ICAS Insights – Atsuko Kashiwagi

Atsuko Kashiwagi – How COVID-19 will change the international programs at Showa Women’s University

May 2020

Showa Women’s University (SWU) is committed to fostering opportunities for international education. In this essay SWU Professor Kashiwagi discusses the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents and the possibilities it provides for education in these unprecedented times.

How COVID-19 will change the international programs at Showa Women’s University

To say Japan’s higher education system has been affected by COVID-19 would be a vast understatement. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), as of April 23rd, 88.7% of the nation’s universities and colleges had postponed the start of the spring term; 98.7% of them had either shifted to online teaching or were studying the possibility of going online. This sudden, forced departure from the conventional face-to-face classroom environment poses a huge challenge in a country where many teachers still prefer more traditional modes of instruction.

Having to adapt to a novel teaching style, of course, is not the only challenge Japan’s higher education faces. Almost all the study abroad programs, regardless of their duration, have been cancelled or postponed. Those students who were already abroad were hastily called back to Japan with no definite hope of resuming their overseas programs. The School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University, which has a one-year study abroad requirement for graduation, announced a special provision under which those who were forced to cut short their overseas stay to return would be waived this one-year requisite. Other schools which require overseas experience for graduation may follow Waseda’s decision in the coming months, undermining what has long been considered the whole foundation of international education.

Diversity on campus, which Japanese universities have tried hard to foster, will also suffer. Many of the foreign students who have been prohibited by travel bans from entering Japan may never come here. Even those foreign students who entered Japan prior to the travel bans may have to consider terminating their study, as the part-time jobs which normally help pay for their living costs and school fees evaporate.

There are varying predictions as to when international student mobility will return to normal. Many agree that “abnormal conditions” facing international education may pass in a year or so, but the negative economic impact will likely linger much longer, affecting the financial capability of families who have thus far footed the bill for overseas studies. There is no doubt that COVID-19 has strongly impacted international education, and its impact will be far more lasting than many wish to admit. The real question here, however, is whether this impact will pass as a temporary phase, or result in a permanent, fundamental change in the system.

Showa Women’s University (SWU), where this author teaches, is known for its commitment to international education. Its overseas campus founded in Boston (Massachusetts, US) in 1988 has offered approximately 500 SWU students each year opportunities not only to learn the language, but also to have in-depth intercultural experiences. For the first time in its more-than-30-year history, the Boston campus was closed for the spring semester, and will be closed for the upcoming fall semester. All the other programs at SWU’s global partner institutions were cancelled and most of them will probably not be resumed for some time to come.

With the conviction that SWU has the responsibility to continue international education, even with the disappearance of all the overseas programs in the face of this pandemic, alternative programs are being developed, which are designed to provide students with equivalent learning opportunities. Students will be connected to overseas faculty online both synchronously and asynchronously with the use of multiple online teaching tools, and virtual intercultural experiences will be explored through shared online communities. To augment online distance learning, faculty at the Setagaya Campus will provide in-person tutoring and study assistance with careful social-distancing measures. These alternative “study abroad” programs, in addition to achieving many of the educational goals of existing overseas programs, has the added benefit of much lower costs to the students.

SWU already has solid experience in distance learning programs in collaboration with overseas partner universities. With the support of Sookmyung Women’s University in Korea, the Department of International Studies, which has a graduation requirement of at least one semester of overseas stay in the students’ chosen destination, has been providing blended learning for its Korean language and culture majors for the past five years. Sookmyung’s faculty broadcast lectures to SWU students at the Setagaya Campus with the use of a high-quality remote conferencing system, thereby ensuring the SWU students have synchronous interactions with teachers. At the end of the 15-week long courses, the Sookmyung professors provide face-to-face instruction at SWU’s Setagaya Campus, solidifying the rapport with the students and further facilitating their learning process. These courses require lengthy planning and hard work, but have successfully augmented the department’s on-site Korean study abroad programs, and resulted in worthwhile learning outcomes. Similar programs on a smaller scale have been in place for the department’s Chinese language and culture majors with the support of Aletheia University in Taiwan.

SWU’s Department of Business Design first conducted a blended collaborative program in 2018 together with the Leeds School of Business, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), which combines COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) and face-to-face discussion sessions. Students of SWU and CU were first connected online with each other to work on a research project for about two months under faculty supervision. This remote collaborative learning was followed by in-person sessions, when the CU students attended an intensive workshop at SWU’s Setagaya Campus, in which their SWU counterparts also participated. The Japan-U.S. mixed groups then presented their research findings to a panel of professors both from SWU and CU for feedback and evaluation. A similar program has also been carried out in collaboration with Chiang Mai University (CMU) in Thailand, in which SWU participants visit CMU’s campus after working remotely with their Thai counterparts on a research project; this program also culminated in joint presentations by Japan-Thai mixed groups. Both programs resulted in better mutual understanding, as well as heightened motivation among participants.

Online education has long been viewed as “second tier” at best; within international higher education, it has been considered a “cheap alternative” to the “real” study abroad experience. The forced shift by the COVID-19 pandemic to alternative study abroad experiences will initially be met with resistance, not only from students and their parents, but also from faculty. However, as the realization emerges – however grudgingly – that online international education based upon solid philosophy, careful planning, and experience can bring about many of the learning outcomes of more costly conventional programs (as many studies seem to suggest), this author thinks online programs, especially when blended with on-site experience, may become viable competition with the existing ones.

According to some estimates, airline fares will increase by as much as 50% due to required social distancing measures. Similar social distancing precautions will be put in place at university dormitories, further pushing up the cost of study abroad programs for international students. In the post-COVID-19 world, where middle-class families will still feel the negative impact of economic downturns, students will become more cost conscious and be more likely to scrutinize educational returns on their investment. Dr. Hiroshi Ota, Director of the Hitotsubashi University Global Education Program, predicts that this pandemic will set in motion the whole “rethinking” of Japan’s international programs, and that the currently popular short-term overseas programs, which consist of casual immersion in the target culture and regular language instruction, will see their demand significantly decline. He believes that in their place, more academically oriented blended programs will be developed, which combine virtual classrooms, shared online communities and shorter actual stays overseas to show real results. He also stresses the importance of “internal internationalization,” which can be achieved by increased diversity on campus and improved college foreign language education.

Anybody who has experienced overseas study themselves will know that no virtual programs will completely replace on-site learning in the target culture, but in the post COVID-19 world, with raised expectations of learning outcomes and harder scrutiny over program costs, the existing programs will come under much pressure to evolve. Simple overseas programs whose main feature is regular language instruction by foreign teachers in a traditional classroom setting will see themselves quickly replaced by online alternatives. As a result, those who administer conventional study abroad programs will need to increase the variety and value of those experiences which can only be achieved by participants physically being on site.

This author thinks that SWU will not be immune to these changes, and will have to further evolve its overseas programs, making wise use of the possibilities online teaching provides. The partnership with Temple University Japan Campus (TUJ) will also be an invaluable asset for SWU in the post-COVID-19 “new normal.” We are already seeing the number of applicants to TUJ increase, and it will only grow. TUJ students who represent real on-campus diversity will be the key to our “internal internationalization,” and creating more non-academic interactions with them will afford SWU students who normally would not think about enrolling in study abroad programs more accessible intercultural experiences.

We must not take the attitude of “Let’s cope for now; the storm will be over soon.” According to Ruchir Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, the changes occurring right now, both good and bad, were not caused by the coronavirus, but are rather inevitable changes that were accelerated by it; they are here to stay. SWU has gone through important changes in the past several decades in its efforts to become a more viable institution of international higher education. With the continuing leadership of Dr. Mariko Bando, SWU’s Chancellor, SWU will not bury its head in the sand waiting for the storm to pass, but will strive to parlay the current, seeming setbacks into valuable opportunities.

Atsuko Kashiwagi is Professor, International Humanities, Department of International Studies, and Director of International Coordination at Showa Women’s University.