[SCMP Archive] Innovation in communication
[First published on Mar 24, 1994] Hong Kong International School’s Bulletin Board Service (BBS) has developed a strong following among students, teachers and parents, and the people behind it are trying to generate wider interest in using the service as an educational aid.
The school’s Dragon BBS, which is managed by nine student system operator, is in its third year of operation.
“We have had a huge response from students,” said the school’s technology coordinator, David Elliott.
“We thought of it initially as a project for technically oriented and advanced students but it has become a community resource for teachers and students. It is highly motivational.”
There are about 1300 users of the International School’s BBS – about a third of the student population of 650 use it while the rest are parents and outside users.
The most obvious educational application of the Dragon BBS is in its conference set-up, where students and teachers communicate on curriculum subjects in purpose-built files. Students can pass ideas to their teachers for comment and receive assignments using the system.
Many students also use the conference facility to bounce ideas off each other.
Popular recent topics have included issues related to Amnesty International, the environment and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China
The BBS is linked to the school’s electronic library facilities stored on CD-ROM and carries thousands of non-copyright files for users.
Through its Fidonet function, users can access other BBS services around the world.
There are plans to expand the facilities offered on the Dragon BBS – one of the next services added will be Intel, which is currently running on a pilot scheme accessible only by teachers.
The BBS runs on the school’s Novell network which links the three computer rooms.
There are about 1000 log-ons per day. The system has 10 lines and is comfortable with up to 50 users logged on simultaneously but, despite this, it suffers from peak period congestion.
Peak hours tend to be between 5pm and 9pm during the week and 11pm and midnight on weekends – there is an elaborate messaging function which provides much of the social side to the BBS.
International school is keen to encourage more widespread use of BBSs in schools.
“It would be great if other schools in Hong Kong would take the plunge,” Mr Elliott said.
According to the International School, telephone lines are one of the main costs involved in setting up a BBS.
The labour involved in caring for the updating the system is mostly free – and fun – for the nine system operators involved.
Senior student and system operator Randolph Chung said it was time well spent. “We learn a lot of technical things. Sometimes we have to write programs for specific tasks. I think I have learned a lot.”
Operators also gain interpersonal skills dealing with BBS uses and each other in maintaining and updating the system.
On the broad educational front, language is one area where the BBS has shown noticeable results. Mr Elliott said teachers had noticed marked improvement in students’ language skills since the BBS was introduced.
Many students practice foreign languages on the BBS and there is the added reinforcing aspect of everything they write being public.
According to Mr Elliot, the teacher of one modern language estimated that writing program was about twice as rapid for students using the BBS.
System operator Eddie Tom explained: “Writing on-screen is faster. It is more smooth and you don’t have to be held up like you are writing with a pen. And it is easier for the teacher to read.”
Free time was important for students to take full advantage, Mr Elliott said. International School gave students an average of one free period a day which many used to log on to the BBS.
Proficiency in English is another prerequisite, but it is not a problem at schools like Hong Kong International.
Other local schools have hesitated to introduce BBS because students have tended to regard using English-based systems as an assignment rather than fun.
Mr Elliott said this represented a challenge to BBS supporters to bring users not fluent in English on the system at a different level.
Some schools have a BBS run by students at home without the institution’s support.
The International School BBS people believe the school’s support is vital. They said it is important to have a heavy component of student management in the system, regardless of the level of support from the school.
Fear that the BBS would be used to encourage pornography, piracy and non-educational chatting could be behind some resistance among schools to the idea, the International School students said.
The first two evils, at least, are policed out of the Dragon BBS.
Non-educational communications proliferate on the BBS but Mr Elliott said the social side of the BBS was inseparable from the educational.
One fear less easy to calm was fear of computers, which Mr Chung said was a big factor in resistance to BBS use.
The spread the message that BBS can be valuable in education, yet set up at relatively low cost, members of the CLASS link system are organizing a convention to be held in June where school principals and teachers will be able to get some hands-on experience with the service.
CLASS link – it stands for computerized Linked Association of Students and Schools – has 15 school-based BBS users as members.