Miyagawa discusses his experiences with “Visualizing Japan,” which was selected as a finalist for the Japan Prize, a prestigious international prize for educational media.

By George Tsiveriotis
G CMS, ’17

Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics and Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT (Global Studies and Languages/Linguistics), is known as an early adopter of online educational technologies and a vocal advocate of the potential of digital learning. He was named one of twenty national “Shapers of the Future” by the educational technology magazine Converge in 2002, and more recently, was honored with the 2012 President’s Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence. Miyagawa’s massive open online course (MOOC) “Visualizing Japan” — co-taught by MIT Emeritus Professor of Japanese History John Dower, Harvard historian Andrew Gordon, and Duke art historian Gennifer Weisenfeld — explores modern Japanese history through the historical visual record and engages with the challenges of reading history through imagery. “Visualizing Japan” has been selected as a finalist for the Japan Prize, a prestigious international prize for educational media. Started in 1965 as an international competition for educational television, the Japan Prize has paid close attention to the evolution of media and technology, honoring online tools, interactive learning technologies, and games that were ahead of their time.

We spoke with Professor Miyagawa about his experience co-creating and co-teaching “Visualizing Japan.” (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

How would you describe the historical content of “Visualizing Japan?”

The MOOC picks up in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry went to Japan, and follows the country through modernization and Westernization. So we trace Japan from 1853 until around 1930.

What are the biggest challenges of learning history through visual sources?

Students found the historical content to be easily accessible because they were studying it through stunning visuals. And these visuals are often not so readily available to the public.

The challenge for us was that we had to go to over 200 archives to ask for permission to use their images. And it took a lot of work to convince the museums to make their images available not only for educational use, but also in Creative Commons so that they could be downloaded, distributed, and altered by students. This created an environment of active learning rather than passive consumption of imagery.

What are some other ways you made the learning process more active and collaborative?

First, the discussion forum was extremely active throughout the MOOC. On the first day, we threw up this poster of an image of a 1930s woman in the Ginza area in Tokyo, asking the students to comment on it, and we had 800 very thoughtful comments – many of them replying to one another. And that was a surprise – I thought maybe we’d get a handful, but I never expected to get 800 comments. And the discussion was not only thoughtful and productive, but very civil throughout the entire course.

Secondly, there is this image annotation tool that HarvardX produced in which learners can go into a detail of an image and add a comment that then becomes available to the entire community. Then other learners can reply or expand on existing comments, and so forth. So that also became a valuable source of interactivity.

What were the biggest surprises in teaching a MOOC of this scale?

I was very surprised by the diversity of people who participated – we had people from 140 countries from all over the globe. And we had 2 million page views, which is remarkable. We had a learner who was a 15-year-old young man who was home schooled, and he told us this was his 16th MOOC. And he happens to live in Cambridge, so I invited him to my residential class of the same name, and he told us that he has received a very large part of his education through MOOCs. And now he’s a freshman at MIT!

The other surprise was the effect of the MOOC on the residential class. I had nine students in the residential class and 3,000 students in the MOOC, simultaneously. And that was an unbelievable experience for the residential students. The class became something completely different than what I was used to. Instead of lecturing all the time, I framed the class around discussions with the students. And it was so much more valuable to them. So now that’s how I teach.

Professor Miyagawa is currently in Tokyo presenting on the “Visualizing Japan” MOOC for the panel of Japan Prize judges at the NHK Broadcasting Center. Winners of the 2015 Japan Prize will be announced on October 22nd.