Fast Company

Japan Shuts Down Its Education Assembly Line

And Keio University is gearing up a whole new curriculum. The model: personalized, digitized, globalized.

Twenty-three-year-old university student Yumiko Umehara spends more than three hours every day in front of a computer, maintaining spirited email debates with her professors, downloading lecture notes, researching global environmental issues on the Net, updating her own homepage (http://www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~s94064yu), and browsing those of her peers.

Umehara's part of a radical education experiment to reinvent higher education in Japan. In a cluster of ultramodern buildings set in the rolling green hills and small farms of the Kanagawa prefecture one hour from Tokyo, Keio University, Japan's oldest and most prestigious private university, seeks to break the old mold of Japanese learning -- and plug into the future. Its Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC), established in 1990, has the mission of creating the next generation of independent, creative thinkers equipped to define and meet the challenges of the information economy.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has rebuilt itself as the world's preeminent manufacturing nation -- and manufacturing students has been part of the equation. For 50 years Japanese students have been drilled to supply the correct answer to established questions. But in a postindustrial economy where creativity and innovation are the new prerequisites, the old education-as-manufacturing model puts Japan at a severe disadvantage. Keio's question: How do you create agile participants when the system treats universities as mere finishing schools for students headed for lifetime employment at large corporations or prestigious government ministries? SFC's answer: Explode the standard curriculum and entrenched teaching practices of the past.

The SFC design scraps traditional academic disciplines in favor of two multidisciplinary faculties to cultivate "comprehensive perspective and judicious judgement" among students. The faculty of policy management combines the social sciences, international studies, and humanities into a new interdisciplinary field. Its aim: to equip graduates to respond to such complex policy issues as the borderless economy and the globalization of environmental problems. The faculty of environmental information has also introduced a new interdisciplinary field - pulling together urban planners, system engineers, environmental designers, media experts, and sociologists to study the relationship between environment, information, and society.

Students take standard courses -- all are required to learn at least one foreign language along with one or two artificial (computer) languages -- but a significant part of their study involves projects developed in conjunction with faculty advisors. These projects unfold through vigorous debate with faculty members (in addition to class time and informal dialogue, Professor Uno fields dozens of emails a day from his students), interaction with research institutions around the globe, and peer review of work over the campus intranet.

SFC has consciously sought to leverage cutting-edge technology as an essential element of its learning platform. The school constantly updates its high-speed fiber-optic Campus Network System (CNS) with the latest workstations and network technologies from Sun Microsystems, Sony, Apple, and IBM. "We are the only university where non-computer science students are using up-to-date technology on a daily basis," says Professor Kimio Uno, a dean at SFC (http://www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~unodb). "Here, social science students are exposed to the potential of new technologies."

Nearly all of Keio's 4,000 undergraduates have a notebook computer loaded with the latest software and a modem. Students spend as much time online -- using any of the more than 3,000 "information sockets" for their laptops or 1,300 networked workstations scattered about campus -- as they do in the lecture hall. They've all constructed their own homepages (http://www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/PersonalHomePageList/index.en.html). "Our turnaround time is extremely fast," declares Uno. "The moment a new technology comes into existence, somebody here will start using it. Then it will spread to other students." Take the introduction of hypertext markup language at SFC. Techies picked up on HTML in the fall of 1993. By February 1994 it was in general use among students. In the spring of 1995 HTML was institutionalized as a means for accessing course material, posting term papers, and filing "homework" to professors.

Says Uno, "We have constructed an interactive and transparent knowledge space. We expose students to an issue and provide the environment. Everything else is continuous, spontaneous, and voluntary. We say that we're not teaching but that students are learning."

For her part, Umehara, who spent her high-school years in Australia, quit a traditional Japanese women's university to enroll in SFC "because you find a lot more interesting students here than you would ever run across at other universities." In addition to learning Malaysian as a third language and studying environmental economics, she's able to incorporate her passion for jazz singing into her work at SFC.

The school works hard to maintain a mix of students. In contrast to the traditional university admissions game in Japan runs purely on standardized test scores, SFC accepts applications several times per year and some students are admitted purely on the basis of interviews, essays, and high school grades. Last year some 10,000 students applied for 600 undergraduate spots.

The results? Many of its 2,400 graduates have veered from the traditional path of industrial management to explore such diverse professions as urban planning, international development, and environmental design, or to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

More important, the overwhelming majority of SFC graduates command the core survival skills for the new world of work. "They know how to collaborate," says Uno. "They know how to define and carry out projects. They are comfortable dealing in a fluid situation where the standards have not yet been set."

Gale Eisenstodt recently returned to the U.S. after six years in Japan with "Forbes."

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