Vitle lessons from the Sars virus

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 12:00am

WHEN THE ATYPICAL pneumonia virus struck, information technology was given a chance to come into its own. Schools may be closed but learning can continue, with lessons posted on school Web sites and even conducted through on-line forums and Web casts.

That is the theory. The virtual classroom may have become a reality, but no one is pretending it can replace the real thing.

CUHK Federation of Alumni Associations Chan Chun Ha Secondary School in Ma On Shan was among those which, in the past two weeks, have broken the cyber barriers, as part of what is claimed to be a world first in real-time virtual schooling. The school even starts the day with an on-line assembly and physical exercise session.

It is one of about 50 schools that have signed up to Vitle - the Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment - run by Baptist University's Education Studies Department and School Administration and Management System Training and Research Unit.

Professor Alex Fung Chi-wah, who heads the project, was going to launch it as a limited pilot next month. But when he heard schools had been ordered to close he rallied support from the IT sector to go on-line earlier, and on a much greater scale. Cellwise Technologies provided the servers while broadband connection was obtained from the Powernet Internet Group, database software and an operating system from Microsoft and interactive applications from Macromedia.

This week, Catherine Leung, a Form Three Chan Chun Ha student, logged on for a Chinese lesson, learning some essay writing skills via a Webcam from teacher Phoebe Yu Yat-loi, made more fun with the use of Canto pop songs. 'This is very novel and useful for us,' she says.

But Chau Hau-fung, the school's principal, cautions that the virtual classroom is only a limited reality. While 20 to 30 per cent of students do not have access to computers at home, it is impossible for it to cover the normal curriculum - a problem other schools have faced when posting materials on Web sites. Instead, it is offering what he terms the school's extended curriculum, which this week ranged from cookery and musical appreciation to a discussion about the Iraq war. It is up to students whether they log-on or not, and only 30 to 40 have done so, out of about 800 in the school.

The Vitle service is being offered free during the school closure period. Each school can operate one virtual classroom and up to 200 accounts for individual students.

The university is also offering a virtual class open to the public, with five lessons or public lectures scheduled a day. Both are accessed via the Web site

But these are early days of experimentation for those designing the system as well as the students and teachers. 'The number of classrooms and their attendance is limited by bandwidth and computer capacity, and the imagination of teachers,' says Fung.

For Fung, Vitle is not only about reaching new limits with technology, but promoting more interactive teaching and learning. Students can ask questions and contribute to lessons and teachers can respond to an individual or group.

Universities, broadcasters and the Education and Manpower Bureau have also stepped up on-line provision for students and teachers (see panel). The EMB's site Education City and the Hong Kong Institute of Education are both offering material to teachers to upload for their students. Education City, which is providing an on-line platform for all schools, has attracted as many as 3.8 million hits a day this week, almost double the daily average for March.

Most of the e-learning that has gone on in the past two weeks has involved students being able to access and download lessons and learning materials from their school Web sites, and e-mail communication with their teachers. But for most students, only limited learning has gone on. Teachers have, meanwhile, focused their attention on those facing public exams.

But Hong Kong International School (HKIS), anxious not to have to make up lost days in the summer holidays and with no Easter break pending, has taken virtual schooling more seriously.

David Elliot, the high school's IT co-ordinator, says his initial priority was to ensure that children could access their e-mail accounts easily rather than stretching the system with fancy multi-media projects.

The school is also cashing in on its Web-based Dragon Net 'on-line school community', developed by a former student and used for communication between teachers, their classes, students and parents.

'The sites are simple. Kids can access them and communicate with teachers,' he says. For the high school, Dragon Net also offers discussion forums.

HKIS teachers have posted ideas on how to implement the virtual school. Detailed assignment schedules and deadlines for work to be submitted provide structure to students' days. Teachers are also encouraged to make daily contact with their pupils, something that has not happened in many schools.

Michael Lambert, who teaches eight to ten-year-olds at HKIS, says this is paying dividends, with 80 per cent of his class sending him e-mails on a daily basis. But IT has been a challenge for many schools. Some made valiant efforts to use their Web sites before meeting technical hurdles. The English Schools Foundation's Kennedy School, for instance, was among the first to post its learning materials, and the first to crash after schools were closed. Island School's homepage also announced this week 'Island School Web site down for the week', although students could enter to retrieve teachers' instructions.

'We put the whole lot there and I felt really proud,' said Kennedy's principal Vanessa Bingham. 'But the system's mind was blown when so many people tried to access it at once.' It took the school several days to upgrade it to support the demand.

Pui Ching Middle School has also made only limited use of its system. Technical issues such as the bandwidth of students' home computers and the capacity of the school system pose constraints on interactive classrooms, says its IT co-ordinator, Cheng King-leung. It has been distributing and collecting assignments through its on-line assessment server, and encouraged teachers to source teaching materials from the Hong Kong Education City site.

But Cheng says that only a few teachers have the necessary IT skills for e-learning. Another limitation is that even with the technology to operate virtual classes, teachers cannot be sure if students are logging on. But if the school closure is prolonged the school will tape lessons and post them on its site, he says.

Students at Ma On Shan Ling Liang Primary School are keeping in touch with their teachers mainly through ICQ, which IT co-ordinator Ng Kwok-wai believes is more effective than virtual classes. 'We have staff manning the ICQ service each day who will direct students' queries to the relevant teachers,' he says. But he suspects that students hop to entertainment rather than education sites. Technology may be coming in to its own, but even the schools with the most advanced cyber networks do not see it as a substitute for the real thing. HKIS's Elliot says: 'The virtual school is an extension of learning in this emergency time. It can help with communication and provide some resources, but it is not school.'

Access web of intriguing resources

Check out the resources on the following Web sites for both students and teachers. Most have been upgraded for the school closures. Run by RTHK. Answers students' queries on school and health education. Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups answers students' homework queries. Hong Kong Education City, with story-telling and learning materials for primary students, 10am-11am, and sessions for Form Five students 2pm-3pm. British Council site with links to games, quizzes and other channels for learning English. For international school students, teachers and parents, but a useful resource for others. Bilingual site for students aged seven to 14, with stories and activities for English learning.

Hong Kong Institute of Education Web sites: Chinese, English and maths materials for Primary Three and Four students. Portal to popular maths sites. Stories of scientists and their inventions for primary students. How to use community resources for project learning. Caritas site for on-line teaching and chat.