Junichi Kawaminami: How he evolved online classes to keep business school students engaged

Hirotaka Nakagawa

Nov 12, 2020

Junichi Kawaminami has been teaching at Doshisha Business School since 2019 after a long career in corporate marketing communications for big blue chip companies. When the pandemic hit and forced him to move his classes online, Kawaminami took the opportunity to think creatively about how education and social connections could be forged online. 

We talked to him about how he has upgraded his online class set-up for COVID-19, how students have responded, and how he hopes these changes are for the better.

Snapshot of Junichi's classroom at Doshisha Business School

Were you teaching online classes before the pandemic?

Not at all. And then all of a sudden it became all online. In the beginning, I started with a single computer and video conferencing system, which was just a normal online class, but as a teacher of communication, I thought, "This is not enough." I'm a regular viewer of YouTube, and I've noticed that YouTubers and game streamers have a lot of expertise in video communication, so I looked into the specifics of the equipment and how it's set up.

I started by making the video quality better and researched the camera, the capture card and the lighting. Since I like to shoot video, I connected my regular DSLR camera to the computer with a new capture card I bought for better images. I also installed a switcher for switching screens with a second camera, an iPad and other equipment. Professional switchers cost hundreds of thousands of yen, but we found that a simplified version (ATEM Mini) was available at a more affordable price (less than 40,000 yen). However, the timing was bad and the product was in short supply, so it was difficult to get one.

Equipment he prepared for online classes

And then mmhmm came out.

That's right. With mmhmm, it's very easy to do almost the same thing without a switcher. In fact, you can do some things that you can't do even with a switcher. For example, you can move your own face around and emphasize it where you want to get attention, which is something you can't do with a switcher.

I actually didn't have high expectations when I got it in early July as it was in beta, but more and more features were added and it got to the current level. I thought this speed was amazing.

I sometimes give lectures outside of the school, but in this current situation, some people are unable to come to an in-person seminar venue due to their company guidelines. So, there was a need for a hybrid seminar for both those in the seminar room and those watching online. To use a switcher for these hybrid seminars, I have to carry a heavy suitcase filled with all the equipment and cables I normally have in my office and arrive at the venue about two hours before the lecture to set it up. When I return to the office, I have to rewire everything. This was a painful burden.

With mmhmm, you can do some pretty advanced things on a single MacBook Pro. mmhmm's virtual green screen feature has gotten so much better and you can get a much better picture without using a green screen.

How did the students respond?

I think students are tired of being in online classes for a long time, so I try to use visual effects and animations to make the lectures intriguing and keep students engaged.

Many of the students at Doshisha's Global Business School are foreigners with working experience. There has always been lively discussion, but when I use mmhmm, some students respond to it and show interest in it.

I always demand that my students make an impact in their presentations, so I try to do that myself using mmhmm.

I always demand that my students make an impact in their presentations, so I try to do that myself using mmhmm as it is a great tool to do so. In class, students may be asked to discuss a given task as a group and present their findings. They are surprised when they see me use mmhmm, so I think they notice or discover something interesting to do with it. I'm hoping that they'll be able to do a lot of things, including using mmhmm to differentiate themselves and make an impression.

In this day, active learning where it requires students to actively participate in discussions is important. The disadvantage of using video conferencing is that when there are more people in a class, you can't see everyone's face, so it's hard to understand students' reactions compared to face-to-face.

But on the other hand, I also see the benefits of online classes. When students give a presentation online with an assignment like the one I mentioned earlier, comments come up in the chat room that wouldn't come up in person. Not directly related to mmhmm, but I think it's new and interesting, and I think it's something you can't do in a face-to-face class, to be able to write right in the middle of watching a live presentation video, like Niconico, instead of having to raise your hand after the presentation is over and to be pointed.

What have you learned from the pandemic?

There has been a trend to change the way we work, but the trend to go online has really taken off with this opportunity. This is how I felt when I moved to Kyoto (where Doshisha University is located), and I realized that when I was in Tokyo, I was close to all kinds of people and businesses, and I was able to connect with them immediately. Nowadays, it's easy to connect online and I don't care about the physical distance between us. Thanks to the generalization of online hangouts, I feel that there is less distance between us, not only for business but also for personal connections. And since everyone has gotten used to the situation, we can start talking in a relaxed way right from the start instead of sitting straight and being nervous just because it's a video conference.

This spring, a few of the students were unable to come back to Japan because of the lockdown that started while they were researching for the master's thesis back in their home countries. But this year, we also did the oral exam online.

The pandemic hit a lot of people hard in their businesses, and unfortunately some people lost their lives, but there were also new insights and things that were made possible by this. If we can switch our perspective from the negative side of things to the disruptive innovation opportunities and use those aspects to our advantage, I think we can make our lives better than ever before.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.