Why Hong Kong is becoming a hub for educational mobile apps

The city's high penetration of smartphones makes it an attractive hub for app developers to use mobile devices as educational tools, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 9:49am

It's difficult to separate youngsters from their smartphones, as they watch videos, play games and chat with friends. But what you seldom see is children using their phones as learning tools. That's because very few educational apps are available in the mobile format.

All that may be about to change, however, as a group of software developers look to take advantage of the huge potential for mobile educational apps in a city that has the seventh highest penetration rate of smartphones in the world, according to a recent Google survey.

One of them is Leung Wai-fung, the founder of Artemis Digital, whose e-book series on popular travel destinations has been downloaded in 67 countries since last year. Equally popular are his company's interactive books. About 60 per cent of them have ranked in the top 10 in the Apple Store's education category. However, 99 per cent of the apps for children in the Apple Store are games, Leung says.

To keep users focused on learning, his team developed a feature that sends an alert when a user has spent too much time on a device, to prevent possible deterioration of their eyesight. To protect target users - primary students - from negative influences, there is no access to cyberspace. "Our books are not linked to social media like Facebook," says Leung.

Mobile devices are especially useful for learning languages because they allow for frequent practice anywhere and at any time. Qooco, a Beijing-based mobile learning technology company, has tapped that possibility, incorporating cloud-based technology in its apps for learning English and Putonghua. The apps have speaking and listening exercises, and vocabulary banks for students to use. Teachers and parents can monitor their progress by accessing data on their practice sessions stored in the cloud.

Mobile devices are especially useful for learning languages because they allow for frequent practice anywhere and at any time

Qooco chief executive David Topolewski expects an explosion in the use of tablets on the mainland in the next few years, including at schools.

"Shanghai is doing some experimentation with tablets to look at what kind of content will be effective," Topolewski says. "Our belief is that some time in the next two years there will be a big push from typical printed books into tablets and you can build a lot of accountability into the system, and leverage and really level the playing field for students, not just in the coastal regions but all over China."

Up to 150,000 mainland subscribers have downloaded the Qooco Kids app, which he says fills a gap in English-language education in the country. "There is a training problem in China. Teachers understand the grammar and vocabulary but can't speak the language, so it's hard for them to teach spoken language. The other issue is large class sizes. It's impractical for these kids to learn."

Targeting students aged five to 13, Qooco Kids features a rating system and colour coding that show how well a learner has pronounced a word or sentence. Students first listen to words, phrases or sentences like "This is my mum and dad" on a mobile device, then practice by saying the words repeatedly.

The rating is questionable though, because the device might not pick up a person's pronunciation properly in a noisy environment - a problem Topolewski acknowledges.

Formerly responsible for the popular Tuneland and Monty Python games by developer 7th Level, Topolewski is nonetheless confident of the value of advanced technology. "We can track students' level of engagement, and if we know they are using it less frequently we will inform the teachers and parents." The app used for learning Putonghua - more relevant in places such as Singapore - comes with a tone analysis function that helps learners identify the right tone for a word.

The apps are meant to supplement formal learning, which is why Qooco runs three tutorial centres in Beijing to provide face-to-face instructions for students. Topolewski believes this "blended learning" approach is effective for bolstering students' level of spoken English. Its centres now cater to 1,500 students. "Mobile [learning] gives you access to practice 15 or 20 times a day if you like. It is unrealistic to do this in a centre - so it's a combination of pedagogy and convenience. We have also gamified the app so it's fun."

He cites GCSE results indicating that students who adopted the hybrid model scored much better than those who had not. The wide range of inexpensive tablets on the mainland, as well as iPads, has fuelled his optimism about the growth possibility of learning apps. "A cross-section of Chinese families can afford to support their children's learning with mobiles devices," he says.

For now, South Korea is taking the lead following its announcement to spend more than US$2 billion to develop digital textbooks, and allow students to access paper-free learning materials from a cloud-based system from 2015. All students by then will be learning on school-supplied tablets.

In Hong Kong, all aided and government schools will have free access to the cloud starting from the new school year, under an agreement between the Education Bureau and Microsoft.

Recognising the ubiquitousness of mobile devices, one parent representative welcomes the trend. Jao Ming, chairman of Eastern District Parents' Association, says: "Parents are willing to use any medium that helps their children learn. My 13-year-old daughter has a smartphone. Even Primary Five and Six students have iPhones today. Secondary school students today don't talk much on the phone but communicate via tools such as WhatsApp. This will also become a trend among primary students."

What concerns him, he says, is that students must have equal access to mobile devices. But following South Korea's example would have huge cost implications.

For Topolewski, who is abuzz with a marketing plan to invite students from Asia for a spelling contest in Singapore later this year, Hong Kong is ready for mobile learning. "We will contact local schools and need to get ourselves a local presence here. Hong Kong has the challenge of nurturing students who are trilingual and bi-literate - there is a big opportunity here," he says.