Learning in a brave new e-world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am

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Ask any child whether he or she likes learning through iPads, laptops or iPods and the answer will probably be a resounding 'yes'.

But is that enough reason to pour most education resources into e-learning?

While e-learning is obviously an unstoppable force, not everyone agrees that it is the answer to all educational needs.

Hong Kong has been gradually entering the brave new world of technology-based learning.

In 2009, a working group under the Education Bureau endorsed e-learning as the way of the future.

Then, in January last year, a HK$59 million pilot scheme was launched at 61 primary and secondary schools to promote electronic resources and form a base for sharing their experiences.

The latest push towards e-learning came last month when Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung, after failing to get publishers to unbundle expensive supplementary materials from textbooks, said the government would focus instead on developing e-books, presumably hoping this would lead to cheaper textbooks.

But these moves seem tepid when compared with the city's regional rival, Singapore, which is moving fast when it comes to learning online.

Singapore is leading a drive launched in 1997 to turn it into an 'intelligent nation' by 2015. It has a three-phase master plan to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) into the education system.

Its Ministry of Education has set up a special unit to develop research in effective teaching methods, with specialist teachers put in charge of leading the integration of e-learning into classrooms and the curriculum. Fifteen FutureSchools will be established by 2015.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the Education Bureau has ruled out a mandatory e-learning policy but is due to announce in the coming months measures to promote the development of e-books.

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

Sin Chung-kai, a former legislator and a member of the Working Group on Textbooks and E-learning Resources Development, hopes to see a more proactive stance on the part of the bureau and the industry.

'Textbook publishers are still dreaming of their good old days,' he says.

'It is only a matter of time before young students put everything onto their laptops or even more probably computer tablets. Publishers should work more actively in converting textbooks into tablet- or laptop-friendly versions.

'E-books can't save much but work better in the long run. They should contain video, interactive contents etcetera - functions not offered by traditional books.'

Sin says there is a lot of frustration over the limited progress made.

'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,' he says.

Hong Kong schools are, though, slowly adapting to the e-learning revolution.

Brant Knutzen, learning designer at the University of Hong Kong's faculty of education, says Hong Kong schools fare better than the average mainland school when it comes to using technology for learning. But they lag behind the West, with the probable exception of the international schools.

At Island School, run by the English Schools Foundation, Year 10 and 11 students create e-portfolios embedded with pictures, video and audio files and databases in an applied ICT course that leads to the Cambridge IE Award accredited by the Cambridge International Examinations Board.

'It takes less than 10 minutes to show a 10- or 11-year-old how to do the portfolio,' says Ken Lester, who teaches the course. 'This course is designed to allow students to evidence their understanding of ICT through an individual project, challenging them to work independently and display 21st century skills.'

E-learning advocates agree that creating work online fosters creativity, collaboration skills and desire to learn - a far cry from the traditional one-way, didactic approach to teaching and learning. Students can also get timely advice and encouragement from teachers online.

'What the portfolio has allowed us to do is to develop a curriculum that asks students to do things that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to do. We assess them on their collaboration, creativity, research and communications. Students find that a completely different way of working,' Lester says.

Most local classrooms are equipped with computers connected to the internet. The HKEdCity website, launched in 1998, is a rich source of teaching materials for primary and secondary school subjects. The Curriculum Development Institute is developing a databank of examination questions and other learning materials as a resource for schools. One major hurdle, however, is the lack of teacher training.

'Fewer than 10 per cent of teachers have received training in how to use the latest technology,' says Lau Ka-lun, IT in education co-ordinator at Lai King Catholic Secondary School, a participant in the pilot scheme. He has been seconded to the Education Bureau as a part-time IT-in-education trainer.

An extremely high workload prevents many teachers from attending the bureau's training sessions.

'Often we have to finish our lunch in 15 minutes to help with the various functions for students. For many teachers, it is difficult for them to find time to attend a half-day training session,' Lau says. 'Many schools are still rather one-dimensional in their teaching.'

Starting from this semester, Form 1 students at his school will be provided with iPad2s bought with government funding to take pictures and look for answers to questions pre-loaded onto the device during outings to historical sites. The purpose is to give them hands-on experience in gathering and analysing information - to prepare them for the compulsory subject of liberal studies offered in senior forms.

One of the students, Ruby Yip Wing-kin, likes the open atmosphere of the wired classroom, where the teacher moves between groups of students exchanging ideas in small groups in front of a computer screen. 'Teachers talk all the time in the traditional setting,' she says. 'E-learning can also reduce our schoolbag weight.'

Fellow classmate Ivy Cheung Kam-pui enjoys scouring for information online on her own. 'It is useful for analysis of various topics. Doing e-presentations also trains our speaking skills,' she says.

But educators warn advanced educational tools alone are not enough.

A review by the US Department of Education in 2010 showed 'no discernible effects' on the standardised test scores of high school students exposed to e-learning. A separate 2009 federal study on 10 major software products for teaching algebra and elementary and middle school maths and reading found that nine of them 'did not have statistically significant effects on test scores', The New York Times reported.

Lai King Catholic Secondary School principal Louisa Lo Wing- kum stresses the importance of an interactive learning process, where students can discover information for themselves and develop critical thinking. 'We are not doing IT for the sake of IT,' she says. 'But it is good to bring the latest technology into the classroom. The young generation has no resistance to it.'

Isa Wong, president of Pearson Greater China, a leading provider of educational content, says 'technology has the power to significantly improve learning outcomes through personalising learning'.

'The transformational opportunity of technology lies not in digitising printed textbooks but by combining pedagogy and technology. That can make the process of teaching and learning itself much more efficient and effective,' Wong says.

The key, Knutzen believes, is updating teachers' pedagogy, including designing new assessment methods. 'It makes very little difference if you just put up fancy PowerPoint slides, he says. 'You have to update your pedagogy to be more social constructivist, use collaboration and group work and focus more on learning outcome instead of traditional assessment methods.'

Knutzen acknowledges the difficulties in bringing about change in a short time. It is questionable, for example, how many are prepared for students who take learning into their own hands and ask tough questions.

Above all, reducing teachers' workload is indispensable in any reform.

Adds Knutzen: 'The Hong Kong government is passing up the golden opportunity with schools not having enough students. Instead of closing schools and firing teachers, why not cut the class size to 20 or 25? That would yield benefits immediately.'

20%

E-books' share of the US market in 2011, double the previous year. Printed books still account for 80pc of the market