[The original Ed-Media 1998 paper is available in pdf format from
This ASCII version has some minor changes.]
Japan and Germany both are well networked industrialised countries. Their educational systems though can be characterised as highly regulated and conservative with respect to new content. Since the middle of the 1990s Internet technology is being introduced into schools on both sides. This development means a great challenge for their respective educational systems. Introduction of Internet meets with calls for practising more forms of problem centered instead of subject oriented learning. 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.
"Problem centered" or "open learning", aims at opening up the school according to the students' needs and interests towards the world outside [Boensch 1993]. In this study we don't differentiate between the terms "problem centered learning", "integrated learning" or "open learning". In our context all of them stand for the idea that students who can choose topics, examine them independently or together with others, who are responsible for their own work, see the relevance of the topic and can try out ways to their ends, will have more motivation for learning and will be better able to deal with real life problems outside of school as well.
In our view the Internet as a tool, which allows us to communicate with people from all over the world and search for various kinds of information according to our own concerns, should not be lacking in the toolbox of students who are encouraged to practise problem solving on their own. But in order to make reasonable use of this tool, some elements of our educational systems have to change. A big potential of the Internet would remain unexploited, if it was only used withing the framework of traditional subjects that are not related to each other.
So in this paper we will present some of the basic elements of our different educational systems, show current movements towards problem centered learning, identify some of the most common patterns of Internet utilization in schools and then try to point out differences in approaches as well as common solutions to the problem of using Internet for problem centered learning. In conclusion we argue that the introduction of Internet technology into the classrooms has already fostered elements of open or problem centered learning in our countries and will further speed up this process in future.
Problem centered learning is going to be introduced officially by the Japanese Ministry of Education from grade 3 to grade 12 at 2003. Two or three classes per week are going to be held for the learning. It is not a subject like chemistry or social studies, but but there may be regular classes like in the case of subjects. This type of learning in Japan started and flourished in the 1920s. Though it declined during World War II, it became active again in the 1950s as "life centered learning." Nevertheless it was damaged by criticism that it could not foster essential skills. Now it is gaining attention for the third time because of reasons like the following:
A subject for integrated learning called "seikatsuka", similar to the German "Sachunterricht", has been already introduced to grades 1-2. The Ministry of Education intends to extend this movement up to high school and the new curriculum may contain not only activity centered content but also interdisciplinary and current topics.
As for the Internet, The Ministry of Education plans to connect all schools to Internet by the next century. For this purposes it started to establish a hundred local information centers which act as service providers for schools. At the moment all schools rely on commercial providers or universities.
Besides each school is trying various ways to use Internet for children's learning, there are some nationwide projects of collaborative learning on the net.
Many collaborative learning activities in these projects, e.g. co-observation of acid rain, co-survey of folktales, and co-making of electrical news papers, require broad area knowledge. Indeed e-mail exchange between countries or WWW based electronic news papers can not be done without the internet. It is needed in these project that learners gather data globally and think from an international point of view. Internet is one of the most useful tools for these purposes.
The content of school education in Germany is determined on the level of the 16 federal states by the respective Ministries of Education, so the situation in a given area of interst can vary considerably from state to state. Curricula exist for every subject and they tend to only slowly adapt to a changing social environment.
The idea of open learning in contrast to rigid curricula is not new. Since the beginning of the 20th century there have been experiments with project learning, and in the 1960s some forms of problem centered learning have entered elementary schools, "Hauptschule" (the "lowest" level of junior high schools) and "Gesamtschule" (comprehensive school). The "Gymnasium" (junior high/high school) though, especially grades 11-13, still very much keeps to a more traditional subject orientation. Nevertheless, also in most high schools, regulations allow for one project week per school year or several project days, and many curricula nowadays state the importance of problem centered learning, some suggest general subject independend topics for certain grades(e.g. Baden-Wuerttemberg for grades 5-11).
In Germany the Internet has been used by active individual teachers and their students since the beginning of the 1990s in grass root projects like the UUCP based ODS (Open German Schoolnet), or the European School Project (ESP). Since around 1995 more systematic efforts on a national or state level are made to connect more schools to the Internet. The biggest project is a joint initiative by the Federal Ministry of Education together with German Telecom and other corporate sponsors to connect 10,000 secondary schools to the net by the end of 1998 ("Schulen an das Netz (SaN)" [SaN]. Some of the federal states like North-Rhine-Westphalia developed their own school connectivity projects, often as a public private partnership. For other states, especially in former East Germany, it is harder to find sponsors.
Apart from bigger projects there are many individual solutions, e.g. schools cooperating with a local library, adult education school, or university. Some students also design home pages for local companies. The most popular Internet activities are e-mail-projects (e.g. partnerships with schools in other parts of Europe or in the U.S.) and presenting school activities on the World Wide Web. Communication or cooperation projects often deal with topics like school system, teenage life, creative writing, family, violence, drugs, politics, or environmental issues. [Donath 1997.10.13]
As mentioned above, German school curricula are only slowly adapting to social changes, and some efforts of innovation fail, like in the case of incorporating computer education into the curricula ("Infomationstechnische Grundbildung (ITG)") for secondary education at the end of the 1980s or the often criticised language labs.
Although often compared to the latter, it can be argued that Internet technology will change ways of learning as well outside of as inside school, because it provides possibilities for more motivated, problem centered, individual and cooperative learning. Some developments in Germany already point in this direction: It is being recognised on different levels of society now, that incorporating more forms of open and problem centered learning, especially utilizing (networked) media, is important for the future of today's students.
One example is a 1995 report by the Federal Commission for Educational Planning on media education [BLK 1995] (this commission can only make suggestions, but it shows a general direction of educational policy). 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 media education will not be a subject of its own 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. 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. Findings of this pilot shall then be used to change curricula accordingly. [SaN-goals]
Some active schools have been successful in conducting interdisciplinary Internet projects in all grades, and some pilots explicitly aim at experimenting with this approach. On the other hand, in normal school practice project oriented learning with the Internet is often hard to organise. 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 regular lessons of 45 minutes are not enough for experimenting with new technology. In cases where the pricipal or 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 presenting/summarizing, some knowlege of information technology and the subject dealing with the topic that is being researched) [Achtstaetter, 1996.11.13].
We found that many children in our countries are already having the opportunity to use the Internet in school. Support comes from national projects, corporate sponsors, prefectures, cities, universities or other organizations. 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, ministers more and more 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 and other voluntary staff. In Germany, students often play an important role as network administrators, too, whereas in Japan teachers hesitate to share those responsibilities.
Other differences between our 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, only few 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 higher education entrace exams becomes more severe in Japan, so there is less room for experiments.
According to findings so far the level of abstraction required for retrieving and collecting appropriate data, processing them into useful information and constructing one's own opinion from them (constituents of information literacy that are also part of problem centered learning) might be asking too much from children around grade 4, so the question is, whether meaningful usage of Internet can be made in lower grades and how.
We suppose that Internet introduction into schools in both countries will continue on several levels. Local initiatives will expand as well as national programs, and slowly curricula will come to include problem centered learning with the Internet, too. In the meantime schools will probably open up through the usage of Internet quicker than curricula prescribe it.
On the other hand the current situation is characterised by many experiments, and a considerable part of the teachers is in doubt about the usefulness of a tool they do not know enough themselves. The national programs in our countries both have put networked computers into the classrooms first and then only slowly started to train the teachers. So the most important issue at the moment is content. What do children really learn by using the Internet? Only by communicating superficially and expanding globalism in terms of figures the usefulness of the Internet for education cannot be proved. We will have to investigate how learners reflect their experiences through collaborative learning and communication over the Internet.