A need to invest in computer literacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 1997, 12:00am

The Government has earmarked $250 million over the next two years to boost computer literacy among primary school students. The plan feels less like a determined measure to enhance the competitiveness of Hong Kong's next generation and more like a feeble response to the challenge of the next millennium.

There has been mounting pressure for the Government to spend a similar amount to improve welfare assistance to elderly citizens. But the Financial Secretary, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, would rather use the money to furnish primary schools with computers.

Under the scheme unveiled in his Budget last Wednesday, all public sector primary schools will be equipped with multimedia computers. Prevocational and technical institutes will also get special computer learning centres. The funding represents about 0.5 per cent of the $45 billion assigned for education purposes in the 1997-98 fiscal blueprint.

The initiative is a long-awaited move towards addressing these concerns, but will it be enough to produce the desired result? The fund will go to the 500-odd public primary schools. It will cover the costs for hardware and training of 15,000 teachers. The schools will each get 15 computers as well as eight sets of computer software on languages, mathematics and other subjects.

Internet access will be offered only for schools with a spare room as computer-aided learning centres.

After being informed of the Government's plan, a subsidised primary school in Wong Tai Sin, for example, is trying to raise money to create such a special purpose room. The cost is estimated at $100,000. Not many schools will have the means to meet this.

Most primary schools only provide half-day schooling with an average 40 pupils per class. This means students can probably only enjoy about one period per week of hands-on experience with the computers, leaving most unable to explore the information superhighway in school.

Under the arrangements, computers will only be used as teaching aides as computer knowledge is not recognised as a proper discipline in the primary curriculum. Students are unlikely to be given adequate computer time to work on any projects of their own.

In contrast, educators in the United States have been eager to tap the fullest potential of networked computers for building virtual classrooms. The US National Geographic Society, for instance, has come up with a KidsNet Project. Children from thousands of primary school classrooms across the country were able to look into the problem of acid rain in their districts.

Students were able to share their findings and study why there were regional differences.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation has launched an ambitious project at one university to redefine the nature of school in the information age. Under its Collaborative Visualisation scheme, major corporations have joined with educational institutions to devise ways to maximise information technology to extend the teaching and learning process beyond the classroom.

Commercial applications aside, students will be able to tap into a range of databases, work on projects with remote partners, and have access to various experts through digital conversations.

One nation closer to home has also come with a pilot scheme under the banner of 'Singapore One Network for Everyone'. The project has been hailed as a key component of the nation's IT2000 masterplan to 'transform Singapore into an intelligent island where the quality of life is enhanced by the extensive use of information technology'.

The country's National Computer Board describes the facility as 'a national high-capacity network platform that will deliver a potentially unlimited range of multimedia services to the workplace, the home and the school'.

Under the first phase of Singapore ONE, access to schools' curriculum materials and digital library through the Internet from homes will be tried out later this year.

Initially, 300 families will pilot the various services on Singapore ONE. This could be scaled up to more than 5,000 homes.

From 1999 to 2004, the second phase will see the network grow in capacity as more switches and cables are added. More applications will come on-stream.

The National Science and Technology Board will fund companies and research institutes, such as the Institute of Systems Science and the Information Technology Institute, to produce the technology for advanced multimedia applications and create new products and services for delivery on the network.

The Singapore Government has also come up with a tax incentive scheme to encourage private participation to provide content.

Similar IT programmes for educational purposes are also taking shape in countries such as Japan and Britain.

Hong Kong has been lagging far behind in the use of computers in education. There is a lack of co-ordination and foresight on the part of the policy planners.

This is evident within and outside the school system. Despite the financial resources for the two municipal councils, readers still have to apply for separate library cards for Urban and Regional Council facilities. The explanation is that their library computer systems are not compatible.

In spite of popular demand for better computer education, they have yet to devise a comprehensive strategy.

The Education Commission has completed seven reports on key areas in education, ranging from language teaching to teacher training. It has yet to tackle the issue of the application and the teaching of information technology in schools.

Putting a dozen computing gadgets in schools will not lead to students being technically prepared for the information explosion. Connectivity, software supply, curriculum design and a host of other associated topics need to be taken into account.

In his Budget speech, Mr Tsang noted: 'Hong Kong has faced the challenge of change socially, economically and technologically. As a result, the community has become increasingly concerned about whether our education system can produce young people with the right professional, technical or vocational qualifications and skills to sustain the development of Hong Kong into the next century. These concerns are shared by parents, educators, employers and the Government alike.' A meagre one-off $200 per head for computer education for the 1.2 million future leaders of our community may perhaps put officials' worries to rest. In the light of the territory's $330 billion reserves however, most parents, educators and employers would agree that the Government could dip deeper to invest in an information technology-competent generation.