In 2020, the world was hit by the coronavirus crisis, and the notions of normal and everyday were turned on their heads. Universities were not immune from the effects of the crisis. In this article, we look back on the initiatives taken by the School of Science to maintain high standards of education and research at the University of Tokyo.
Graduation Ceremony Held Under Restrictions, Diplomas Presented at Offices
It began with a single message.
In January 2020, Professor Masahiro Hoshino, Dean of the School of Science, heard from a fellow researcher overseas that a pneumonia of unknown cause seemed to be spreading in Wuhan, China. Soon, this pneumonia was identified as an infectious disease, later to be named COVID-19, that was caused by a novel type of coronavirus. Human-to-human transmission was also confirmed.
“I knew that the outbreak of an infectious disease caused by an unknown virus was not a trivial matter. However, I thought at first that the situation would simply require minor precautions, just as we took in the previous instances of respiratory infections such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) that remained local outbreaks.” (Hoshino)
However, COVID-19 soon spread from Wuhan to other parts of China and eventually across the globe, with the number of deaths increasing sharply. Infections were confirmed in Japan as well in people who had traveled to Wuhan and those who had come into contact with tourists from Wuhan. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international emergency at the end of January.
In February, the situation became increasingly serious with the arrival of a cruise ship carrying infected passengers at Yokohama Port, with increases in the number of localized outbreaks known as clusters and cases with unknown infection routes, and the death of the first infected person in Japan. Then, at the end of February, the Japanese government asked elementary, junior high and senior high schools nationwide to close temporarily from the beginning of March, which had a major impact on school education. Events and meetings had already been cancelled both on- and off-campus, and the School of Science began discussing how it might hold its graduation ceremony the following month.
On March 11, WHO declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. Lockdowns of varying severity were implemented in Europe, and New York in the USA, where the virus was rampant. In Japan, organizers decided to postpone the season opening of professional baseball and J-League football, to cancel the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, and to postpone the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics for one year. It was a bizarre end to the academic year that no-one could have imagined three months earlier.
“In the end, the graduation ceremony for the entire university was held with a selection of students gathered at Yasuda Auditorium, and degrees were conferred to student representatives only. In previous years of course, the heads of undergraduate and graduate departments in the School of Science would hand out diplomas to each of the graduates gathered together for the occasion, but this practice was suspended; instead, we had graduates come individually to offices every two to three minutes to receive their diplomas.” (Hoshino)
No-One Will Be Left Behind
On April 7, a state of emergency declaration was made in seven Japanese prefectures in accordance with the Act on Special Measures for the Novel Coronavirus, and the declarations were expanded nationwide on April 16. The new university semester began under unprecedented circumstances in which the movement of people was restricted and contact with others was required to be reduced as much as possible.
It had already been decided that the University of Tokyo would not hold any in-person classes during the first two weeks of April. All subsequent classes would be conducted online, and students would attend lectures from home. To dispel concerns about online lectures, with which both students and faculty members had almost no experience, Dean Hoshino said the following in an online address to students:
“We will do everything we can to prevent any of our students in the School of Science from being left behind. For students who are unable to view online lectures in real time, we will provide access to recordings for later viewing and make supplementary lectures available.”
Specific techniques for conducting online classes were examined and coordinated by the Academic Affairs Committee of the School of Science, the body responsible for deliberating on and coordinating matters related to education in general.
Professor Atsushi Kawakita, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, The School of Science, and Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, says, “Usually, the Academic Affairs Committee deals mainly with matters such as curriculum development, grading, and student registration. Last year, however, we were forced to deal with challenges we hadn’t experienced before, such as changing to online classes and how to handle practical training and other activities that cannot be done online.”
During the two weeks without classes, preparations were made for the start of online teaching. This included issuing Wi-Fi routers to students, training teachers on how to use Zoom, and creating online lecture manuals for teachers and students.
“Students were also very supportive and participated wholeheartedly in the connection tests, allowing us to share knowledge on how to make the system work among faculty and students.” (Kawakita)
From April 17th, online lectures were launched by the undergraduate and graduate departments that were ready to do so. At first, there were some temporary disconnections and other hiccups, but after a month, teachers and students became familiar with the system, and the lectures proceeded smoothly.
“Students soon warmed to online lectures. Some of their feedback included: ‘It's easier to review the content because you can watch the lecture again later.’ ‘It's good to be able to ask questions during or after the lecture by using the Chat function.’ ‘I didn’t have to commute to the university campus, so I got a lot more sleep and my health improved.’” (Kawakita)
The Information Technology Center-Learning Management System (ITC-LMS), a learning management system used throughout the university, was also well received by both faculty and students, because it allows students to share lecture material files and collects reports from students, so it is easy to see which student downloaded the material and submitted the report.
Training and Experiments Resumed and Research Continued Under Activity Restrictions
On the other hand, experiments and practical training activities were not possible at all during the summer semester (S semester) from April to July. Every year, many departments of the Faculty of Science organize their schedules with classroom lectures in the morning and experiments or practical activities in the afternoon. However, last year, the lectures scheduled for the fall semester (A semester) from October to March were concentrated in the summer semester.
In May, the nationwide state of emergency was cancelled for selected regions, and eventually lifted for Tokyo on May 25. The Activity Restrictions Index for the entire University of Tokyo was eased from Level 3 (Maximum restrictions) to Level 1 (Partial restrictions) on June 12, and further lowered to Level 0.5 (Minimum restrictions) on July 10.
“This finally made it possible to resume face-to-face lessons, practical training activities, and experiments. Some departments conducted their practical training in the summer vacation period, while others resumed practical training from the fall semester.” (Hoshino)
The end of July is usually the time for the first semester examinations. However, face-to-face examinations were not conducted, and alternative evaluation methods were adopted, such as reports submitted for assessment and quizzes during online lectures.
Coronavirus had a serious impact not only on undergraduate education but also on graduate school research activities, but research recognized as highly urgent, such as that on COVID-19 countermeasures, was continued during the period of Level 3 activity restrictions. Similarly, research for writing master's theses, doctoral dissertations, and undergraduate theses were given priority.
“The decision to continue any particular research project was made carefully, based on the individual circumstances of each project. Before giving the go-ahead, we checked off a list of requirements, such as the following: Are safety measures being taken to prevent infection? Are the students engaged in the research doing it of their own volition and not under compulsion?” (Hoshino)
“In addition, we needed to continue to take care of the animals and plants in our laboratories. To do this, we organized shifts with faculty members and students, managing the requirements with the minimum number of people.” (Kawakita)
After the fall semester, when the Activity Restrictions Index was lowered to Level 0.5, lectures and seminars were continued online, but education and research activities that could only be done on campus resumed at almost normal levels.
Providing an Unchanged Educational and Research Environment
On January 7, 2021, a state of emergency was again declared in Tokyo and other areas, and the University of Tokyo's Activity Restrictions Index was raised to Level 1. As the final examinations approached, measures were taken such as switching the scheduled examinations from a face-to-face setting to online completion or student report-based evaluations. On the other hand, research activities were continued with the utmost care taken to limit the spread of infection, such as reducing the time spent on campus.
Looking back on the turbulent year, Dean Hoshino says, “We’re yet to know whether the absence of face-to-face classes and the concentration of practical activities and experiments into a shorter period has yielded the same educational benefits as before. However, through the efforts and ingenuity of both faculty and students, we were able to achieve the essential goal of maintaining a venue for learning and research.”
In addition, Professor Kawakita says, “We would like to continue to devise more educational and research techniques that can be adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. I think online lectures had a lot of strengths. We’re going to try to blend those strengths with the advantages of face-to-face communication.”
For example, devices that use virtual reality (VR) technology for practical training and experiments have now become commercially available. The School of Science is looking at how such new technologies and new products can be incorporated into their training and research.
“It may be possible to carry out onsite training in the Department of Biological Sciences using VR, without actually going into the field. We have also conducted virtual field surveys using the Street View function of Google Maps to survey roadside vegetation throughout Japan,” says Professor Kawakita.
To reduce the risk of infection, improvements to the air conditioning systems in classrooms are also being evaluated. Our existing systems recirculate indoor air, but these will be replaced with systems that can bring in fresh air from outside.
“More than anything else, we need to care for the mental health of our students,” Dean Hoshino emphasizes.
“The Student Support Office established in the School of Science has supported and cared for students with anxieties and concerns brought on by the coronavirus crisis. We have also been working hard to bring students and faculty closer to each other through Zoom-based social gatherings. We will continue to do our utmost to provide an educational and research environment at the same level as before, even in these unprecedented times.”
It is the fervent wish of all faculty members and staff of the School of Science at the University of Tokyo that our students will still be able to fully devote themselves to their studies and research during this coronavirus crisis.
Interview and text: Masatsugu Kayahara
Photography: Junichi Kaizuka