Make no assumptions about computer literacy

By staff blogger & teacher Andrew Blyth.

April in Japan means three things: sales and bargains, cherry blossoms, and the start of the new academic year. I teach mainly first year university students English as a foreign language. One of my classes is a writing class. I suppose many readers must be openly wondering about the title, and what it has with the students from the worlds technologically most advanced country. So, make no assumptions.

The education law in Japan says that all senior high school students must take a class in computing, of which type doesn’t matter, and there are some options (Lockley, 2011). There are two issues with this. As you know, Japan is an exam oriented country. Nothing is more important than doing well enough in the university entrance exams, so that the student can get into a uni that has a good reputation. Once that is achieved, then career prospects are easier and better. Secondly, entrance exams do not test students’ computing skills. Therefore, the washback effect is that only the subjects that are tested for university entrance are taught; everything else is considered a waste of time. Many universities hold only three exams in a day per faculty, and each exam tests one area of learning. Students are typically tested on Japanese, English as a foreign language, history & geography, and may be another subject related to the faculty they wish to join, like chemistry, physics, or similar. That means, computer skills are normally not required. For school assignments, all work is done by hand, and they do not submit anything printed from a computer, ever.

This lack of need, and lack of testing creates the situation that I have to endure with my new students. About a decade ago, when I first began teaching in Japanese universities, I wasn’t sure why my students began to resent me. One time, I gave them an assignment, and then months later learnt that a simple one or two paragraph writing task cost them six hours or more of their precious weekends. They had two problems to overcome. First was of course language. They had to not only find what they want to say, but also how to do it in a foreign language. Second, the technology. They simply hadn’t turned on a computer before (Murray & Blyth, 2011). They hadn’t used Microsoft Word before. They hadn’t typed on a real keyboard before. Neither have they used a printer before. All of these things I was already doing when I was in high school in the twentieth century; at that time it was 2010, but this is now 2017! The seventeenth year of this century, and Japanese high school students are still working without technology. Some of my students today do not have a computer or a working computer at home.

From about a decade ago, I began asking my students about how they fared with my homework, so I began to zero in on some issues. I picked up a new writing class, and began to use computers in class with Japanese university students for the first time. This allowed me to watch and observe how they get on with both the writing task and the equipment. From my observations, I’ve noted that the first lesson with computers needs to cover a few basics. Even though my syllabus has the first writing task as “electronic communication” (ie, basic emails, and how to write to your teacher with a question or problem); the real first task is starting, storing, and retrieving information. Here are a few skills I’ve found that I have to teach.

  • How to turn on a computer
  • How to start MS Word
  • How to set the keyboard input to English half-size characters (normal Roman alphabet, not Japanese “full-width” Roman font)
  • Where to plug in their newly purchased USB memory sticks (if they brought them)
  • How to save a file (not onto the desktop of the computer room computer, but to their USB memory stick)
  • How to close Word
  • How to safely disconnect their USB memory stick.
  • How to turn off the computer.

Many readers may be astounded that these steps are so basic that even pre-teen students in Anglophone countries can do these; however, this is the reality that I face with a first-year Japanese university writing class. Consequently, I have to assume that their knowledge and comprehension of signing up to a website is limited to smartphone apps. This lack of literacy severely limits the range of tasks I can expect of my students. It also gives me an opening too. I say to my students, “These are the skills you need for your first real job”.

To end with a summary of what else I do in my year with a group of students. They learn touch typing, how to format a Word document, basics of blogging, and basic netiquette. This is in addition to the range of genres they will learn in my writing class. Teaching writing in Japan is the most fascinating of challenges I can enjoy as a teacher, as it is here I feel the most acheivements. My students finish the year with a sense of pride, as they have developed real workplace skills, and have made huge strides in their English abilities.


Lockley, T. (2011). Japanese students’ experience of ICT and other technology prior to university: A survey. The JALT CALL Journal, 7(1), 93–102. [link]

Murray, A., and Blyth, A. (2011) A survey of Japanese university students’ computer literacy levels. The JALTCALL Journal, 7(3), 307-318 . [link]

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