Open University of Hong Kong makes online teaching materials freely available
Apps, videos and chatrooms are among the tools students now find themselves using in class. But with all the buzz about the growing trend of e-learning in Hong Kong, is education really just a click away?
Technology guru Dr Yuen Kin-sun has reservations about e-learning. He thinks more must be done to help schools reap the full benefits of learning online. As director of the Open University of Hong Kong's educational technology and publishing unit, he strives to make quality learning materials freely available online.
The Education Bureau launched the E-textbooks Market Development Scheme in 2012 to provide a subsidy to non-profit-making organisations to develop e-textbooks for schools that are cheaper than printed textbooks.
Since then, Yuen and his team have been developing e-textbooks as desirable alternatives to printed textbooks. The scheme was initiated to curb rising textbook prices, but it also set the stage for the implementation of e-learning.
"In many cases, it is not about each student having his own device and working on his own. If we want e-learning to permeate every part of a student's work, I think the core content has to be available. We are talking about materials that teachers can modify to cater to students' needs, and make their own," Yuen says.
The Open University team has developed a series of English textbooks for primary and secondary students. Rather than gathering information from around the internet, Yuen believes it's essential to have a set of core learning materials.
Various versions are available on the Open Textbook platform opentextbooks.org.hk including print, PDF and e-publishing, and those with multimedia content and interactive features. The site also carries tertiary and university textbooks.
In an advanced version, answers to exercises or student essays can be stored electronically. This allows teachers to track and analyse performance, and form a profile of a student's learning. "Teachers are the best people to choose the version they like to have," says Yuen.
"Different schools will have different levels of IT capabilities and that goes for teachers, too. They have to find the best [version] that suits them." He expects schools to slowly move from the print to the e-version of textbooks and engage in learner analytics later.
Forty schools are using Open Textbooks on a trial basis. Yuen expects the number to grow to 100 before they become officially available for the next academic year. The books have been vetted by the Open University's external and internal assessment system. Yuen says they will submit copies to the Education Bureau for vetting to ensure they are put on its recommended books lists.
Yuen hopes that an online collaborative environment will emerge with open source textbooks which are free, flexible and directly available for use.
"Books can be adapted to suit specific needs of the schools, and teachers' contributions to the books can be shared. This will be a very practical way to spread e-learning on a large scale," says Yuen.
"Learning content should not just be created by publishing companies. Teachers should be allowed to create their own.
"That is only possible if they are using open source materials without any fear of copyright infringement," he says. The books produced by Yuen's team use a Creative Commons licence.
Langton Cheung Yung-pong, chairman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council, welcomes more choices of textbooks, although he does not expect prices to come down significantly due to the cost involved in textbook development.
"There are very few e-books for any subject or level. We have very little to choose from. E-textbooks tend to be more common for primary subjects like maths and general studies, where they feature multidimensional models, or images," says Cheung.
Creating digital materials is more difficult and time-consuming for subjects at secondary level because of the amount and complexity of information involved.
True Light Middle School has just signed up for use of the Open University books for its junior secondary English classes. Jane Yip, head of the school's English panel, says they will use them as supplementary materials, as they have already created school-based materials to use in place of textbooks.
"Our focus is to help students become more active and make teaching more learner-centred through online tools," she says. In class, her students use apps for brainstorming and to check rhyming words. "It will be good to be able to track students' performance over time. We can't do it on our current system," she says.
True Light's IT panel head, Henry Ha Chi-hung, expects more e-resources to come on stream. But he says teachers should remain focused on teaching pedagogy - how to effectively integrate technology into the classroom. "We need an assessment on how virtual tools benefit learning," Ha says.
Backed by HK$17.5 million funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, Yuen enthuses about his project which he likens to Wikipedia. "It is non-profit and it should become a social enterprise owned and run by a group of like-minded people for teachers and students in the long term," he says.
"We will need voluntary services by enthusiasts and experts in open educational resources. Policy support and facilitation will also be sought from government and major institutions and organisations.
"We also expect revenues from optional sale services ranging from printed books, to audio or e-reader versions and study aids, and donations from individual users and major foundations, and even online advertising at the website and in the textbooks," Yuen says.