Real PLUS Virtual

Canada offers enticing educational options in Japan that include hybrid learning environments blending traditional classroom work with online exchanges, foreign-language study and interactive computer simulations—and diplomas that open the doors to top-class universities here and abroad.

Whether they were ready for it or not, the COVID pandemic has forced educational institutions worldwide to dive headlong into the virtual learning realm. That shift has also brought students in Japan more opportunities to get a globally relevant education. 

Canada is a prime education destination for the world’s learners. The Programme for International Student Assessment, for example, consistently rates the nation’s educational system among the top five globally. Canada’s quality of life and reputation for being one of the safest nations around also generate serious gravitational pull for any parents thinking of sending their children abroad for schooling. 

EduCanada (—the government’s official website for international students seeking to study in Canada—succinctly lays out the options and benefits of learning virtually or on a Canadian campus. The site should be the first stop, particularly for an overview of what’s available in the realm of online and distance learning there. 

Preparing learners in Japan properly for such opportunities often means overcoming some tough linguistic and behavioral barriers, however. For various reasons, such as low English ability to financial constraints, some students may not be ready to head to Canada. 

There are also expats looking for alternatives. Luckily, Canadian secondary education, which may be a more palatable option for some, is available right here in Japan. 

That is where Riyo Whitney comes in, with an academic pedigree few can match. A Canadian of Japanese heritage, she started teaching back in the 1980s in Alberta and has worn every education-related sorting hat from teacher to curriculum designer, educational consultant, counsellor, principal and beyond. “I’ve taught a variety of learners from kindergarten kids to fourth-year university students,” she says.

Whitney launched the first Japanese-language program for San Mateo County in California, did a tour of administrative duty around rural British Columbia, was on the curriculum committees in British Columbia and California, and conducted lesson reviews for the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. She also founded and heads up the CCCJ’s Education Committee.

As advanced as Japan is in so many ways, its educational system has remained a bastion of rote knowledge that satisfies the letter but often not the spirit of learning, especially in an international sense. Whitney is one of those out to transform the curriculum.


Nested Schools 

While working in British Columbia in 2015, Whitney was cherry–picked to become the principal of a British Columbia Ministry of Education international school nested inside a Japanese school. Classes switched back and forth between Japanese and English, and students earned official diplomas from both Canada and Japan. 

“Most Japanese parents still want their children to have a Japanese education because they live in Japan,” Whitney notes, “but they also want them to learn English.”

According to Whitney, parents here are beginning to recognize the advantages of Canadian programs. While pursuing English is the key reason for choosing a Canadian education, the students are engaged in competency-based learning that helps develop inquiry-driven, innovative thinkers. “The kids enjoy learning—they go home and talk animatedly about doing a sustainability project, or about how they learned to do math differently. Parents are grateful for that sort of motivational education.” 

Lisa Yanagi was one of the students at that international school. She came from a Japanese middle school that typically had forty students per class, little in the way of career counseling, and the standard method of Japanese-style English-language study. “My mom found out about that school,” she says. “The small class size was great, and the same content is approached a little differently in the two curricula, so you develop ways to approach the material from different angles.”

Yanagi went on to study microbiology at UBC and is intent on becoming a doctor. She adds: “The reason I chose university in Canada is because I had a Canadian diploma.” Because of COVID, Yanagi did her first year at UBC completely online, keeping what she calls “vampire hours—I woke up at midnight and did courses.” 

Two Diplomas in One 

Whitney is now working with a partner to incorporate a similar nesting program at schools all over Japan through the Ontario Virtual School (OVS), Canada’s highly respected virtual academy, which offers the internationally recognized Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) at any MEXT-approved school in Japan. OVS contracts Canadian certified teachers and Japanese consultants to support students here in both Japanese and English, and assists with university planning, course selection, registration, and in-person tutoring in the English language and/or academic support. 

There are other Canadian options in Japan, with brick-and-mortar schools offering the curricula of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island. The first two present double diploma programs while the others are single diploma programs. The forerunner for the virtual Canadian option in Japan is OVS. Due to the growing popularity of online options, other programs are in the works.

International schools in Japan generally follow the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge models. While offering solid educations with countless possibilities for studying abroad, their tuition is typically high enough to discourage most families from enrolling their kids. Open spots are also limited in number. The most problematic feature of those programs is that the final exam determines success or failure. The OVS program and other Canadian programs like it, however, focus on formative assessments that promote and reward cumulative achievement.

Whitney wants to make the double diploma program more accessible and affordable. “The OVS program, for example, is a way of providing a double diploma for a fraction of the price,” she notes, “and the opportunity to follow the Canadian curriculum.” Her ultimate goal is to plant the seed for educational reform. She is currently in negotiations with a few schools in Tokyo as well as outside of the Kanto area to incorporate the program into their offerings.


Start from the Heart

There are also clear benefits for students that the traditional Japanese educational system is not serving so well. “A growing number of kids are not attending school for various reasons, whether because of bullying or being hikikomori—social recluses. Kikokushijo, or returnees who studied abroad, also have limited options to continue their studies in English once back in Japan.”

Whitney indicates that a lack of confidence and fear of risk-taking can be barriers to learning and preparing for any career outside the country’s shores. She stresses that socio-emotional learning is pivotal. “Learning doesn’t become meaningful and children don’t want to learn unless their emotions are considered,” she says. “Deep learning is accessed through the emotions.” Most certified Canadian teachers are trained in such education. 

“Face-to-face teaching is usually the best,” Whitney adds. “However, flexibility and responsiveness are practical perks of online learning, which can also be more personalized in a sense because asynchronous programs allow students to view lessons whenever and wherever, and at their own pace.” 

According to Whitney, the double diploma has helped many who otherwise may not have been able to enter prestigious universities. They develop both English-language skills and 21st-century competencies. She points to Yanagi and her classmates as examples—they all went on to university, and many to excellent schools. These include institutions in Canada, such as the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and Dalhousie University, as well as domestic universities such as Waseda, Sophia, ICU, and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Along the way, Whitney would love to see more interaction and collaboration between Canadian teachers—generally trained in effective strategies and processes to entice inquiry—and their more content-focused Japanese counterparts, who focus on filling the student with information to pass exams. A hybrid style more suited to supporting 21st-century Japan might emerge. 


Riyo Whitney is with OVS Japan:

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