SCMP Letters | Covid-19 warning for Hong Kong schools on digital divide

The pandemic has highlighted troubling issues with resource access among students, which Hong Kong cannot ignore the learning differences brought about by economic disparity, and must find ways to deepen and improve digital learning.

Amid the third wave of the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong, the government had initially announced that schools could start the new academic year with online learning only, with face-to-face classes and physical interactions suspended. Earlier this week, it allowed a return to on-site classes in two phases from September 23. However, given that the pandemic may take months or even years to be fully contained, schools must remain prepared for any future class suspensions.

While e-learning has become mandatory practice for schools, there remains a yawning gap between the haves and have-nots. A study found that one in 10 pupils encountered difficulties in e-learning during school suspensions because they did not own an electronic device.

As the convener of a local youth think tank in Hong Kong, my fellow members and I conducted a study on enhancing support for e-learning in schools. Our study showed that 60% of the students found the online learning experience difficult with the lack of learning atmosphere and concentrations at home.

This is not only applied to Hong Kong, the latest Household Expenditure Survey in Singapore also revealed that there are at least 10% households do not have internet access. These numbers are a strong wake up call for us – The pandemic has unearthed the struggle of the underprivileged students in gaining the access to the quality education, which should be the basic rights for all students.

While cross-sectoral efforts are essential to tackle this issue, first the learning differences brought about by economic disparity should not be ignored. Remote study is not only about putting the traditional classes into livestreams, but also curating a suitable learning environment and adaptive system for our students. When designing the course, the schools and teachers should recognize that inadequate equipment, insufficient internet access and lack of the digital skills may hinder their pupils from learning equally with others who are better-off. Therefore, in designing the courses and assignments, the teachers should be aware of the proportion of real-time live streaming, and look at alternative approaches that require less instant response on the internet.

Bill Gates once reflected “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” Appropriate teachers’ training is also one of the keys to enhance the e-learning experience. Not only some of the teachers are not well-equipped with the skills-set to deliver their work online, they are also confronted with numerous administrative duties which prevented them from fully engaged in the evolving online teaching transformation process. The education ministries in Hong Kong and Singapore should consider adding an IT Coordinator headcount under the current school establishment to help develop a blueprint, design new learning and teaching strategies as well as to provide relevant trainings to teachers to support more innovative teaching and learning approaches.

While some educators may urge the governments to allocate more hardware resources to the underprivileged students to get rid of the digital divide, the situations in Hong Kong and Singapore showed that it might be not the most effective policy. In fact, despite of the fact that there are various measures from the Hong Kong and Singapore government on subsiding or loaning the tablets for students, there are considerable reported cases that many underprivileged students remain lack of suitable learning devices. For instance, there was only around 30% schools enrolled in the tablet subsidy programme conducted by the Hong Kong government. According to a latest survey, there are 40% underprivileged students remained lack of suitable learning devices.

Instead of giving out the tablets via the government programmes, market forces are the key to drive the divide. Apart from the facts that there are numerous corporate donations of computers and internet cards to the underprivileged, the community organisations are also playing a vital role in bridging the needs of the beneficiaries and the community, and getting the real voices of the students out.

Last but not least, the government should develop a comprehensive digital policy which should take further considerations on deepening digital learning, promoting cyber-wellness and media literacy.

While the pandemic will continue to transform the way we study, work and live, the need of bridging the digital divide will be ever greater in our community to build a more resilient and sustainable education system for all.