The abrupt change in pedagogy at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) brought forth by the pandemic has sparked many conversations concerning the effectiveness and value of digital learning. With counselors closely monitoring students’ mental health weekly for approximately two months, and no major problems seeming to hinder students’ learning, it seems as if ASIJ is faring better than most, thanks to the school’s technology-based curriculum. To get a strong grasp on where students were in this conversation, I spoke with three middle schoolers at the American School in Japan that provided their insight on the school’s shift to distance learning.
“...I don’t really think of this [distance learning] different from actual school…” Grade 6 student Liam reflects, noting that the fact that he considers distance learning no different from face-to-face learning is what continues to motivate him through this journey. Working in this mindset enables Liam to work productively and efficiently. By following schedules posted, Liam is able to manage his workload and complete his work in a timely fashion. Something of greater difficulty, he says, is dealing with all the events canceled after the onset of the pandemic. “Because I live near the school and most of my friends live near Shibuya, so I can’t really see them that much.” Liam expresses, telling me that it is one aspect he greatly misses about school.
Liam emphasizes another flaw in distance learning: the lack of constant monitoring from a teacher. According to Liam, teachers are able to deliver instructions in a clear way when in the classroom and can aid students immediately in navigating technological issues that arise. In contrast, many instructions are prone to be misinterpreted when delivered through a single online post, and often, you “can’t really tell what they mean.”
Though he has successfully made the transition into digital learning, Liam suggests that teachers schedule Google Meets more frequently in order to make themselves accessible to more students for a longer amount of time. He reflects, “I think it’s easier to be able to ask your teacher whenever you want. We have Google Meets, but they aren’t scheduled whenever you want; there are times where you can meet and times where you can’t.”
“I feel completely unmotivated; nothing motivates me,” an anonymous Grade 7 student rambles, addressing a major flaw in digital learning. This student confessed that hours are spent engaging in activities that are unproductive on the phone and laptop. This includes binge-watching shows on Netflix and YouTube, which this person says has become considerably easier without a teacher closely monitoring them. “I do the minimum work, then spend hours on my phone and I play games,” they explained, and adding on to that, “...learning at school is better because someone is watching you and it is harder to get distracted…”
Though some teachers have ways to keep students accountable, others do not, which seems to pose an issue to unmotivated students. In classes such as Band and P.E., students are expected to regularly document their progress through videos, according to this student. Where the real problem lies is in classes that have a light course load with little or no way to hold students accountable for their work. “...I think many of my friends feel the same and that without a teacher, learning doesn’t really work for me.”
“As an introvert, distance learning has been fairly interesting…” notes a Grade 8 student who wished to remain anonymous. This person’s experience seems to be exceptionally positive, something they attribute to their introverted personality. “My introversion... has maybe helped me in navigating my way through distance learning and coping with the loss of social interaction with my friends…” this individual reflects, saying that being introverted may put some at an advantage in these times of social distancing. While others crave social interaction, this student can only slightly sympathize with those feelings. “I’m not really the type to initiate things and seek out social interaction…” this student confides, noting that their productivity levels have increased without the “chaos” that erupts in a middle school classroom. “Without the technical issues and stuff, I think that getting familiar with distance learning—as much as people hate it—is really important, since we could be living in this kind of situation again in our lifetimes.”
Though ASIJ students have grown considerably more familiar with digital learning in the past few weeks, it seems that their outlook on it still differs greatly. From drinking herbal tea to spending hours playing games, students’ ways of navigating their way through the pandemic are all uniquely different.
Sena Chang is currently a student at the American School in Japan and lives in Tokyo.