The Government is to give students from low-income families notebook computers in a bid to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor. The Quality Education Fund (QEF) has earmarked $200 million to carry out Digital Bridge, an initiative to provide Hong Kong secondary schools with 23,000 notebook computers. The scheme is in response to the call by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in his Policy Address last year to provide IT funding for needy students. All computers will be sponsored by private companies at a cost of $8,500 each, said Ma Siu-leung, principal education officer for information systems. Mr Ma said the QEF would let schools decide who would be eligible for a computer, but he suggested that those facing financial difficulties, whose families were receiving welfare or were receiving remission on fees charged by aided schools were most likely to qualify. Teachers should make the decisions, he said, because they had the most regular contact with students' parents. The QEF would not draw up guidelines to differentiate poor students from the rest to avoid labelling individuals. Although about 70 per cent of households have access to a computer, Mr Ma is concerned that there is still a digital divide among secondary students. The QEF is evaluating how many computers each school should receive. At the moment, each school is expected to be allocated between 20 and 90 laptops. One aim of the project is to strengthen students' knowledge of Web technology. To ensure that they are learning rather than merely sending e-mail and surfing the Net, Mr Ma suggested that students benefiting from the scheme should be asked to take part in computer competitions. They could, for example, use a combination of technologies to present their assignments. Schools have been given the option of purchasing the computers through the Hong Kong Education City Web site or from other suppliers. The machines will be installed with Microsoft office, Web browsers, a basic operating system and a Web editor, as well as 20 hours of free dial-up Internet connection. Mr Ma recommended that the computers be borrowed for a minimum period of three months, at the school's discretion. Students are expected to receive their computers within the next month.