Schools without Wi-fi, kids without computers in Hong Kong's digital divide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2015, 11:42am

On the face of it, Hong Kong seems well on the path to embracing the digital age. After all, the average resident owns at least two mobile phones - penetration stands at 231 per cent - and some 85 per cent of homes have broadband access. At schools, lessons are even presented as video clips online.

Then we meet children such as 11-year-old Tang Suet-laam, who has neither computer nor internet access at home. That often made doing school exercises difficult for the student at Baptist Rainbow Primary School in Wong Tai Sin.

"A lot of homework involves using the computer. I couldn't fill in the exercises for Chinese, maths and English set out on the online forum," she says. "I couldn't use the school computer during lunchtime either as I had prefect's duties. And my mother always fetches me from school before we go to pick up my brother, so I can't stay back to use the computer."

But Suet-laam has found homework a lot easier since October. She was among 100 students who each received a tablet computer from WebOrganic, a charity promoting computer access for disadvantaged youngsters.

Chu Tsz-wing, the principal of Baptist Rainbow Primary School, says although most households take such facilities for granted, this is not the case for many of his young charges.

"I used to teach in a school serving middle-class children and having use of a computer after school is the norm. But after coming here two years ago, I found out that's not the case. Wong Tai Sin is a grass-roots district and most of our students come from poor backgrounds."

Government statistics show internet access has improved in recent years: these days just 4 per cent of the 300,000 low-income households with school-age children are not wired up compared to 13 per cent in 2010.

WebOrganic founder and chief executive Erwin Huang says that's simply not good enough: "The ability to get online has become a basic human right in this age."

No student should be deprived of internet access nowadays when computer literacy is crucial to effective education, he says.

In the past, students found out how much they progressed in learning from mid-term and final exams. Now they find out on an almost daily basis as teachers can tailor learning modules that are delivered through the internet.

Even at primary school level, many lessons require a lot of information and communications technology. Students are often expected to read material presented online before coming to class, when teachers will focus on sections that students are likely to find difficult and devote more time to discussion or interactive activities, says Huang, an entrepreneur who has been involved in sectors from mobile software to luxury retail.

Huang became a staunch advocate for digital inclusion after taking part in Rich Mate Poor Mate, an RTHK reality programme on poverty five years ago. The experience, which had him working as a rubbish collector and living in a subdivided flat for a week, gave him a fresh appreciation of the problems that disadvantaged youngsters face.

"The grass-roots parents I met work hard but cannot give computer and internet access for their children.

"Poor students have to go to the library or community centre or classmates' homes to use a computer for schoolwork. Such students lag behind in their studies as they are disconnected from the internet."

An information systems specialist who set up his own mobile app development company, Huang established WebOrganic in 2009 and tapped contacts in the industry for help: HP, for example, gave away older models of laptops and CSL agreed to provide unlimited 3G access to deserving households for HK$100 a month.

To boost sustainability, parents pay HK$100 month to join the scheme, which offered a free netbook and two years of free internet access.

"Eventually, 200 students benefited from the programme. I didn't need to pay a cent for it," Huang says.

His efforts prompted the government to set aside HK$500 million in 2011 to provide disadvantaged students with continued internet access at home. But the digital divide that puts low-income children at a disadvantage is compounded because it plays out in schools as well as homes.

Direct subsidy scheme (DSS) and international schools, which set their own fees, are fitted with top-notch IT infrastructure, including broad Wi-fi coverage and plenty of laptops, tablets and other devices to go around among students. However, just 100 government schools, one tenth of the total, have facilities approaching that.

According to the Education Bureau, HK$35 million was disbursed to 100 schools in early 2014 for the subscription of Wi-fi services and to buy mobile computing devices under the Support Scheme for e-Learning in Schools.

The 100 schools in the trial completed setting up their Wi-fi infrastructure last month and the remaining 900 public sector schools will soon be invited to submit their timetables for introducing Wi-fi in the coming years under their school development plans, a bureau spokesman says.

In the meantime, the Education Bureau says a wide range of support measures will be implemented for schools.

"[They] include the provision of technical advisory services for schools in the enhancement of Wi-fi infrastructure, improving the supply of quality e-learning resources to cater for curriculum development... pedagogies and assessment practices in alignment with the use of IT in schools," the spokesman says.

Huang, who sits on the Steering Committee on Strategic Development of Information Technology in Education, says he has been pressing the government to speed up this process.

"Hong Kong's mobile and Wi-fi hotspot coverage is ranked among the top three globally. But when it comes to schools, which are among the places that need wide coverage the most, 90 per cent are simply not covered. This is very backward compared to places such as Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai and Taipei," he says.

"The government is also putting the cart before the horse by relentlessly pushing for electronic textbooks before IT infrastructure is ready."

In 2012 the Education Bureau launched an HK$50 million e-textbook market development scheme to subsidise publishers to create e-textbooks, and the first products will be made available to schools in the current academic year.

"Under the principle of school-based management, individual schools will choose appropriate printed or electronic textbooks to suit their needs. It is not a mandatory requirement for schools to adopt e-textbooks," a spokesman says.

Besides the lack of Wi-fi coverage, the public sector schools are only equipped with rudimentary hardware - the government just pays for the setting up of two computer rooms in each school, with about 60 computers being shared by hundreds of students.

This shows how government thinking on computer set-ups for schools is stuck in the past, says Jonathan Lai Ping-wah, principal of Lee Kau Yan Memorial School in Wong Tai Sin.

"The government pays for the desktop devices which are plugged into sockets in our two computer rooms. But use of portable devices such as laptops and tablets in learning is the norm in countries such as South Korea," Lai says.

"We have to turn to charities to fill this gap, and recently secured a HK$400,000 donation for the setting up of a partial Wi-fi network. The [30 odd] portable devices we have now are sponsored by charity.

"In the past, students would go to a computer room once a week for lessons on computer use. Now, other subjects also involve the use of IT. So portable devices are taken to different classrooms for distribution among students," Lai says.

"The problem of inadequate IT infrastructure and support gives me a lot of headaches. We receive lots of government grants but these can't be used on IT as they are designated for the hiring of teaching assistants to lessen teachers' workload.

"We don't even have money to employ an IT technician. We are lucky to have an IT teacher who is willing to take on the extra duty of overseeing the smooth operation of IT infrastructure in the school.

"The Education Bureau's current policy is for students to bring their own devices to school. But not many students can afford them," Lai says.

At Baptist Rainbow Primary School, principal Chu is trying to cope with similarly inadequate resources. He has persuaded some businesses to pay for tablets for one class in Primary Four. But that's only one among many classes in the school, Chu says. To help other students who cannot afford computers, the school has secured some used devices from big firms.

"They upgrade with new devices once every two years, so they give their old computers to us. We can use them after small modifications. Now we have 40 tablets to share among 300 students," Chu says.

Huang says the government should make greater efforts to ensure basic IT infrastructure at schools instead of relying on charities. "It's the government's job to provide a steady and stable network and environment to enable e-learning at schools."

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