SWET Toolbox: Review of JMOOC Online Classes

By Winifred A. Bird

MOOCs or “massive open online courses” are a new form of distance learning intended to bring university-level education to the far-flung masses by capitalizing on widespread Internet access. Typically, courses are free or low-cost and involve a combination of video lectures, reading material, online discussion forums, tests, and other assignments. Since the concept emerged in 2008, Stanford, Oxford, the University of Hamburg, and many other prestigious universities around the world have begun offering MOOCs (occasionally linking them to college credits). And now, thanks to the Japan Massive Open Online Education Promotion Council (JMOOC), there are MOOCs in Japanese.

For Japanese-English wordsmiths hoping to acquire specialized vocabulary, dip our toes in novel subject matter, or simply stimulate our routine-weary brains, this means a fantastic new array of free resources. JMOOC’s role is to certify and promote courses from a wide range of universities and other institutions, which are offered through several online platforms. Since JMOOC’s launch in 2014, these courses have clocked over 600,000 enrollments. Upcoming options—all of which are free and taught in Japanese—include a class on the ethics of war from Hokkaido University, an introduction to programming from the National Institute of Informatics, and a statistics course taught by professors from four different schools.

This January, I tried out my first Japanese MOOC: a four-week class on “cultural translation” offered by Nihon University’s Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies via Docomo’s Gacco platform. Every week, I was instructed to watch six videos related to “how culture is translated, adapted, and transformed across boundaries” in the fields of literature, film, manga, and theater. Each video was an easily digestible 10 to 20 minutes, which fit in conveniently over breakfast or before bed. As the instructor spoke, a transcript scrolled along the right side of the screen—an excellent format for improving sight recognition of new vocabulary. Sometimes, instead of a lecture, the instructor for the day interviewed a real-world cultural translator, such as the surprisingly sober editor of the manga magazine Comic Beam. Quality and level of difficulty varied; some of the interviews were painfully awkward, but in general each video offered at least one or two interesting ideas. These lectures were supplemented with downloadable files such as lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations. I quickly gave up on reading these, however, since they mostly repeated what was in the lectures. Truly dedicated students also had the option of seeking out additional suggested readings such as novels and academic articles.

Each week ended with a brief quiz consisting of two easy multiple-choice questions. Watching the videos usually ensured a perfect score. This was disappointing, as I would have liked a bit more outside motivation to absorb and reflect on the material presented in the lectures. The fairly active discussion forums could serve that purpose, of course, if I used them more frequently. But I usually felt timid about posting comments. Passively absorbing a lecture on the adaptation of the haiku form by Chinese poets is one thing; intelligently discussing it in writing is another, and for me much more intimidating level of engagement. Several non-native speakers in the course contributed frequently to the discussions, which made me feel more comfortable, but in general my lack of background in the Japanese academic world held me back.

The same issue arose for me in the final assignment, a 2,000-character essay on an example of cultural translation. This time, however, I was not able to avoid it (unless I wanted to forgo my symbolic certificate of completion). So I knuckled down, wrote my paper comparing three Asian cookbooks, and submitted it for peer review. On the Gacco platform, fellow students rather than professors grade the papers. This meant that before seeing my own review results, I had to score and comment on papers by five other students—quite a substantial task (again, this can be skipped if you’re not interested in the certification, although it’s part of what keeps the whole system running for free). In return, I received comments and scores from five peers. These were generally fair, although broad and in some cases overly gentle. For me, the main learning came in the process of writing the essay, not in reading the comments on it.

Overall, I found the course useful, although more as a language-learning tool than for its actual content. I plan to sign up for more courses in unfamiliar fields in the future. I hope to see some of you there in the virtual world of learning!