Targeting regional learners with Japanese MOOC

In spring 2013, the University of Tokyo created big headlines by announcing its participation in the for-profit US MOOC provider Coursera, offering two courses in English from fall 2014. Soon after, other national universities joined the fad: this spring both Kyoto University and Osaka University released their first courses via edX, a non-profit MOOC platform developed by Harvard and MIT.
Written by Matthias Frey, Science & Technology Councellor, Embassy of Switzerland in Japan (

Background: Higher Education in Japan

Due to Japan’s aging, as well as the low birth rate, the number of students entering universities is stagnating. According to predictions by the Ministry in charge of education (MEXT, also in charge of ICT) the population of 18 year olds is expected to remain flat from 2009 to around 2020 before declining again after 2021.

Nowadays in Japan, about half of all 18 year olds continue their studies after high school and receive their tertiary education from a university (50.8%); 22% enter a “Senmongakko”, a specialized training college that takes 1-4 years to finish. The percentage of high school graduates who continue studying after high school is regionally varying, with Kyoto having the highest rate at 79%, followed by Tokyo (77%); the lowest rate can be found in the northern part of Japan, in the Aomori prefecture (57%).

Even though Japan’s university entrance rate has increased over the last years, it is still low (52%) compared to the OECD average (60%, Switzerland: 44%) and other Asian countries.; as comparison: Switzerland (44%). An even bigger difference exists within regards to older students, often with working experience, entering universities: In Japan the ratio of students entering bachelors aged 25 or older, with many already working, is only about 2%, whereas the OECD average amounts to approximately 20% (Switzerland: 24%).

Background: Using ICT in the Classroom

Japanese government early recognized the importance of ICT for higher education and at the end of March 2008 the laws were amended accordingly. These laws limited the usage of computer-taught classes to a certain number of credits, a number that was increased in 2011 and thereafter. These laws on education differentiated between universities where students physically attend (regular universities) and institutions providing higher education through remote-learning. Over the years the percentage of credits that could be attained using ICT increased gradually, paving the way for MOOCs.

Japanese Government supporting MOOCs

The 2nd Basic Plan for Promoting Education that came into effect in June 2013 specified more clearly the government’s wish for the universities to establish an innovation cycle and an environment to support studying:

”In terms of utilizing ICT, the active participation of universities in efforts to open up the knowledge at universities to the world, for example, through the transmission of lectures through MOOCs which is spreading rapidly in recent years, or the transmission of educational contents through Open Course Wares (OCW), which would also lead to improving the quality of university education, shall be promoted.”

At the same time, the cabinet put together an action plan to reconstruct Japan as a leading industrial nation and one important point was to obtain 21st century skills using IT by promoting “innovation in classes (lectures) towards new styles of learning including interactive education and global remote learning. Furthermore, establish a structure to continuously cultivate talents with practical IT skills through industry-academia collaboration by the end of the next fiscal year.”

Japan realized that IT skills are an essential measure to again regain competitivitybecome more competitive, and for this the government wanted to establish an environment to continuously cultivate IT talents and “promote a network for practical education on a national level beyond areas of studies and regions”, promoting the establishment and usage of MOOCs. Also, Kyoto University’s Prof. Toru Iiyoshi was commissioned to do research on the utilization of MOOCs and OCW in Japan and other countries, and especially at the world’s top-100 universities.

The three main benefits Japan’s Education Ministry (MEXT) sees in the usage of MOOCs are as follows:

  • Increased opportunities for remote regions to access higher education through remote learning and internet-based education (often these are the regions with the lowest university entry rates)
  • MOOCs can be a way to attract students to regular universities. But also a way for universities to get in contact with talented students.
  • MOOCs can be a tool for universities to try out innovative ways for lectures and curriculum. Furthermore, Universities can offer courses for their students without having professors in a field, by remotely collaborating with other universities.

The establishment of JMOOC

In order to understand better the potential of Japanese MOOCs, in an internet-based research study, 1’200 Japanese participants between 10 and 70 years of age were questioned on their use of MOOCs, as well as their desire to use MOOCs in the near future:

  • Whereas only 1.4% of the participants have ever used MOOCs, 45% of the one’s who have never used MOOCs were interested in trying and 53.4% were not interested in using MOOCs at all.
  • Among the participants who said they did not intend to use MOOCs in the future, 35% said the main reason for that was their lack of English abilities; other reasons were “looks complicated” (29%) and “no time” (28%).
  • If courses were offered in Japanese, depending on the topic, 69% of the population would be interested in studying with MOOCs.
Figure 2: Source: “JMOOC, Massive Open Online Courses from Japan”, Yoshimi Fukuhara, Meiji University / JMOOC

Figure 2: Source: “JMOOC, Massive Open Online Courses from Japan”, Yoshimi Fukuhara, Meiji University / JMOOC

Figure 3: The inauguration of JMOOC in Fall 2013

Figure 3: The inauguration of JMOOC in Fall 2013

JMOOCOn Oct. 11, 2013, Japanese companies and universities, including NTT Docomo Inc., Sumitomo Corp., and the Open University of Japan, launched JMOOC, a committee aimed at creating Japan-based MOOC platforms. The courses offered are mostly in Japanese by Japanese universities, targeting not users from all over the world, but more regional learners understanding Japanese. On the long run, according to its executive Director, Yoshimi Fukuhara, JMOOC would like to offer courses also in other Asian languages. Of the 11 courses that are tagged as “starting soon”, only one of them is offered in English, all others are in Japanese.

Figure 4: Wide-ranging topics are offered by JMOOC, but mainly in Japanese.

Figure 4: Wide-ranging topics are offered by JMOOC, but mainly in Japanese.

JMOOC is using three platforms: gacco, offered by NTT Docomo and NTT Knowledge Square, OpenLearningJapan offered by NetLearning, and OUJ MOOC offered by the Open University of Japan. The gacco platform is built upon the open-source open edX platform, with a custom-refined front end.


At the moment, 13 Japanese Universities, including the University of Tokyo, Waseda University and Keio University, are offering courses through the Japan based MOOC site. Students who successfully complete a course will be given a certificate that in the future will hopefully be recognized by industry.

Private Entities

  • A year ago, “schoo”, a Tokyo-based MOOC startup providing live-streamed lectures on the Internet announced that it had raised JPY 152 million. The company intends to build interaction between users and lecturers in real-time streaming. Lectures on schoo are not just one-way talks by lecturers; they implement some interaction, e.g. a quiz. According to Nakanishi, director of the content-management department, “without interaction features, users will not come back to the site, and if that happens we cannot accomplish our vision. So we place great importance on user participation.” The startup launched an iOS app with which users can view live broadcasted lectures on their smartphones.
  • In August 2014, online cram school startup Co. that operates a live-streamed online lecture service for junior high school students raised JPY 120 million from Japanese investment firm Jafco. Their service is focused on providing informative live programming as well as opportunities to interact with other users by sharing something they are calling ‘timelines’. Live streaming is available for free, but watching recorded lecture programs costs.
  • Edulio is an online learning platform that launched in Japan early this year. Whereas MOOCs are open courses, Edulio is a platform that runs closed online courses. It has about 180 clients including training companies and private preparatory schools. The platform lets clients to provide online courses for a closed group of users.

Japanese MOOCs Users

The absolute number of users registered and actively using JMOOC is currently unknown, but the number of users at launch – 30’000 – is impressive. The goal is to attract 1 million active users and partnerships with 100 universities. What may be most impressive is the speed of this effort, with an vast initial list of Japanese universities and professors who are developing courses for jmooc.

For the course launched in April by Prof. Kazuto Hongo of the University of Tokyo, “Freedom and Equality in Medieval Japan”, a whopping number of 6800 followers enrolled. These are mostly non students, as the average age is 47 years old for men and 42 for women.

How many Japanese users are using international MOOCs? According to the Coursera blog, among the 1 million people enrolled as of August 2012, Japanese accounted for about 0.6 percent, or 23rd by nationality. In summer 2014, Japan was ranked 64th among the most active learners per capita per country with over 10k learners. “Activity” was measured by number of video lectures watched and by the number of registered users per capita. (

According to Prof. Yuhei Yamauchi, an associate professor of education technology at the University of Tokyo, an online course taught by physics professor Hitoshi Murayama via Coursera this fall drew 48,393 registrants from more than 140 countries, compared with the school’s total enrolment of just over 28’000.

“The impact has been more than I imagined,” said Yamauchi, who leads a MOOC team at the university. “We have been able to reach the people we couldn’t approach before, and they were grateful; some asked us to send information on our postgraduate courses, saying they want to study here, and some even offered to donate to an organization Murayama belongs to.” (Japan Times Interview, 28.10.2013)


With this year’s launch of JMOOC, the MOOC craze in Japan has only just begun. Whether MOOCs will take off in a similar fashion as in the US, or whether they will push more students to enter traditional universities or democratize education in Japan as hoped by the government remains to be seen. However, what can be said for sure is that the start of JMOOC has been impressive, and the potential for more Japanese-based online education, especially if it is for the mobile smartphone, is clearly visible – but it has to be regionalized and provided in Japanese. On the other hand, the big success of Prof. Murayama with his lecture on Coursera will hopefully encourage other professors to also provide their lectures in English, accessible for the whole (English-speaking) world.

Further readings, basis of this blog-entry


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