Nov 28, 2017

Will online English classes in Japan’s public schools pose a threat to ALTs?

Will online English classes in Japan’s public schools pose a threat to ALTs? photo

Reports emerged this week that the government of Tokyo suburb Tama City is to partner with Japan’s largest correspondence education provider in the provision of online English conversation classes across all of the city’s public junior high schools from 2018.

According to reports in Kanagawa and Tama City local news outlet “Town News”, 40 tablets will be provided to each of the city’s nine junior high schools where lessons will be held one-to-one via the tablet with English teachers based in the Philippines teaching pupils in the second and third grades. Each conversation lesson will last 30 minutes.  

Tama City announced a collaboration agreement with education provider Benesse Corp. via the city’s home page on Nov. 8 although the text, in Japanese, talks only about plans for regional development and doesn’t make any mention of the online English conversation lessons. On Nov. 11 test classes were held at the city’s Wada Junior High School.  

Representatives of the Tama City Board of Education are quoted as saying, “This is part of a plan to increase student's motivation, at the same time as raising the levels of teachers' leadership skills.” (Translated from Japanese.)

Similar lessons had already been tested in public schools in Tokyo but not to this extent.

Benesse Corp. which has its headquarters in Tama City, was rocked by a data leak in 2014 which compromised some 20 million pieces of customer data including addresses and telephone numbers. It was later reported that a systems engineer was arrested for stealing the data before selling it on for around 2.5 million yen. The leak led to Benesse being reprimanded by The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) with the fallout continuing into 2016 when Benesse Holdings’ chief executive Eikoh Harada resigned in June the same year as the company struggled to get out of the red.

The reality of municipal education boards outsourcing English education is nothing new. According to The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2014 5.1% of assistant language teachers (ALTs) in high schools were provided by agencies. In jr high schools that figure was 16.1% and in elementary schools, 10.2%. The majority of ALTs in Japan, in 2014, came through the government’s JET program.  

The move by Tama City, however, to make use of native speaking instructors outside of Japan, and in particular a country like the Philippines where labour can be provided at cheaper costs than in nations from the West, that had typically been the source of instructors and ALTs, may raise concerns among those ALTs already based in Japan.  

Working conditions for ALTs have, for a long time, been the source of consternation among those on the industry’s front line, the ALTs in the classrooms. ALTs in Japan are often caught up in bidding wars as rival agencies seek to gain contracts with local boards of education which can result in stagnant, or indeed ever decreasing, salaries and working hours that far exceed those that are contracted. For many ALTs a direct hire with a local board of education is seen as something of a golden chalice in the industry for its clarity, honesty, and more importantly, significantly higher salaries. Seeing a board of education outsource work to contracts based overseas might naturally be of some concern then.

Rather than being any damning indictment of the effectiveness of the ALT, making use of online learning has clear logistical and practical merit - it affords all students in a class the chance for one-on-one speaking time that a solitary ALT would be unable to provide. Of course, this maybe be to reduce any sense of genuine cultural exchange that is part of the ALT’s remit, but Japan, with globalization and Tokyo 2020 on the mind, wants its students to get on with the business of passing tests and becoming fluent in the language. The government of Tama sees online classes as a means to this end.  

Despite the move towards online instruction, the Japanese government had highlighted the need for expanding placement of ALTs in its “English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization” published in Dec., 2013. Here, together with “expansion," the plan highlights a goal to “Strengthen and enrich ALT training programs.” Subsequent meetings held at MEXT resulted in the “Report on the Future Improvement and Enhancement of English Education” in which it is stated that the “government aims to secure ALTs for all elementary schools by 2019, while also promoting the use of ALTs in junior high and high schools with a view to increasing opportunities for students to use English in practical situations, such as conversation, presentation and discussions.”  

By 2020 English could well become a formal subject on the elementary school curriculum for students in the fifth and sixth grade, a move which will likely demand more teachers in the classroom, rather than those appearing via tablet.  

If the expansion of ALTs in Japan is to increase, it’s clear that it will lean towards the younger pupils. As of 2014, there were over 15,000 ALTs in Japan’s schools, according to statistics published by MEXT. Over 10,000 of these were in elementary schools and just over 2,000 in high schools. In fact, from 2013 to 2014 ALT numbers for elementary schools rose from 7,735 to 10,163 while in high schools that number dropped from 2,428 to 2,214. And there’s still some way to go before the government has ALTs in all elementary schools, with 2014 numbers showing that 58.4% of schools were using their services. 

Perhaps ALTs can rest easy for a while yet (although questions of how an increase in numbers will be financed will likely bring about unwelcome answers). Certainly, anyone with the experience of teaching English classes in an elementary school will know that their animated nature isn’t best suited to online learning.

Thoughts, do you think online English classes in Japan’s public schools pose a threat to ALTs?

Further reading ...

English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization (MEXT)

Report on the Future Improvement and Enhancement of English Education (MEXT)

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