Facts at our fingertips

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am



Non-profit organisations will need to spend millions of dollars before they qualify for a new Hong Kong government subsidy, an expert on electronic learning says. The HK$50million grant has been proposed to develop high-quality digital textbooks for schools.

The government is promoting e-textbooks as a way to break the stranglehold of textbook publishers. Two weeks ago it failed to force publishers to cut textbook costs by separating sales of textbooks and free teaching materials.

Textbook publishers have been accused of pushing up prices, with schools and parents fearing they will have to pay additional costs.

Wilton Fok, head of the University of Hong Kong's e-learning technology development laboratory, welcomes the government's subsidy which could help registered charities and universities publish e-textbooks.

Yet he fears it may not cover the huge cost of producing e-books and doubts its chances of success.

His warnings echo comments by Erwin Huang, chief executive of WebOrganic, which offers subsidised computer devices to needy students. Huang says the subsidy is miniscule - 'a drop of water to fill a bucket'.

Fok says the maximum grant of HK$4 million for each subject area - which an e-book developer needs to match - must pay for research, development and accreditation procedures, and is 'barely enough'.

He says the scheme will succeed only if non-profit organisations believe there is enough of a financial incentive to enter the market.

The university's laboratory has started a project linking engineers, academics and teachers from primary and secondary schools to develop a software platform to produce digital teaching materials.

The platform cost HK$200,000 to create, well before the price of content was considered. About 50government schools have signed up for a free trial enabling teachers to use the platform's core functions to create teaching materials.

Ken Law Kam-yun, a project officer in charge of the laboratory's interactive learning area, says the move to digital teaching requires schools to improve their computer hardware, such as ensuring adequate wireless connectivity. He also says e-textbooks must be 'user friendly' if they are to win over schools, teachers and parents.

All organisations joining the government's e-textbooks scheme must sign a contract for between four and six years, covering areas including pricing and the content of the study materials. They will not be allowed to change the set price that covers the contract period.


E-learning represents the future

Whether or not new technology makes it easier for students to learn is a matter of academic debate.

The growing dependence on computers - in all their many forms - for information and entertainment means today Hong Kong's young generation are more likely to be glued to a computer screen or game console than reading books.

The shift to a digital age made e-learning an inevitable trend. The benefits of e-learning are clear: teaching materials are easy to update and manage, cheaper and greener to produce and more portable; children's bags no longer need to be weighed down by books.

Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the Secretary for Education, is backing e-learning after failing to persuade publishers to unbundle expensive supplementary materials from textbooks. He says the government will now focus on developing e-books - presumably in the hope that this will lead to cheaper textbooks.

Sin Chung-kai, a former legislator and a member of the working group on textbooks and e-learning resources development, wants to see a more proactive stance from both the government and industry.

Soon students will be putting everything onto their laptops, or - more likely - tablet computers, he says. This means textbook publishers must stop dreaming of 'the good old days' - and work harder to convert textbooks into tablet- or laptop-friendly versions.

A rich city with poor education resources

Many experts say the HK$50 million subsidy fund, to be awarded to organisations and schools that match the grant, is barely sufficient.

It is unclear how many non-profit groups can afford to spend a few million dollars to benefit from the subsidies. More resources are needed to nurture the market and strengthen e-learning in schools.

Compared with rival city Singapore, Hong Kong is way behind when it comes to digital learning.

In 1997, Singapore started an e-learning drive and plans to turn itself an 'intelligent nation' by 2015. It has a three-phase master plan to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) into the education system.

Singapore's Ministry of Education formed a unit to research effective teaching methods, with specialist teachers leading the integration of e-learning into classrooms and the curriculum. Fifteen 'Future Schools' (those with ICT-driven approaches) will be established by 2015.

Governments around the world have long embraced the idea and invested resources. But Hong Kong's government is still dragging its feet.

A government-appointed taskforce to review teaching and learning materials in Hong Kong opted for a cautious approach. It was not until January last year that a major e-learning pilot scheme was implemented, covering 21 projects in only 61 schools.

However, with a budget of HK$59 million, the money spent is disproportionate to potential benefits that can be gained.

Without a mandatory e-learning policy, Hong Kong is set to lose out in this important area.

A student's life ... in the not-too-distant future

The life of 'Jimmy', a student in the future, was highlighted at an education symposium, focusing on mobile learning and e-learning, at La Salle College, in Kowloon.

In his absorbing speech, Jim Lengel (pictured), an American professor at the City University of New York, whose work looks at new forms of education using digital technologies, played Jimmy.

First thing in the morning, Jimmy checks if he has any forthcoming assignments via the calendar on his iPad. As his calendar is linked to his school server, his teachers can assign work to students directly.

Jimmy needs to design an experiment for his science class. To come up with ideas, he looks in his textbook, which was directly installed onto his iPad. The chapter on the human circulation system catches his eye, but he doesn't fully understand the science. Luckily, a video is included to illustrate and explain how the circulation system resembles a highway system.

As he reads, Jimmy takes notes and writes down ideas on virtual Post-it notes on the text without affecting the textbook. If he sees a word he doesn't understand or know how to pronounce, he taps it and a definition and recording of the pronunciation both appear.

After choosing to do an experiment on the link between heartbeat and exercise, Jimmy looks for data. He downloads an app called Vital Signs Camera, which uses the iPad's camera to determine a person's heart rate and breathing rate based on the colours of their face. He collects his heart rate and those of several friends, before and after exercise. Then he inputs the data onto an iPad spreadsheet.

To support this evidence, Jimmy opens an iTunes U application to look at lectures his teacher has collected for students. Videos show university lecturers directly explaining a variety of topics including the circulation system.

Next, Jimmy decides to make a video of his science teacher explaining the circulation system. Using his iPad, he video records his teacher as he answers his questions.

For his last piece of data, Jimmy uses FaceTime to contact an expert on the body's circulation at Brown University, in the US. He asks her why heart rates go up after exercise and takes a screen grab of their video conversation. Jimmy puts together all his information using the Keynote application on his iPad. He includes his spreadsheet of data, pictures and many videos. Once he is finished, he posts the presentation on his school's website for his teachers and schoolmates to see.

Lengel's speech showed how valuable mobile learning can be to a child's education. The resources are all at Jimmy's fingertips, without him even leaving home. His iPad means his education does not stop as soon as he has left the classroom.

Additional reporting by Leon Lee


'There has never been a more exciting time for e-learning than now. Ten years ago, we were not at the same point of technology transforming education. Right now, the infrastructure, students, vendors, teachers and schools are ready. The timing is perfect.'

Ng Mei-mei, executive director of HKedCity, an educational portal that promotes IT to improve teaching and learning

'There will be many issues [regarding e-textbook production] - copyright is one. You cannot expect people to contribute content to [the publisher] voluntarily.'

Wilton Fok, head of the University of Hong Kong's e-learning technology development laboratory

'Schools interested in adapting the new learning mode will be provided with adequate support.'

Michael Suen Ming-yeung, Secretary for Education

'Hong Kong distributed billions of dollars back to its people in the form of the HK$6,000 cash handouts, but part of that money should have been invested in advancing e-learning and mobile learning.'

Sin Chung-kai, a former legislator and a member of a working group on textbooks and e-learning resources development