Digital learning may benefit students, but it is expensive to implement

A Sheung Shui school has become the first in the city to fully embrace e-learning. Butas the digital revolution takes hold,Elaine Lau discovers many others do nothave the tools they need

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 4:50pm

As they get ready for the new school term starting this week, children attending Fung Kai Innovative School will be the envy of many. While others lug heavy packs laden with textbooks, all that Fung Kai pupils will be carrying is a netbook. That's because the Sheung Shui school has become the first in the city to fully embrace digital textbooks.

Fung Kai began phasing them in from September 2007. With the recent addition of General Studies e-textbooks for primary four and six (material for primary three was completed earlier), all four subjects in the primary curriculum have been converted into PDF versions embedded with web links, videos and animation clips. That includes Chinese, English and mathematics.

"This is the future for education," says school supervisor Ma Siu-leung. "As they have discarded their exercise books, students submit most of their homework using their computers. There's no need for teachers to give out notes, as everything can be downloaded."

Fung Kai Innovative, formerly known as Fung Kai No 2 Primary, is the role model for what Hong Kong education officials hope will be a digital revolution here. In 2007, it was the first school in Asia selected to join Microsoft's Innovative Schools Programme. That aimed to develop best strategies and practices for a better learning environment, especially in using technology to enhance education.

As a pilot school, Fung Kai Innovative now boasts an information technology set-up that can rival that of an international school. The roll call is aided by four face-recognition machines; pupils submit their homework on an electronic platform equipped with automatic marking functions that can lessen teachers' workloads; and it also hosts a YouTube-like site, Show & Share, to share videos of lessons.

But most government schools are equipped with just the bare bones of IT infrastructure. They are far from ready to embrace the digital revolution, principals and digital book publishers say. Although schools still rely on paper texts, judicious addition of digital facilities can make for livelier learning.

At Tsung Tsin Primary School and Kindergarten in Sham Shui Po, principal Cindy Tam Woon-ling and her teachers have devoted much of the summer to working out how they can make the most of their new IT capabilities when the school's classes resume this week.

They've spent HK$1 million installing Wi-fi coverage and have bought 70 netbooks and eight tablet computers. The school already has 70 desktop units in its two computer rooms and each classroom has another five. Tam says the netbooks can be moved around so that the two classes can have full computer access. "With each student having one [netbook], we can use more interactive elements," she says.

Ronald Chan Cheuk-wai, the maths teacher heading Tsung Tsin's IT team, says they have created various educational games, including one in which students contest in a virtual tug of war by racing to solve maths problems.

"It's more interesting than simply tackling maths challenges on paper. The students race to solve the most questions and win the game.

"IT can make lessons more convenient. When teaching measurements for 3-D objects like cubes, having the class look at a 3-D display on their netbook makes more sense than having to find 30 solid objects."

Tsung Tsin may not be at the sharp end of integrating technology in education, but it's no laggard either. Tam and her colleagues began using a kind of interactive whiteboard called the Smart Board in their classrooms nearly a decade ago. The school has since installed LCD screens in classrooms to run newscasts for lessons on current affairs. Screens in stairwells show video clips of students' achievements to encourage them.

To keep abreast of the schedules of its more than 1,000 students, Tsung Tsin has also installed Octopus card readers at the door of each classroom. "We run all kinds of activities during recess and after school, so the reader can record students' attendance. At the end of the term, parents get an exhaustive record of the activities their children participated in," says Tam.

Parent-teacher consultations, which are held every three months, are now conducted online, freeing working parents from having to take time off work. "The Microsoft software that enables the virtual meeting is the one we used when classes were suspended during the Sars outbreak. Then, students attended lessons from home by remote," Tam says.

"Two hundred and fifty parents can meet at a scheduled time in front of their computers at workplaces or homes to talk with our teachers," adds Tam.

In spite of all the tech talk, Tsung Tsin's principal stresses: "We are not adopting technology for the sake of technology." Traditional teaching has a major role, she says, and sometimes it works better. Citing a visit she made to Fung Kai to observe its use of IT in teaching, Tam recalls how a teacher posed a question, expecting students to input their response into their netbooks.

"But some students were stumped by technical glitches and the teacher had to waste valuable lesson time dealing with the problem. It's much quicker to write out the answer on paper or simply shout it out," Tam says.

Alan Wong Chun-nang, an assistant psychology professor at Chinese University studying the effects of multimedia learning, says there has been little research on the impact of digital learning.

"Flashy products can attract children's attention, but whether this lasts is another matter," he says. "Too many graphics, animation and sounds can also be a distraction. The proper use of technology can help children grasp complex subjects better. The key is how to mix the different media in presentation."

Teachers need proper training in how to incorporate IT into learning, says Ma, who was the Education Bureau's principal officer in charge of developing e-learning in schools before he left to start the e-learning portal HKedcity.net in 2000.

He recognises there have been criticisms about the way IT is being used for teaching. For example, some children can't spell because they rely on the spellcheck too much. Many also develop lazy habits, turning to Wikipedia for much of their research without checking other references, and sometimes copying information from the internet instead of coming up with own answers.

"But all these [problems] are by-products of the evolution of human society," Ma says.

That's why Fung Kai Innovative runs IT etiquette classes to raise awareness of pitfalls such as invasion of privacy, he adds. Students also need to attend calligraphy classes to ensure they can write Chinese characters properly.

Many parents and school principals feel that the push towards digital learning is being made without considering families' finances. In June, St Francis of Assisi's English Primary School in Shek Kip Mei drew flak from parents for asking them to buy their children an iPad for Chinese and English lessons in the new school year.

At about HK$4,700, the cost of the tablet computer is triple that of all the textbooks for the two subjects. Yet in his 2008 policy address, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen proposed developing e-learning materials as a way to ease parents' financial burden.

A Working Group on Development of Textbooks and e-learning Resources was set up under the Education Bureau. It announced in 2009 that HK$140 million would be allocated for digital learning.

Among its programmes is the three-year Pilot Scheme on e-Learning in Schools. Of the 21 schools that received funding, Fung Kai topped the list with a grant of HK$5.2 million. An Education Bureau spokesman says the government has disbursed one-off grants ranging from HK$30,000 to HK$80,000 to individual schools for acquiring e-learning resources in the 2010-11 academic year.

"Recurrent grants have also been provided to schools to help them upkeep their IT infrastructure and connectivity. For the 2011-12 academic year, a total of HK$320 million was provided to schools in the form of Composite Information Technology Grant. Schools can also consider applying for funding support from other sources such as the Quality Education Fund," says the spokesman.

A survey of 167 schools in May by the eLearning Consortium (a group made up of parents, publishers, educators and IT specialists) showed that most have only basic digital facilities.

Joseph Siu Kwong-wai, assistant digital project director at Oxford University Press, a developer of e-textbooks, says effective e-learning must be supported by good infrastructure.

"Interactive elements like instant polling can make learning more enjoyable. But 90 per cent of the schools we visit do not have systems that can support that," he says. Siu cites his visit to a band-one school. It had Wi-fi, but the problem was its broadband capacity was so slow it could not allow all the whole class to use a computer at the same time.

In Tai Kok Tsui, Leung Kee-cheong, principal of the Fresh Fish Traders School, where nearly half of the pupils' families are on welfare, says the government does not give them enough support to go digital.

"The 20 computers we have were given by the government seven years ago. Luckily, a businessman recently donated 15 iPads to the school. But we only have partial Wi-fi coverage. Getting the whole school covered by Wi-fi costs HK$300,000 which is beyond our budget," Leung says.

"You only get support if you are among the schools selected in the Education Bureau's pilot project to promote e-learning. Fung Kai Innovative is one of the pilot schools," Leung adds.

"If the government wants to push digital books or boost the use of IT in learning, they should upgrade the equipment at schools first. Otherwise, a huge digital divide will result between the well-endowed and the cash-strapped schools."

elaine.yau@scmp.com