Maintaining the Learning Cycle. “A New Learning Mechanism” Combining the Benefits of Digital and Analog Tools

Maintaining the Learning Cycle. “A New Learning Mechanism” Combining the Benefits of Digital and Analog Tools

Fueki Ryuko (The Eternal and The Transitory) – Some Things Remain The Same While Others Are Constantly Changing

Love letters – that’s what they call test sheets filled out by students at Z-kai, a leader in the correspondence education industry. These hand-written answers are the product of a tough mental workout for the students. Tutors reciprocate their affection by adding attentive hand-written comments on the test sheets in red ink. The phrase “love letters” is no exaggeration when it comes to describing this caring hand-written communication. Since its foundation over 90 years ago, the Z-kai Group has always valued “learning by writing.” Empirical evidence indicates that our true “academic knowledge is built on writing.” EdTech, or education technology, is attracting much attention these days. Yet, Z-kai remains loyal to its hand-written approach. The philosophy of fueki ryuko (to remain the same while simultaneously changing) is practiced by Z-kai, keeping alive the founder’s idea that “doing something once is better than listening to it a hundred times.” At the same time, Z-kai actively adapts to changes in the educational environment and to technical innovation. Z-kai and Wacom are doing just that in their collaboration, the first result of which was their “tablet-integrated courses for junior high-school students” launched in 2021. Their ongoing R&D collaboration is now aiming to create new learning experiences leveraged by the proven method of writing by hand.

Z-kai had actually already narrowed down possible partners through prior research at the time of venturing into the digital field. The joint development of dedicated tablets was the first step we wished to take in this direction, and we required a partner to cooperate in this task. The reason Wacom was singled out from among the many candidates was its shared passion for writing by hand. Mr. Jun Watanabe, an IT officer (System Development Sec./IT System Div.) at Z-kai recalls: “To be honest, Wacom came to mind as the first option. This is because Wacom really cares about writing by hand. And our intuition has been proven right. Wacom introduced us to its digital ink technology, WILLTM, through which our R&D gained a new dimension. Our focus is no longer on the mere reproduction of analog writing at a desk with a natural pen-on-paper feel. Wacom’s technical background has enabled us to come up with new ideas. Our joint study into semantic technologies is one of these.”

An important line of thinking in our current joint development is summed up by the two main issues of “what students write” and “how students write.” These questions always have to be asked in order to bring about learning that is individualized and optimized for every student. With both of these issues in mind, the explicit focus of the current development phase of the collaboration is “how students write.” The expected outcome of this is new tablet features to be released in 2023. These new features are designed to anchor learning habits and enhance students’ motivation to learn.

The Digital Mechanism to Accelerate the Learning Cycle

Educational services that enable students to keep learning – that’s Z-kai’s aim. And in order to keep learning, students need to work independently through what is known as the learning cycle. This consists of several steps, such as analyzing tasks, writing answers on test sheets, checking the tutor’s comments written in red ink, and reviewing corrections on the sheet in order to internalize what they have learnt. All of the new technical features to be implemented next spring are intended to provide a new driving force to keep this cycle running. Mr. Noritaka Houri, Chief of the Lower Secondary Education, Education Business Department for Grades K17 to K12 at Z-kai, has high hopes:

“It is not unusual for students to feel somehow deterred from continuous learning and reviewing of lessons, despite being well aware of their importance. We use this digital technology as a mechanism to motivate them and keep the said ‘learning cycle’ running. By introducing the new features now under development, we hope to put such a mechanism in place so that students will continue to have fun learning. To us, this kind of technology is a natural evolution of our valued tradition of writing by hand. We have had positive feedback so far from students who have tried out a prototype device offering the new features. We are now going to fine-tune these features for their implementation next spring.”


A Desire To Visualize The Human Thought Processes

What is the next step in this ongoing cooperation? Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Houri describe their ambition to create new values through this cooperation with Wacom.

“The focus of our current R&D project is on ‘how students write.’ In the next phase, to follow in the near future, we would like our R&D to come back to the matter of ‘what students write’ in order to further upgrade our services. Our expertise as an education specialist should surely have an impact on the process. Our cooperation stemmed from digital ink technologies and this is now having positive knock-on effects, including improvements in the application UX itself, thanks to the valuable input of another company cooperating with Wacom. We would also like to have Wacom as our collaborator in delivering the newly-developed services to Z-kai students – in other words, in creating new ‘learning experiences,’” says Mr. Watanabe.

“The starting point for our tutorial guidance has always been the human thought process. While discussing the subject of ‘what students write’, we started to get a feeling for the classification of thought processes. This concept was an illuminating revelation that would not have come to us if we were facing this task alone. It is very hard to generalize how tutors analyze students’ answers on their test sheets in correspondence education. We rely greatly on our empirical knowledge for analysis. Thought processes are very complex. But in the digitalization process, each element of such complexity can be mechanically labelled and categorized by the keen eyes of the guiding tutor. In this way, we hope to turn empirical knowledge into collective knowledge,” reports Mr. Houri.

The features scheduled for introduction in 2023 are based on a novel technology that will usher in a new era of “visualizing thought processes.” Correspondence education comprises two steps, i.e. students filling in test sheets and tutors checking them. A vast amount of time stretching between these two steps poses a big problem for us. Compared to home tutoring and in-person teaching, with correspondence courses it is hard to connect these two dots directly. This missing line can now be drawn using digital ink technology. It remains to be seen how such visualized information will be of practical benefit in teaching and instruction. And that is the area where Z-kai’s expertise comes into its own.

Connected Ink 2022 features a session to showcase the latest projects in the collaboration between Z-kai and Wacom. If you would like to find out more about the fusion of learning & technology and tap into the future of learning, join us at the Tokyo venue.

editor / text _ 川上主税(Chikara Kawakami)