RIETI Report June 2020

Data Collection in Extraordinary Times: Thoughts on Universities Transitioning to Online Classes

With the advance of COVID-19, life has transitioned online in many respects. One of the most applicable fields for this is in communication, and especially education, which has been forced to embrace online classes in order to ensure that students are not doubly victimized by this pandemic.

In this column, RIETI Fellow Yuki ONOZUKA looks at how Japanese universities are coping with the crisis and their approach, which has been to simply provide classes as they would normally be taught, but in a live lecture format, known as "synchronous learning." This format is used in contrast to many universities around the world, including exclusively online universities, which have adopted "asynchronous learning" techniques for reasons that the author will illustrate. ONOZUKA provides a stimulating look at the future of this unfortunately necessary development in the field of education and at the chance it provides for data-driven scientific endeavors.

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Data Collection in Extraordinary Times: Thoughts on Universities Transitioning to Online Classes


In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, many universities have canceled commencement and entrance ceremonies and postponed the start of the new school year. As no one really knows when the situation will return to normal, some institutions have begun conducting classes online. Most universities in Japan had previously never offered online classes, so some people may see our current predicament as an opportunity for increasing online class offerings for the future. I personally expect that the partial transition to online classes will be effective in both reducing the burden that classes place on university faculty and ensuring that they have time to conduct research.

Considering such circumstances, my initial intention for this column was to survey prior economic research relating to online education by universities. After establishment of the Coursera and edX platforms in 2012, Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) attracted considerable attention among economists, who have conducted studies on online classes and online education (see McPherson & Bacow [2015] for a survey). However, the current online classes being conducted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 involve different circumstances and purposes than the typical online classes mentioned above. It seems that this previous research may not necessarily be helpful in examining the current movement.

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