Even after Covid-19, online learning is here to stay, says former Hong Kong official

  • Former financial secretary John Tsang says that after coronavirus, education will likely be a blend of in-person and remote learning
  • Early stages of the pandemic showed many schools were not prepared to move online and students from lower-income families get left behind
South China Morning Post |
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Dividers separate students at Yau Ma Tei Catholic Primary School during their first day of face-to-face classes in months. Photo: SCMP/ Winson Wong

Education's "new normal" in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is set to be a blend of online and in-person lessons, a former top Hong Kong official has said.

John Tsang Chun-wah, who served as the government’s financial secretary for a decade before resigning to run for chief executive in 2017, also said he believed a bottom-up approach to pushing the government to roll out new policies is more effective than waiting for the administration to adapt to change and develop their own ideas.

Tsang founded the non-profit organisation Esperanza in 2018 with the aim of promoting the use of technology in schools.

The group has teamed with a variety of stakeholders in the education sector, including businesses, universities, philanthropists, and public and non-government organisations to host events including competitions, workshops and seminars.

Former Hong Kong finance chief John Tsang spoke with the SCMP about the future of the education sector after Covid-19. Photo: SCMP/ Jonathan Wong

While never working for the education department during his more than three decades in government, Tsang still had experience in the sector, including teaching physics in the US before returning to Hong Kong in 1982, which prompted him to delve back into the field after his retirement.

“Technology in education has been available for years. It’s unfortunate that only amid the Covid-19 pandemic has the whole process of adapting to online teaching and the use of technology in education been sped up,” he said.

“Still, amid the pandemic, we could see many students still yearned for face-to-face classes. Therefore, I believe the future for education will be blended learning, with a combination of both online and on-site lessons for students.”

Younger children may benefit more from face-to-face teaching, as they should spend less time on electronic devices, he said, but older ones may be able to take more classes virtually. 

Students from low-income families lack the resources needed for online learning 

But, according to Tsang, the early stages of the pandemic showed some schools “were not well-prepared” to switch fully to an online mode.

Experts have also warned of a widening gap between more well-off students and those from lower-income families, with studies during the pandemic showing about 10 per cent of students had no electronic devices at home.

Tsang said the government should be providing more resources for schools to facilitate online learning, while also speeding up making free Wi-fi available across the entire city. Educators also showed an ability to quickly adapt and harness technology when remote teaching became the “new normal”, he added.

“It is not an issue of how much [public] money is allocated to the education sector, but rather how are resources being allocated … For instance, having Wi-fi services available citywide is not really that hard to achieve. It is also not a very expensive thing to do.”

Is online learning better than face-to-face learning?

He added: “Many charities and non-governmental organisations have been offering hardware support to lower-income families as well … I believe with their help, it’s not a problem for every kid to own an electronic device [to use for online learning].”

Any changes to government policy were best pursued with a bottom-up approach, he said, with non-governmental organisations piloting new ideas before the administration then picked them up. 

“The government is like a gigantic aircraft carrier. To turn the vessel towards another direction, it takes a long time. It can also make a lot of waves in the process,” he said. 

“If we wait for the government to do everything, we probably would not be able to progress. Many [charities] and NGOs are relatively more flexible to react to changes, which makes it more effective to [change existing practices and policies].”

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