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Hong Kong has one of the world’s richest economies. It also has a high level of income disparity between the rich and the poor – according to the Gini coefficient, higher than that of the United States [and we have been hearing a lot about the disparity of wealth in our country lately]. As a result, it faces one of the same challenges we do in educating students – a gap between the haves and the have-nots.
This week I had the opportunity to attend the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum, which celebrates teachers and schools that effectively use technology. There I met Andy Li, a teacher at Hong Kong’s Salesian School, which is a Catholic school run with government funding.*
The school's goal is to give young, lower-class students an equal chance to learn. And according to Li, one big aspect of that is technology. While rich children in Hong Kong have iPads, Androids and any other technology that they may want, many of his school’s students (age six to twelve) do not have personal computers at home. And in Hong Kong, he believes, if you graduate from high school without technology skills, you cannot find a good job. It impacts the rest of your life.
Salesian School is helping students overcome the technological divide. Key to their efforts: A shift to cloud technology, which allows both students and staff to access learning materials both on- and off-campus.
Of course, before students can access the cloud at home, they need computers. So the school gives them their old ones. As Li points out, if they didn’t, they would just get thrown out and pollute the environment.
When students get the computers, they have only one program installed – remote desktop. This means that despite their age, the computers still run relatively fast, so students are able to connect to school and the online resources (including lessons, class notes, computer-assisted learning programs and games) that staff have gathered to help extend learning beyond the school day and to help students develop the basic technological skills so vital to life in 21st century Hong Kong (and the rest of the world).
Li recognizes that giving students online access alone is not enough to change educational outcomes. Staff have changed curriculum and pushed teachers to use the technology to make lessons more interactive, not just produce PowerPoints. The school is concentrating these efforts on improving courses in math and science, with an eye on moving into Chinese, English, and other language courses soon.
Education in Hong Kong is much different than education in the US in many ways. And the system is higher performing, ranking third in the world in math, third in science and fourth in reading on the 2009 PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures the performance of 15-year-olds (the United States came in 30th, 23rd and 17th, respectively). Hong Kong also ranked 5th in digital literacy skills (the US did not participate in that assessment).
Of course, I don’t think we should try to emulate Hong Kong’s educational system just because they score well on international assessments, and I question some policymakers' reliance on those scores in making sweeping declarations about the state of American education for a number of reasons. But I do think we should take note of efforts in high-performing systems to mitigate the impact of poverty on student learning and opportunity. Given the weight that some policymakers have given international comparisons, we can use them to call for similar efforts at a wider scale here at home.
For additional information on Salesian School’s efforts to integrate technology, check out this Microsoft case study.
*Wikipedia offers background on the types of schools in Hong Kong.
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