Online Learning: From Substitute for in-Person Classes to Platform for Inquiry

Online Learning: From Substitute for in-Person Classes to Platform for Inquiry

Mon, Dec 21, 2020
Online Learning: From Substitute for in-Person Classes to Platform for Inquiry

Shigeto Ozawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences

Online classes as an expansion of learning opportunity

Online classes are sometimes treated as a substitute for in-person classes, but is that all there is to them? Though online classes were implemented certainly out of necessity in response to the novel coronavirus, their inherent value should be that they expand learning opportunities to anyone anywhere at any time.

In fact, online learning has been common around the world for some time now. Founded in 2008, the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization, provides a variety of subjects from primary to tertiary level for free. Coursera and edX, known for their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), began operations in 2012 and serve many students.

In Japan, Waseda University has led the way in university education using the internet, with its School of Human Sciences Internet Degree Program (e-School). In addition to on-demand lessons, the Online Degree Program has a support system called Learning Coach and prides itself on its high graduation rates.

From lecture transcripts to satellite broadcasts to webcasts

Looking back in history, a publication known as lecture transcripts was the first to contribute to expanding learning opportunities. Lecture transcripts were an important learning tool for people who could not come to Tokyo or go to college due to financial reasons. Waseda is credited as a pioneer for the lecture transcripts as well [1].

Private-sector businesses have also made great contributions in the development of remote education in Japan (see Figure 3). Among other services, the University Exam Radio Course broadcast started in 1952 by Obunsha, the correspondence course for composition instruction started in 1961 in Shizuoka by today’s Z-Kai, and the satellite broadcast lessons begun by Yoyogi Seminar in 1989 were all unprecedented in the world. It is important to note that each one expanded learning opportunities regardless of location and delivered a variety of learning structures not limited to a classroom.

Figure 1. Lecture transcript from the political lecture press (

Overcoming “learning alone”

Not only online classes but any learning without in-person contact has the risk of becoming “learning alone [2].” When learning in a classroom, the eyes of others provide discipline, even in a one-way lecture style class, and the sound of others writing signals when to take notes, but getting this kind of additional information in an online class could be difficult. Furthermore, keeping one’s own intellectual curiosity up can be a challenge.

However, some effective learning methods become possible by solitude. One is the method of not only thinking in one’s head but visualizing their thoughts, speaking aloud or explaining as if someone were there. In the field of learning sciences, these methods are known as externalization [3] and self-explanation [4].

In management science, a theory associates the process of activities like externalization with knowledge creation [5]. The ability to share tacit knowledge in words and convert that into tacit knowledge is essential for individuals and groups to harness creativity.

Figure 2. Study products: One-minute promotional video based on inquiry with peer review.

Online learning as platform for inquiry-based learning

Despite the above, online learning is not always lonely. Peer review, a learning method made easier online, involves students evaluating each other’s reports and works and providing criticism through online discussion. Instead of the teacher unilaterally providing answers, students (peers like classmates, acquaintances, friends, colleagues) can learn from each other and examine the questions themselves. There is great potential in peer editing, exemplified by Wikipedia.

Furthermore, bringing inquiry-based learning to class can provide experiences only possible online. I do research on support for group study (problem-finding and solving) based on knowledge of learning sciences and have introduced inquiry-based learning to my own lessons with around 60 students.

For in-person classes, an assignment of making and presenting a video of inquiry findings would be limited by class time and the number of students, but this is easy to achieve with online classes. Additionally, by incorporating a peer review instead of just ending an assignment with its submission or presentation, students can encourage each other’s learning. Using the features of online learning, the 2020 academic year has seen unprecedented results.

Instead of a substitute for in-person classes, what’s valuable about online learning is that it expands learning opportunities and acts as a platform for change from “being taught” to students learning collaboratively and learning through inquiry.

Figure 3. Distance education in Japan


[1] Essay for the exhibition “Waseda Correspondence Lecture Transcripts and The Era 1886-1956”
[2] Sato, T., Inoue, Y. (2008). Learning Alone, Media Studies of Correspondence Education, Tokyo: Shin-yo-sha.
[3] Shirouzu, H., Miyake, N., & Masukawa, H. (2002). Cognitively active externalization for situated reflection, Cognitive Science, 26, 469-501.
[4] Bisra, K., Liu, Q., Nesbit, J.C. et al. (2018). Inducing Self-Explanation: a Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 703–725.
[5] Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation, New York: Oxford University Press.


Associate Professor Shigeto Ozawa studied enrolled at Keio University Faculty of Environmental Information in 1995 to study social psychology and the internet. From 1999 at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology School of Knowledge Science, he engaged in research related to support on collaborative learning using new teaching methods and information technology.

After completing graduate school, Ozawa investigated career education linking junior high students with working adults as research associate at Waseda University Faculty of Human Sciences and intercollegiate collaborative classes in Oita at the Oita University Center for Research and Development of Higher Education before resuming his current position in 2010. He specializes in learning sciences and educational technology.

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