Secretary for Education
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, classes in all schools are still suspended for the sake of safeguarding students’ health. In spite of this, schools have not neglected students’ educational needs. I am most grateful to principals and teachers for supporting students’ home learning by various means. Their good efforts have achieved a lot in "suspending classes without suspending learning". While home learning cannot replace school learning and may encounter certain challenges in aspects like teaching strategy, resources and equipment, with the concerted efforts of all parties, we can surely sort out problems and boost students’ development amidst the threat of the epidemic
School- and student-based planning for home learning
To many people, the first thing that comes to mind at the mentioning of home learning is e-learning or even real-time online teaching. Considering that students at different key stages of learning have different needs and that circumstances vary among schools, the Education Bureau (EDB) has not prescribed a single mode for all schools across the board. Instead, schools may select from a variety of teaching strategies the suitable modes for their students in order to maintain learning momentum.
Apart from e-learning, schools have adopted other effective means to support students during class suspension. For example, assignments and learning materials are distributed to students via emails, school websites and e-learning platforms or by despatch. Besides, communication with students and parents is maintained by telephone or through mobile applications to provide students with learning and emotional support. In some schools, open learning activities such as reading and project learning are arranged to offer more self-learning opportunities to students. This not only expands students’ knowledge, but also helps in inspiring imagination and shaping character.
e-Learning, including real-time online teaching, has its own merits. But in practice, there should be thorough consideration. Just imagine what it would be like for children as small as kindergarten, Primary One or Primary Two students and those with attention deficit to stay in front of a computer for hours of learning. Prolonged use of computer screen may affect the eyes of young children. These are the concerns that schools need to take into account. For other students, limits should be set for the duration of each learning session and the total time of online learning, and breaks should be allowed between sessions. Generally speaking, there is no need for online teaching to stick to the usual timetable and for each session to have the same length as it is in the classroom. In particular, learning sessions for lower levels should be kept short so as to sustain students’ learning interest.
During class suspension, schools still keep their premises open and have staff on duty to support students who have to return to school because of individual needs and answer parents’ enquiries. Students or parents with doubts or difficulties may take the initiative to seek appropriate assistance from the school direct.
Abundance of online resources for e-learning
The Government has been promoting the use of information technology in education for more than two decades, with necessary infrastructure and support measures in place for schools. On the part of schools, they have implemented e-learning according to their own contexts, while teachers have been making good use of diversified online resources to support students’ learning. These include online resources provided by various sections of the EDB, and the multimedia and reading materials and Online Student Assessment System (STAR platform) of the Hong Kong Education City (HKEdCity). Support is also available from the EDB through various channels.
The EDB and HKEdCity have set up dedicated webpages for class suspension. In addition, the HKEdCity has upgraded its network bandwidth and the EDB has actively negotiated with copyright owners of online resources such as educational television programmes for granting direct access to cross-boundary students to enable viewing in the Mainland. Visits to the HKEdCity website in February were four times the figures for the same period last year. Furthermore, the EDB has recently developed a series of curriculum resources on COVID-19 to assist teachers in disseminating knowledge about epidemic prevention and related issues under different topics, and help students develop positive values.
Enhanced e-learning support for grassroots students
Nowadays an overwhelming proportion of local families own a computer or mobile device and have access to the Internet. As a matter of fact, as soon as we started promoting e-learning years ago, we have already been aware of the importance of having students from grassroots families covered by our support in this respect. In recent years, we have implemented a number of measures to prevent the emergence of a digital divide.
For individual students who encounter difficulties in e-learning during class suspension owing to the lack of online learning equipment, schools, apart from keeping their premises open, are also actively supporting those students to learn at home, such as by lending them mobile computer devices and helping them apply for relevant assistance.
In the 2018/19 school year, the Community Care Fund launched a three-year assistance programme to provide through schools a subsidy for needy primary and secondary students to purchase mobile computer devices for facilitating the practice of e-learning. The programme benefits all eligible children in a family without any limit on the number of recipients so that "one device per student" could be achieved. The application period for the current school year has already closed, but since many students need to engage in e-learning at home by using their own mobile computer device when classes are suspended amidst the epidemic, the EDB encourages schools to submit further applications for students in need and processes the applications flexibly. In the 2018/19 school year, around 190 primary and secondary schools participated in the assistance programme and about 14 000 students were benefited. For 2019/20, so far around 270 primary and secondary schools have participated in the assistance programme and the number of students benefitted is expected to keep rising.
In parallel, the Student Finance Office and Social Welfare Department have been providing eligible families with a subsidy for Internet access charges. The rate is adjusted regularly according to the Internet service charges in the market. Currently, the full grant per year is $1,500, which may help students from grassroots families cover the expenses on basic Internet plans provided by operators of fixed and mobile telecommunication services.
Further assessment is still needed before a definite date for class resumption could be fixed. Today, I met with representatives of various schools councils and principals to listen to their views. I am pleased to learn that schools have started preparing for class resumption and it is the consensus of all that students’ study and safety are equally important. The EDB will continue to solicit advice from medical experts on the development of the epidemic, as well as keep track of schools’ preparation and the availability of epidemic prevention supplies. While the way forward remains unsure, once there is a decision, we will make an announcement as soon as possible so that all stakeholders will have sufficient time to get ready.
To many students, the epidemic this time is an enormous challenge to both their studies and everyday life. When it is not possible to attend school as usual, students can still switch to home learning so that suspending classes will not cause learning to be suspended. So there is always a way out if we see things from a wider perspective. In future, challenges of various kinds are in store for our students, but with confidence and resourcefulness, they can surely grow from strength to strength and overcome each and every hurdle. What is learnt in adversity will be of lifelong value.
16 March 2020