Education's 'Wave of the Future'

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If Harumi Aoki's students love to call her "a former housewife," it is not from any lack of respect. It's because the noted poet, recently honored with Japan's prestigious "H Prize" for one of her collections, is teaching creative writing to a class full of Osaka housewives.

Her classroom is in the Asahi Culture Center, one of thousands of adult-education centers springing up in communities across Japan. The centers are not only a cultural oasis for home-bound women but also a source of pleasure and stimulation for the country's growing population of retirees.

Located in the building housing Osaka's Asahi News, the Asahi Culture Center, which is partially funded by the newspaper, offers some 300 adult-education classes each quarter. Its students can learn everything from flower arranging and the traditional art of kotto (Japanese harp) to tax law and foreign languages.

"Housewives get bored," says Ms. Aoki. "They begin looking for something to do besides raising kids and talking to the neighbors about grocery specials."

The Wave of the Future

The center's classes are a manifestation of what government officials predict will be the wave of the future in Japanese education. As the proportion of the population 60 years of age or older expands to one in five by the year 2000, these officials say, developing new opportunities for lifelong learning will become an increasing educational priority. It is already a prominent item on the education-reform agenda of many groups.

But in addition to meeting the needs of older adults, education leaders say that adult-education should also provide younger adults with a means of upgrading skills and resuming formal schooling later in life. The present education system, they say, is inflexible. For those 10 percent of students who fail to graduate from high school, and for the more than 60 percent of high-school graduates who do not go on to college, there is presently no second chance--no way to catch up with their peers at a later date.

How To Gear for Adult Learners

The business community, through advanced training courses and continuing education, fills some of the nation's adult-learning needs. But the public has begun to ask for a wider range of sources, including perhaps an expansion of what one scholar calls "specialized colleges."

Masakazu Yano, an associate professor at the Hiroshima University Research Institute for Higher Education, says that this increasing social demand for adult learning will necessitate a revision in the traditional university system, which is "centered around young people."

"The adult may have various objectives for study," writes the Kyoto University education dean Tetsuya Kobayashi in the journal Comparative Education, "vocational preparation, recurrent education, compensatory learning, general and cultural education, leisure activity."

Some of these can be met by traditional colleges and universities, says the dean, but others might best be met at the specialized colleges, which he says are "flexible in their curriculum, flexible in recruiting their teachers, and accessible to almost everyone."

One obstacle to the specialized college, he adds, is cost. Most are private schools and their tuition charges might deter those among the most likely target groups.

Top political leaders, including Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, have urged public colleges to develop more and better adult-education programs and to open up their campuses to part-time and non-degree students.

More Rhetoric Than Substance

But Mr. Yano charges that despite government rhetoric and proposal making, the public sector has seen little progress on the adult-learning front. "Adult students in university programs remain few in number,'' he says, "and adult learning as a concept has had little impact on the over-all university educational system."

In 1981, says Mr. Yano, only about 4,000 adult students (less than 1 percent of the total university enrollment) took courses at Japanese universities. Some 90 percent of these, he adds, were enrolled in evening courses.

The Ministry of Education counters with the fact that it has launched several experimental programs in the field--correspondence courses, university extension programs, and a new University of the Air. But to Mr. Yano, "the impact of adult learning on higher education as a whole remains small."

In fact, the number of correspondence-program graduates declined by 10 percent between 1970 and 1981, even though enrollments increased from 77,000 to 90,000 during the same period.

And in 1981--the latest year for which figures are available--only 245 of Japan's 451 universities offered public extension-program lectures. The lectures available drew some 150,000 people to the campuses that year.

Turning to the Airwaves

The newly established University of the Air is one of the Ministry's most ambitious adult-education initiatives. This spring, it will begin enrolling students from several communities, who will watch lectures broadcast from the university's Chiba-city studios. The students will be issued course textbooks for home study and will meet periodically with designated tutors at schools in their local communities. The local schools will also administer examinations.

Initial enrollment for the University of the Air will be 7,000 students, most of them from prefectures near Tokyo. Ultimately, enrollment will be drawn from communities throughout Japan.

Other post-school learning is available via the airwaves. The national public-television network, N.H.K, offers not only a wide range of cultural programming but a correspondence-school program as well. In recent years, it has provided courses for high-school credit to more than 6,000 students.

(The network also broadcasts directly to schools, and in 1983 transmitted 45 radio programs and 122 television programs each week, to be integrated into the schools' regular instructional activities. Some 24,000 primary schools, 18,000 nursery schools, 11,000 kindergartens, 6,000 junior high schools, and 3,000 high schools made use of the classroom telecourses, according to network statistics.)

Isao Amagi, the director of the University of the Air project and formerly the vice-minister of education, says that such alternative programs will help to meet the "strong demand for flexibility and diversity in university education." They will offer adults "something quite different from the traditional form of university learning," he says.

And their creation, Mr. Amagi adds, signals not only that the country's education establishment is trying to adapt the "objective and content of education" to meet national needs, but also that it intends to alter "the process and the forms" of learning.

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