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Issue 9 July 2007   Friday, July 20, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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E-Learning support in Japan
Reflections on a recent visit to the National Institute of Multimedia Education
by Paul Bacsich

I spent an interesting week recently as the guest of the National Institute of Multimedia Education (NIME) in Japan, from 23-28 April 2007. NIME has a brief to provide e-learning advice and support to Japanese universities including to the Japanese Open University. Thus it is has some similarity to both JISC and the Higher Education Academy. It is currently a topic of some interest to see what are the differing arrangements for such support in various countries in Europe and beyond.

My host at NIME was Professor Toshio Kobayashi who is responsible for international liaison. Readers in the UK may remember Toshio from a study trip he and a colleague made last year where they spoke at various UK locations including London, Manchester and Sheffield. Toshio and I share a common interest in the recherchι topic of international studies of e-universities, especially failed ones, and this eventually led to my invitation for a study visit to NIME.

NIME (initially pronounced "Nee-May", but now more recently to rhyme with "time") is an interesting organisation with no direct UK analogue. First set up in 1978, it played a key role in servicing the learning and teaching research needs of the University of the Air in Japan (established 1981), but later in 2004 it became an independent agency under its current President, Dr Yasutaka Shimizu. It currently has about 50 staff.

NIME is at an interesting stage of development. It seems to have decisions to make about which way to evolve: back towards the University of the Air (now entering a period of rapid modernisation), as a semi-independent research lab (like the London Knowledge Lab or the Knowledge Media Institute), or as the distance e-learning R&D arm of the Japanese University system. Such dilemmas are familiar from some other countries.

NIME is based in the small town of Makuhari, around the bay from Tokyo and near the city of Chiba. It is an intriguing blend of a Milton Keynes type 'new city' towards the coast, with the 'old town' clustered round the two inland railway stations. I travelled out on Saturday 24 April, arriving on Sunday at Narita Airport.  At the recommendation of NIME, I stayed in their Guest House in Makuhari, rather than in a local hotel. My room was a studio flatlet, simply furnished in "western style" with all mod cons and conveniently on the NIME campus. I could not persuade the data socket to work but found an open wireless LAN run by the researchers – this served me very well all week except when occasionally the researchers fiddled with it. The rest of Sunday was a quiet dinner and relaxation. The Guest House seemed to have no English channels even though it had a satellite TV feed – my lifeline was my laptop which brought in the BBC World Service (and occasionally the Archers) loud and clear, almost without interruption.

I had a full working week at NIME. Most of the time was taken up with a programme of visits to senior staff, joint work with Toshio and his team, and as the week went on, increasing numbers of NIME staff just popping in. The week culminated in a seminar on Thursday afternoon to around 20 staff, followed by an hour of questions and then a reception in the early evening. I had given NIME a range of topics I could speak on, but they were most keen on the topic of benchmarking, so that is what I talked on. As well as benchmarking, the questions covered quality, international comparisons of e-learning (between Japan, Australia, UK etc), intellectual property and, to my surprise, many questions on the real reasons for the failure of UKeU (seemingly still of interest to the Japanese) and of the Interactive University. It was good that the seminar was on Thursday, as I spent most of Friday preparing a report answering in detail the questions raised.

I was fortunate to have an interview with the President of NIME, Dr Yasutaka Shimizu. His main interest was the issue of quality in e-learning – and it is clear from other documents that this is a current interest of the Ministry. I also had the opportunity to meet the outgoing President of the University of the Air, Dr Norihito Tambo. We talked about the regulatorily entrenched position of the University of the Air, and the issues of giving up their broadcast license as they move over to the Internet. I also met the incoming Vice-President Yoichi Okabe. It was clear from conversations with them both that the University of the Air was going to go through a period of change, moving from its focus on TV delivery and videoconferencing towards e-learning delivery and support – a path that most TV-led universities around the world have gone or are going down already. The alternate title 'Japan Open University' seemed to be used more and more – but apparently in English only.

Many readers will know about the Space Collaboration System of videoconferencing developed over many years by NIME and operational from 1996. It was a pleasure to meet Professor Kimio Kondo, the moving spirit behind this system, who has spoken on it from time to time in Europe. In a tour of one of the studios he told me about his ideas for ensuring that the system could in future link in terrestrial videoconferencing systems – and we pondered possible applications in the Pacific islands and in the Middle East and Africa.

There is not space to mention all the other staff I met, except to point in particular to Kumiko Aoki. She is the member of NIME with the strongest focus on benchmarking and is planning to work on US-Japan comparisons in this area. She is coming to the UK this summer to attend the 'Learning Together: Reshaping higher education in a global age' conference at the Institute of Education in July, and to make a few visits to universities active in e-learning.

One of the main reasons for my going to NIME was to gain a better understanding of what documentary information they held on global developments and on what was going on in Japan. I knew that NIME staff made many visits round the world, some under Japanese auspices, others for OECD and UNESCO, and had been to most of the open universities and many other universities active in e-learning. However, it seems that their reports produced are not only (not surprisingly) in Japanese but also focussed on more specific aspects, such as the need to foster departments of Japanese studies and encourage more students to come to Japan, rather than on analyses of e-learning. This was certainly the past situation, though I did get the impression that in the future the Japanese Ministry would be more focussed on studies of e-learning in other countries. In contrast, I did find that in 2005 and 2006 NIME had run two invitational conferences on "Quality Assurance of E-Learning in Higher Education", with some famous names from US, Australia, Korea and even the UK. The documents do not seem to be on the web – but I have asked if they can be mounted. In particular they provide good information on Korea and some updates on the regulatory situation in Japan.

It also seems to be the case that NIME do hold information on university e-learning developments in Japan. It would form a fascinating update to the Japan report by Quentin Thompson and his collaborators that we published for the Higher Education Academy in the e-University Compendium, which is I believe the most recent general information in English on Japan e-learning (unless readers know otherwise).

I did not lack for company at lunch or in the evenings and ate at many of the restaurants in the area. Much sushi was eaten – in versions and flavours I have not seen before. One night we went to the "pub" for a "salarymen evening" – but I have to say the pub was most unlike any English pub I have been in! I was also most honoured, on the Saturday before I left, to be invited to lunch with Toshio's family in Tokyo.

I flew back to the UK on early Sunday morning. It was a tiring week but one in which I made several new friends and gained a lot of new information.

History of NIME –
Toshio Kobayashi – (Many senior NIME staff have useful web sites.)
Japan report by Thompson et al –
Quality Assurance in E-Learning Symposium 2005 – (Proceedings not available online)
Quality Assurance in E-Learning Symposium 2006 – (Proceedings not available online)

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