Some Remarks on Interdisciplinary Internet based projects in Japanese and German Schools

[originally in: Informatik Forum Vol 12, No. 1, March 1998: 45-51.
Minor changes in this version; some links may be out of date]


1. Introduction
2. Integrated Learning in Japan and Germany
3. Internet and Integrated Learning in Japanese and German Schools
3.1 Internet and Integrated Learning in Japan
3.2. Internet and Integrated Learning in Germany
4. Comparison and Summary


This article is intended as an introduction into the state of school networking in Japan and Germany, with special focus on interdisciplinary projects.
In both countries plans to network all the schools have been announced recently, but questions on how to overcome technical and financial problems and how to proceed with content development, are still under discussion. It will be interesting to see how - starting from similar situations with respect to a regulated educational world and expensive telecommunication environment - learning with Internet technology will develop in both countries and whether interdisciplinary approaches will be promoted in the course of wider Internet use. Today it looks like Japan will take more systematic efforts to facilitate network use for schools and develop curricula for network education in the near future.

1. Introduction

Like other media, Internet services and resources can be used to support a variety of different teaching and learning concepts and styles, be it lecturing/listening, problem centered group learning in class, or completely self motivated and self structured study (cf. [Doering 1997:359-61]).

Of course, the WWW easily can be used for TV-like broadcasting purposes, or information found on the Net can be printed out and distributed in class like copies from a book. Nevertheless, if we persue the idea of making use of the strongest points and unique features of each medium for education, the Internet's potential for communication, cooperation and constructive learning that transcends traditional subject boarders should come particularely into focus. Thus in recent pedagogical discourse many concepts from the early days of educational reform are newly discussed in the context of the introduction of networked media into schools.
Ritter [Ritter 1995:11,16] states that thinking about the role of computers for school education can have a "catalytic" effect on reconsidering today's tasks for general education.
Although "open learning", "action oriented learning", the "project method" and others all have in common that they aim at self motivated learning and learning in social and real life context, in this article I will mainly focus on forms of "integrated" (Japanese: "sogoteki na") or "interdisciplinary" "subject independent" (German: "faecheruebergreifend") learning, because in Japan it has just been decided to introduce special lessons for "integrated learning" in grades 3-12 of all schools, and the role of "information education" is being disussed widely in this context. In search of references for this experiment, German experiences with integrated education are being studied again under the new perspective by Japanese educationalists. One reason might be that countries like the U.S.A with their high degree of decentralisation with respect to educational administration and a very inhomogenious population are too far away for adopting interesting features from their educational system. For the German side it will be interesting to see, how coordinated national efforts in Japan in the near future will probably create high standards of information education in school.

In the following I will briefly outline interdisciplinary approaches to school education as well as some of the main Internet projects for Japanese and German schools since the beginning of the 1990es. In a second step I shall try to identify elements of integrated learning within Internet projects and point to some possible future developments.
Parts of this article are taken - with kind permission by my co-authors - from an earlier draft on problem centered learning in Japan and Germany, to appear in revised form in the proceedings of Ed-Media 1998 [Ikuta/Langner/Kurokami 1998].

2. Integrated Learning in Japan and Germany

In today's German and Japanese curricula we find a strong subject orientation. Detailed guidelines exist for all subjects and grades. Whereas in Japan there is only one national curriculum for all general schools (public and private), issued by the national Ministry of Education, in Germany different curricula exist for all 16 federal states.

Compulsory education is nine years in both countries, elementary school is six years in Japan and four years in most German states. Whereas in Germany from grade 5 onwards there mostly is a choice between several types of schools, differing in their degree of practical vs. academic orientation (Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, Gymnasium), all Japanese junior and senior high schools (among them many private schools) are comprehensive and last three years each. Instead there is a country wide hierarchy of schools, and schools can select their students via entrance exams. The ultimate aim for certain careers is passing the entrace exam for a prestigious university.
Thus preparing for entrance exams for the next higher educational level is one of the main tasks of a Japanese school, a fact that has a high impact on clinging tightly to subject oriented content.

In contrast to the prevailing method of top-down-teaching, in both countries ideas about educational reform, e.g. in the form of "project" or "open" learning (cf. [Frey 1982:26-33], [Boensch 1993]) have been discussed since around the beginning of the 20th century. Prominent figures of this movement like Kerschensteiner, Freinet, Steiner, or Montessori are well known and studied in Japan. Nevertheless, throughout this century the biggest part of public school education in both countries has been focussing on subjects.


In Germany only in the 1960es/70es wider experiments with integrated learning (namely introduction of comprehensive schools) have taken place. In a few private reform schools like those based on Waldorf or Montessori education integrated learning is much more stressed, but towards the final high school examination (Abitur) a standard set of subjects has to be taught in those schools as well.

In general for higher levels of education discipline orientation is considered more important than for lower levels:
In German elementary school there are integrative subjects like "Sachunterricht" and each teacher has to be able to teach a variety of subjects.
As for grade 5 onwards, Problem centered and subject independent learning is considered more suitable for Hauptschule or Gesamtschule. Gymnasium on the other hand aims at preparing students for university, so especially subjects in grades 11-13 are modelled after academic disciplines, and interdisciplinary studies are rare. Gymnasium teachers have to be specialists in two or three academic disciplines.

But in spite of widespread criticism against some features of comprehensive schools, in recent years educationalists and also curricula in most German states have come to more and more stress the importance of problem centered interdisciplinary and practice oriented learning. Some curricula now include detailed suggestions for general subject independent topics to be taught in certain grades (e.g. Baden-Wuerttemberg for grades 5-11, cf. [Bildungsplan BW]). Not only in primary education, but also in most high schools regulations allow for one project week per school year or several project days, where instead of ordinary lessons students across grades can choose a topic of their interest to work on.


In Japan reforming ideas flourished in the 1920es, but declined again during Word War II. In the 1950es there was a revival under the label of "life centered learning", but only in the course of the third wave a new subject called "everyday life" (seikatsuka), modelled after the German "Sachunterricht", was introduced into elementary school grades 1 and 2 in 1992. In public schools up to now this has remained the only form of institutionalised integrated learning.

In recent years discussions in Japan arose again that important fields of knowledge in a rapidly changing society are not well covered by the traditional school subjects and thus students are not being well prepared for real life. Topics like environmental education, information literacy, health education, aging society, internationalisation, different current affairs and also more real experience (as opposed to theoretical learning only) have gained new attention.
Also it is being recognised that there is hardly any time in today's students' schedules where learning can take place without a strong connection to exam performance.

In November 1997 the Japanese Council for Education (Kyouiku Katei Shingikai) made some comprehensive suggestions to create more time for topics like the ones named above. [Kyoukashin 1997.11.17] Accordingly, beginning in 2003 (maybe earlier) all students from grade 3 to 12 are going to have two or three classes per week where subject independent rsp. comprehensive topics shall be covered. As "information literacy", "internationalisation" "environmental education" and others are among the topics to be included, it is expected that networked media, e.g. e-mail projects with schools abroad, will play an important role in this newly created exam free zone. Up to now it has been more difficult for Japanese teachers to find time for creative activities like that.
Also from 2003 onwards, a new subject, tentatively called "information" is going to be introduced in highschool grades 10-12. Because national curricula (Gakushuu Shidou Youryou) are just being rewritten this year, it is an important phase for discussing some of the essential elements of information literacy and interdisciplinary studies for school education in Japan (see as a recent example [Fujikawa 1998.04]).
In this context surveys about educational practice in other countries are being conducted, and German experiments with comprehensive schools, "Sachunterricht" or project weeks have come into focus again.

3. Internet and Integrated Learning in Japanese and German Schools

Except for a few individual pioneers towards the end of the 1980es, teachers in Japan and Germany have only begun to discover the Internet since the beginning of the 1990es. Generally, in both countries the potential of the Net has been recognised rather late compared to the U.S.A. or Scandinavian countries, which is partly due to telecommunication regulations, but - in the case of schools - also to conservative educational systems (with curricula changing about every 10 years) that only slowly adapt to social changes.

Nowadays in both countries consciousness is rising, that children of today have to be better prepared for individual learning and acting, have to be aware of environmental issues, and have to be able to learn and communicate under a global perspective.
Thus quite naturally pioneer teachers as well as more and more public school networking projects stress the importance of the Internet as a toolbox, which allows students and teachers to communicate with people from all over the world, search for various kinds of information according to their own concerns and practise problem solving in scenarios closer to real life.
But experminents show that in order to make reasonable use of these tools, school education cannot remain restricted to 45 minute subject lessons.

3.1 Internet and Integrated Learning in Japan

In the beginning of the 1990s Japanese teachers who engaged in networking mostly used online services like Nifty-Serve or PC-VAN (in their structure comparable to Compuserve or AOL). When the Internet began to boom around 1994/95, those services gradually started to provide Internet services as well. This was the first chance for many teachers to explore the unknown territory Internet, which up to then mostly had been of importance for university or company lab researchers. Accordingly educational resources on the Net were rare, but - like in other countries - some teachers realised the potential of the Internet for international e-mail-contacts that had been impossible or very difficult in the age of closed online services. Those early e-mail-projects often contributed considerably to widening the narrow school horizon, although mainly conducted by individual teachers in their subject lessons.

While most of the early activities were carried out via a teacher's private account, desires to actually network the schools and give accounts to teachers and students met with several problems, among them high telecommunication costs and concentration of Internet providers in the metropolitain areas. Like in Germany, the Ministry of Education was reluctant to connect schools to its research network SINET ([Goto/Nakayama 1995]). Only schools attached to a university could profit from a well networked environment.

Since 1995 the situation improved for schools selected as model schools in national or business sponsored networking projects like the "100 school project" or "Konet Plan". From the beginning of the new school year (April 1998) NTT will provide all schools that are ready to pay Y 63,000 per month with a special network connection and server package (NTT's "OCN school pack") that includes a leased line, (WWW, mail, proxy...) server software including an easy to use administration interface, domain name, e-mail address administration for all teachers and students as well as remote maintenance facilities and a special help desk for support [KKS.OCN].

Let's now have a look at some Japanese Internet projects that have been aiming at integrative learning.

3.2. Internet and Integrated Learning in Germany

In Germany the Internet has been used by active individual teachers and their students since the end of the 1980s in grass root projects like the UUCP based ODS (Open German Schoolnet) with its open Internet newsgroups schule.*, or the European Schools Project (ESP).

Recent networking initiatives

Since around 1995 more systematic efforts on the national and state level are being made to connect more schools to the Internet.

Learning changes with Internet use

As mentioned above, German school curricula are only slowly adapting to social changes, and some efforts of technological innovation fail, like in the case of incorporating computer education into the curricula ("infomationstechnische Grundbildung (ITG)") for secondary education at the end of the 1980es, or the often criticized language labs.
Although often compared to the latter, it can be expected that Internet technology will change ways of learning as well outside of as inside school, because (in connection with incentives more related to students' private and social interests) it provides possibilities for more motivated, problem centered, individual and cooperative learning. Some documents of recent educational policy point in this direction:

One example is a 1995 report by the Federal Commission for Educational Planning on media education. It states that media education will naturally lead to problem centered and project oriented learning, to learning in the context of real world problems, to cooperation with partners outside of school.
Because, as the commission suggests, media education will not be a school subject of its own in the near future and as such can only enter the curricula of related other subjects, each school is asked to develop a concept of integrated media education according to their situation [BLK 1995].

Also on a national as well as on the state level projects like SaN explicitly state that schools should be opened up through the usage of Internet and cooperation with the outside world, e.g. other schools in Germany and worldwide, universities, libraries or private companies. Learning outside of school and intercultural learning shall be encouraged and students shall be enabled to live and act responsibly and individually in a networked world. In a later stage findings of the SaN-pilot are hoped to be also used as a reference for curricular reform. [SaN-goals]

North-Rhine-Westphalia's official educational server "learn:line" [learn:line] is an example for many subject independent suggestions for Internet projects.
The Hamburg school administration provides schools with an extensive guide to e-mail projects, which also provides schools with organizational help for interdisciplinary projects and other new types of learning [HH-Mail].

Some active schools have been quite successful in conducting interdisciplinary Internet projects in all grades, and some pilots (Modellversuche) in different states explicitly aim at experimenting with this approach.
To name only a few examples:

So alltogether, for schools willing to participate in interdisciplinary networked projects, a lot of good examples already exist. On the other hand, in normal school practice project oriented learning with the Internet is often hard to organise. Educational resources on the Internet are more likely to be used, if classified by subjects than as interdisciplinary project material [Berghoff 1997.06.16].
Teachers are used to subject lessons (the average German teacher is nearly 50 years old), and those who try to transcend subject boarders find that school organisation (e.g. regualr lesson units of 45 minutes each) is not flexible enough for their experiments with a new technology. In cases where the principal or the local school authorities do not cooperate (arrangement for suitable timetables etc.) we find several patterns of solutions by individual teachers to conduct interdisciplinary projects on their own:

But even if an Internet project is not explicitly designed as interdisciplinary and is conducted by a single subject teacher during normal class hours (which is the most usual pattern), it often opens up the narrow school world considerably.
It can be argued that many Internet projects are intrinsically interdisciplinary: In most cases there are at least elements of language competency (e.g. English as language of resources found or language of communication, German as the language of presentation or summary, some knowledge of information technology and the subject dealing with the topic that is being researched) [Achtstaetter, 1996.11.13].

4. Comparison and Summary

In Japan as well as Germany students and teachers at a growing number of schools are already using Internet services in one way or another. Support comes from national projects, corporate sponsors, prefectures, cities, universities or other organisations. Public funding is not sufficient for equipping all schools. In Japan enterprises have discovered the potential market quite early, whereas in Germany the educational world has a tendency to avoid becoming dependent on commercial support. Nevertheless, in our days of tight budgets ministers more often encourage "public private partnerships" in this sector, too.

Still, the success of most projects depends mostly on the initiative of individual teachers, as well as on support by university researchers or other voluntary staff. In Germany, students often play an important role as network administrators, and "teach your teacher" type of projects are being encouraged recently (like by SaN), whereas in Japan teachers seem to hesitate more to share responsibilities. In turn they often put considerable efforts into becoming competent network users.

Other differences between the two countries exist at the grade level of Internet introduction: Utilization of Internet is more flexible and wider ranged in elementary schools than secondary schools in Japan. On the contrary, fewer German elementary schools use the Internet, flexibility with respect to projects is biggest at the junior high school level. This is partly due to differences in the educational system (6 years vs. 4 years of elementary school), but also reflects a more critical attitude to new technology in Germany, especially when young children are concerned. Therefore German projects tend to equip secondary schools first and leave elementary school Internet usage to fewer, more controlled pilot projects. In Japan many elementary schools have their own computer room, in some of them all children of grade 5 and 6 have their own e-mail address. In higher grades, study for university entrance exams becomes more severe in Japan, so there is less room for experiments. Nevertheless, with the introduction of the new subject "information" high school students, too, are going to have enhanced opportunities for network contact in school.

The current situation is still mainly characterized by experiments, and a considerable number of the teachers are in doubt about the usefulness of a tool they do not know enough about themselves. The national networking programs in both countries, driven more by economic interests of their corporate partners than by pedagogical insight have put networked computers into the classrooms first and then only slowly started to train the teachers and suggest resources or useful projects. The importance of discovering the Internet through cooperating with people in a similar situation has not been stressed enough in the beginning. So for many teachers the question, what useful educational Internet applications could be, still remains unanswered. First the technical difficulties very often have to be mastered without professional support and without a reduction of teaching load for the teachers in charge. Then basic acquaintance with the different Internet services has to be gained. The next step will mostly be individual experiments.
Thus orgnisationally demanding cross-subject projects are being mainly carried out by individual pioneers with long term Internet experience or as model projects supported by a university, ministry or company.

At least in Germany broad scepticism also exists, whether school should add to the dangerous virtualisation and mediatisation of children's lives at all by networking the schools.
But probably that choice does not exist any more. It can be argued that networks like other media will enter the households and private lives of children anyway. So examples for a reasonable self-determined media use become an even more important task for general education (also cause and effect should not be confused: in the case of children who (ab)use media for escaping their dull reality, addiction should not be blamed on the particular drug used (more or less arbitrarily)).
Experiences with networking projects in Germany as well as Japan have shown so far that, when used responsibly, the enhanced possiblities for communication and getting informed often lead to occasions for new real life experiences as well (as with getting to know students in other countries).

Political and economic interests will surely further promote the networking of schools in both countries in the near future, like the Internet has already entered libraries, universities and different fields of public life, so it cannot be ignored much longer.
Although it will take some time to create sufficient environments with school internal LANs and mail addresses for every teacher and student, there are examples for creative Internet use that have opened up classrooms already on a much lower technical basis.
In Japan as well as in Germany media literacy, problem solving skills, ability for teamwork and global orientation are held more and more important for today's young citizens. Internet technology, sensibly used, can be a useful means for gaining knowledge and practising skills in these fields.

Although Japan and Germany are taking different approaches to incorporating the use of networks into the curricula, it can be expected that Internet technology will enter schools in both countries earlier than curricula prescribe particular forms of use.
Also even if not intentionally planned, chances are good that the introduction of Internet into schools will speed up the process of incorporating interdisciplinary and project oriented learning into general education and thus contribute to opening up the schools within the next years.


[100 Schools]
100 School Project

[Achtstaetter, 1996.11.13]
Achtstaetter, Friedrich: "INTERNET und Schule", Workshop 13.11.1996

[Aiba et. al. 1996]
Aiba, H. et. al. (1996)
"Sougou-gakushuu ni okeru meiringurisuto nado wo katsuyou suru kokoromi" (A Case Study of Cross-Curricular Activities Using Mailinglists)
in: Nihon Kyoiku-Kogakkai Kenkyu Hokokushu JET 96-5, pp 25-32

[Berghoff 1997.06.16]
Berghoff, M. (1997.06.16)
on list www-schulen[AT], 1997.06.16, Subject: Re: [WWWLehre] Gedanken zu W. Currlins Bericht

[Bildungsplan BW]
Bildungsplan Gymnasium Baden-Wuerttemberg

Bionet e.V.

[BLK 1995]
Bund-Laender-Kommission fuer Bildungsplanung und Forschungsfoerderung (1995)
Materialien zur Bildungsplanung und zur Forschungsfoerderung Heft 44. Medienerziehung in der Schule - Orientierungsrahmen - 1995

[BMBF 1997.12.16]
Ruettgers, Sommer (1997.12.16)
"In den naechsten Jahren alle Schulen ans Netz!"
Presseerklaerung, 16.12.1997

[Boensch 1993]
Boensch, M. (1993)
"Offener Unterricht in der Sekundarstufe I"
In: rhein-pfaelzische schulblaetter 10/1993: 21-26

Center for Educational Computing

Homepage von Wolfgang Currlin

[Doering 1997]
Doering, N. (1997)
"Lernen und Lehren im Internet"
In: B. Batinic (Hrsg.), Internet fuer Psychologen, Goettingen: Hogrefe 1997: 359-393

[Donath 1997.10.13]
Donath, R. (1997.10.13)
Englischunterricht in der Informationsgesellschaft

European Schools Project Home Pages

ESP - Welche Projekte?
cf. also

[Frey 1982]
Frey, K. (1982)
Die Projektmethode
Weinheim/Basel 1982

[Fujikawa 1998.04]
Fujikawa, D. (1998)
"'Sougouteki na gakushuu no jikan' no jugyou wo dou tsukuru ka."
In: Jugyou-zukuri nettowaaku 4/1998

[Goto/Nakayama 1995]
Goto, K., Nakayama, M. (1995)
"Summary of K12 activities in Japan"
In: Proceedings of the INET'95

"Schools as ambassadors of Hanse towns"

Amt fuer Schule, Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg
Unterrichtsprojekte mit Email. Handreichung zum Vorhaben "Hamburger Schulen ans Netz"

[Ikuta/Langner/Kurokami 1998]
Ikuta, T., Langner, I., Kurokami, H. (1998)
"A comparative Study on Internet Utilization for Problem Centered Learning in Germany and Japan"

"OCN sukuuru pakku". Shigatsu kara teikyou kaishi.
In: Kyouiku Katei Shinbun, 1998.03.07: 1

[Kageto 1997]
Kageto, M. (1997)
"Asian Students' Internet Exchange Program"
In: Proceedings of the INET'97

Konet Plan, Konet World

[Kyoukashin 1997.11.17]
Monbushou (Ed.)
Kyoiku Katei Shingikai Chukan Matome. Kyoiku katei no kijun no kaizen no kihon hoko ni tsuite

learn:line, der Bildungsserver in NRW

Apple MediaKids Home Page

PEWI (Project on Education with Internet)

[Ritter 1995]
Ritter, M. (1995)
Computer und handlungsorientierter Unterricht. Zur allgemeinen und fremdsprachendidaktischen Reichweite eines neuen Mediums.
Donauwoerth: Ludwig Auer, 1995


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Ziele von "Schulen an das Netz"
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"Shin 100ko purojekuto seika happyou-kai - bunkakai"

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