorded lectures can be viewed at any time, but the learning effect varies depending on whether students are motivated or not. Remote classes can enable interactive learning, but also make it difficult for teachers to keep track of how the lessons are received.

Universities are also coming up with ways to add depth to remote classes by taking advantage of what online technology can offer. This includes having students use videos as prep for or review of lectures, to be discussed with each other when they meet face-to face. Or, in cases of large classes, encouraging lively debate through use of the chat function.

“It is important to make use of information technology, verify the educational effects of face-to-face and remote learning, skillfully combine the two formats, and share examples of successful cases both inside and outside the university,” said Kyoto University Prof. Hiroaki Ogata, who specializes in education and information science.