The number of children with developmental disabilities in Japan is estimated at 6.5% of the overall population (*1). While it is necessary to swiftly identify and provide support for the “difficulties” faced by a diverse range of children, a lack of teachers, time constraints, and an inadequate support structure are serious issues at local authorities and schools across Japan. Against this social backdrop, the Benesse Accessibility Team has developed a learning app for children with developmental disabilities and young people with difficulties in reading and writing.
“Accessibility” means “easy to approach” or “ease of access.” To get an idea of the course of the app’s development and the background behind it, we spoke to the person in charge, who switched from “the other side” of digital development to propagate accessible education and provide greater “ease of access” to better learning that matches the individual circumstances of a diverse range of children.

Providing support for children with developmental disabilities and latent issues

The “GIGA School Program,” which has helped accelerate the trend toward one computer one child at elementary and junior high schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, contains the following definitions of the new style of education that is being targeted.

・The provision of one computer per student and the integrated rollout of a high-speed, high-capacity network to realize a public education ICT environment optimized for all children, including those with special needs, and ensures further development of their natural gifts and abilities so that no child is left behind.
・Maximize the power of teachers and students through the best mix of past educational practices and cutting-edge ICT technology. (Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Realizing of the GIGA School Program)

At schools across Japan, there are an increasing number of special needs classes (where children who belong to regular classes and are having difficulties due to developmental disabilities or other reasons can get special instruction that meets their individual needs) and “special needs education coordinators,” who take these classes which are often handed by trained teachers of regular classes. This is a response to the rise in the number of children with developmental disabilities, which in itself is the reason for the stipulation that the environment is optimized for “all children, including those with special needs.” The number of children using special needs classes has risen by 2.2x in the last decade (*2), but there are wide disparities in availability of these services between regions and to make matters worse busy teachers are already at their limits dealing with individual students, often due to a lack of experience or knowledge.

With doubts about how far learning support suited to a diverse range of children can be provided in regular class situations, Benesse Corporation’s accessibility business development team developed the “MARUG Land” app, which aims to help quickly identify when children are facing difficulties and provide learning tailored to their individual needs. We talked to development team leader Kenji Abe.

A learning app which identifies each child’s individual characteristics and provides support for their learning strengths and weaknesses

We asked Mr. Abe about who the app was for and its particular strengths.
“We originally began providing the app for the lower years of elementary school (we also plan to develop it for higher years) in order to support tailored learning at an early stage before classes start becoming difficult and children’s self-esteem starts to decline. The initial evaluation tests for “MARUG Land” ascertain strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing and cognitive characteristics. Once this is completed, we can automatically provide optimized learning content suited to each child’s needs.”

Documents that give examples of the individual education that can be supplied through “MARUG Land” owing to its ability to both evaluate cognitive characteristics/reading and writing skills and provide learning support through one app.

“In addition, the results from the evaluation test are provided in a learning report. The report does not simply state the results, but uses them as a basis for proposals that align with instructional policy, giving content that reflects the goals and shared awareness of caregivers and the teachers of both regular and special needs classes. We aim to collect a lot of learning data and to provide learning that is even more finely tuned to individual characteristics by using technologies such as AI.”

An example of a learning report displayed in “MARUG Land”

Field trials in Shinagawa Ward of ICT learning that takes account of the developmental characteristics of children’s reading and writing

In 2021, the development team conducted field trials of ICT learning that takes account of the developmental characteristics of children’s reading and writing using “MARUG Land” at 11 public elementary schools and compulsory education schools in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo.

“During the field trials, we had students at the schools, including those in regular classes, complete the evaluation test and then they could voluntarily try out the learning content at school and at home. By comparing the results from the initial test to one conducted four months later, we found there was a significant improvement in the group’s overall reading and writing skills, particularly for those groups who encountered various difficulties.”

Comparing the results of the first and second tests at elementary schools participating in the field trials. The proportion of students who had some kind of difficulty in the reading and writing test (the lower score tiers are shown on the left side of the graph: owing to the percentiles being rearranged in order starting from the lowest in order to measure where each placed within the measurement values, in these results the lower the value the more the difficulties encountered and the lower the tier placed) declined, while there was a significant increase in the proportion of students at the upper end of the scale.

Toward a society in which all children, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not, can find what they like and develop a passion for learning

Mr. Abe had previously provided back-office support as an engineer for correspondence course product services, and we asked him how he became involved with developing this kind of app and what went into it.

“As I was in the background on previous product development, I had almost no experience of direct contact with customers or social issues. However, I had the opportunity to work on network building for online school administration to create jobs in areas affected by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and through that I met people involved in formulating international accessibility standards who came to make an external presentation. That left me with the strong impression that I wanted to solve social issues using the power of technology. I then put myself forward for the in-house proposal system and being awarded a prize in that system was what got me into the accessible education business concept.”

“Development disabilities are fundamentally different from diseases in that they cannot be healed, and what is important is how far each person can master skills that fit their individual characteristics. In addition, something we learned from the earlier field trials was that even those children that had reading and writing skills that put them in the middle tiers had some kind of minor difficulties and there was also a notable tendency toward that in the upper tiers too. However, the various difficulties faced by those children are often missed as they are not immediately obvious.”

“The real aim of “MARUG Land” is not to simply improve children’s scores, but to help them build on their strengths by appropriately assessing their individual characteristics while helping them find something they like. Moreover, it aims to elicit motivation for learning without causing any loss of self-esteem. The children that have used the app can move forward positively toward their goals in society under their own steam and I want to use them as an inspiration to continue to supply and improve services.”

Mr. Abe and the Benesse Accessibility Team will continue searching for ways to widen the scope of the app at local authorities across Japan while looking to the future.

*1 The number of students belonging to regular classes in public elementary and junior high schools across Japan who may have difficulty effectively communicating with other is estimates at around 600,000, or roughly 6.5% of the population (according to a 2012 survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)
*2 An increase of around 2.2x when comparing 2006 and 2015 results for children in special needs education (according to a 2015 survey by the Ministry of Education、Culture、Sports、Science and Technology)

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Kenji Abe

Kenji Abe
Accessible Business Development Section, Business Strategy Division
Mr. Abe joined Benesse Corporation after experience in technology R&D at a major printing company. He is involved in development of various educational services, including digitizing and archiving educational content and improving creation processes. He received the merit award under the company’s internal proposal system and is currently in charge of development of educational services aimed at children of various development levels.