In Hong Kong, e-learning is an idea whose time has come. Few people are more aware of this than the Hong Kong Education City (HKEdCity), a government initiative to promote information technology (IT) in education launched in 1999, when internet mainstays such as Yahoo and Facebook were mere ideas and few teachers and students had a personal e-mail address.
Since then, both the internet and education have undergone huge transformations. Teachers and students now have multiple e-mail addresses and own a computer. Some teachers even have blogs that students visit and interact with, for homework.
"There has never been a more exciting time for e-learning than now. Ten years ago, we were not at the same point of technology transforming education," says HKEdCity executive director Ng Mei-mei. "Right now, the infrastructure, students, vendors, teachers and schools are ready. The timing is perfect."
Homes are getting ready, too. According to the Hong Kong Statistics Board, the percentage of households with personal computers connected to the internet jumped from 36.4 per cent in 2000 to 73.3 per cent in 2009. But the percentage is lower among low-income families. To rectify this, the government recently launched a HK$220-million "i-learn at home" initiative to enable 300,000 needy families to gain affordable access to computers and the internet. Such initiatives ensure that no child is left behind technologically, says Ng.
HKEdCity is part of a government move to introduce online learning to primary and secondary education. It aims to cultivate a culture of sharing IT information among teachers and students.
From 1998 to 2003, the government invested HK$5 billion in an ambitious IT strategy for schools, supplying primary and secondary schools with computers and broadband connections.
All teachers received basic computer training, while a select number went on to advanced training. Later policies further integrated IT into learning and education. But despite the investment, studies showed that teachers were finding it difficult to incorporate the new technology into classrooms.
In the past few years, however, efforts have borne fruit. There has been a lot of talk about e-learning in the past two to three years, says Ng. It looks like e-learning is where education - and the world - is heading.
HKEdCity is prepared for the moment, adds Ng. Over the years, it has evolved into a massive portal, facilitating a thriving, online e-learning community, with a membership of 95 per cent of Hong Kong schools - 55,000 teachers, 800,000 students, and about 400 e-learning resource vendors.
Parents can also sign up as general public members, a category under review. "At one point, we had 1.2 million general public accounts. We are pushing that number down because we only want active accounts who really are parents," says Ng.
Where is e-learning headed? Learning on the go is one direction. "Schools are looking at mobile learning. Some private schools are already conducting pilot programmes on the use of mobile learning environments. One-on-one computing is on the cards with one secondary school conducting a pilot programme with a class in which every student has a laptop," says Ng.
The market is buzzing. HKEdCity opened up free corporate membership a few years ago. About 400 have since signed up, the majority from Hong Kong and the rest from overseas. "I have just returned from China, where there is a lot of interest from vendors keen to enter the Hong Kong market," says Ng.
As a gatekeeper, HKEdCity stresses the importance of efficacy. "Whoever is coming into this market must start with a good understanding of its needs," Ng says, adding that it's all about finding that juncture where technology and education can mix and create new value to learning.