Learning without pens and paper

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's goodbye chalk, blackboard and even textbooks in the classroom and hello to a new age of computers and e-books. At least it is if the latest Education and Manpower Bureau 'IT in Education Strategy' pays off.

Chief curriculum development officer (IT in Education) She Mang said the latest strategy - the third - which will be ready early next year, aims to build upon the computer network already available in local schools.

'So far we have been focused on narrowing the digital divide, providing enough hardware and software and teaching students how to be computer literate,' Mr She said.

'That is not our only goal. We want to teach students how to use IT to learn. The focus of the new strategy is to make IT a part and parcel of education, like the chalk and blackboard was 200 years ago.'

Mr She said Hong Kong schools had already achieved a level of connectivity that was the envy of other well-developed countries, when judged by the traditional benchmark of computer to student ratios. There is currently one computer for every four secondary school students, one for every six primary school students and one for every two special needs students, the vast majority plugged into broadband.

In addition, it is estimated 97 per cent of students had computers at home, and together with access to computers in schools and community centres, the number of pupils unable to connect to the internet after school hours was 'nearly non-existent', Mr She said.

However, he added that computers in many schools were operating far below their potential.

'Take the internet, it is undoubtedly a very important learning resource, providing a lot of information on every subject. For example, with English language you have many essays, stories, e-books to choose from. But use IT as a tool and there is a lot more you can do.

'There are many ways to make use of technology, like setting up campus TV. Teaching them how to use the technology is simple, and you will also be teaching them how to report, collaborate with other students and how to critically look into matters happening around them,' he said.

A mini IT revolution is already occurring at Renaissance College in the New Territories, the newest addition to the English Schools Foundation. Armed with a partnership with Apple, the Ma On Shan school has successfully launched a one-to-one laptop programme that gives every student their own computer screen.

The campus is almost completely wireless. Boasting 860 computers, including laptops for loan to primary students - secondary students are expected to buy their own - electronic whiteboards and large fibre optics running beneath the floors of the classroom, pencil and paper are nowhere to be seen.

'Kids approach laptops as I would a calculator,' said principal Peter Kenny.

Mr Kenny described the digital revolution as having more to do with developing people's understanding and less to do with machines.

'Knowledge is dynamic, advances in some subjects like genetics change hourly. But textbooks are outdated before they even go to print. Internet sites like Wikipedia are current and offer multiple perspectives on any issue, like how the Iraqis view the American occupation, whereas textbooks will give one biased view,' Mr Kenny said.

'In the 1970s and 1980s a lot of fuss was made about calculators making kids dumber. But the effect calculators actually had was to enable students to solve more complex problems. Computers do the same thing,' he said.

The school has set up e-learning platforms to allow enhanced distance learning and even a version of the networking website Asia Xpat, where teachers can log on and find out more about the school and Hong Kong, with tips on anything from teaching to fine dining.

Mr She said the EMB was encouraging schools to set up similar e-learning platforms where students and staff could log in to participate in self-learning, collaborative exercises, group discussions and self-assessment, which would help reduce rote learning in the classroom and free up time for different activities.

He added the success of such schemes rested on the commitment and initiative of individual teachers.

'The question is; have teachers really embraced IT? Are they encouraging students to use it? This is less even between schools. A proportion of teachers are still using IT chiefly as a presentation tool, replacing their projectors with Power Point. This is inevitably part of the process but we hope teachers undergo more professional development in this area.

'What we have found is that a lot of teachers know how to use the technology but they don't receive a lot of support and quickly run out of new ideas. So we have been running refresher training courses to teach not the technical aspects but how to use IT for learning, how to create and write a blog and the different channels available to interact with others,' he said.

'In addition we have tried to build an online community of teachers where they can share ideas and encourage each other.'

The digital age has also created new opportunities for bad behaviour beyond the school gates. This was highlighted last year after record companies filed a civil suit against a welfare recipient whose daughter had used the family computer to download music illegally from the Web.

The computer had earlier been donated by the Social Welfare Department to help the children with their education. The father, who described himself as computer illiterate, had been tricked into thinking his daughter was simply doing her homework, and the case was later settled out of court.

Media focus then shifted to internet plagiarism after the Examinations and Assessment Authority received 506 complaints alleging students had used mobile phones to access the internet during an HKCEE English exam last year.

And although cyber-bullying in Hong Kong has yet to reach the levels in Britain and the US, where it is has been blamed for a spate of student suicides, Mr She warned teachers and parents against complacency.

'The abuse of the internet such as plagiarism, bullying and copyright infringement is a concern. Teachers will monitor student interaction within school websites, but outside it is beyond their control. In fact, all education is like that.'