With China's economy booming in the past decade, learning the language has become very important for many people across the world.
Typically, among the four basic skills - listening, reading, speaking and writing - needed to master any language, learning to write Chinese characters with the correct sequence of strokes is often the most difficult part for most foreigners, and sometimes even for Chinese students, due to the complicated structures and diversity of characters.
In many cases, due to limited classroom time, students cannot be given sufficient practice to learn to write the characters in correct stroke sequences.
There are now several web-based e-learning software programs that allow students to practice writing characters, or other skills, mainly on desktop computers.
With the declining prices and rising popularity of tablet PCs and smartphones these days, those devices may provide a more convenient e-learning platform, letting students practice at their own pace, anytime and anywhere. An adaptive e-learning platform, the iWrite system, has been developed at the University of Hong Kong for foreigners or locals to practice writing Chinese characters in correct stroke sequences on tablets.
The iWrite system can systematically categorize all the stored Chinese characters in its database according to four basic structures, and include characters of all the basic structures into each training exercise.
In each step of the training exercise, a template of the selected character will be displayed for the students to follow in the correct stroke sequence, using a stylus pen or mouse.
After the student finishes writing the character, the iWrite system will employ some efficient and intelligent heuristics to check whether the stroke sequence of the inputted character is correct or not.
If the direction of any stroke or the sequence of strokes is incorrect, an error message will be displayed. Then the student can check on the animation button to display the correct stroke sequence of writing the specific character through animated GIF files.
At the end, the student will receive an evaluation report, showing at which specific structure(s) of the characters that the student is relatively weak.
The iWrite system has also extended onto the iPad/iOS platform, providing an attractive user interface with audio functions to practice Chinese pronunciation and other flexible features.
Part of our work will be integrated into a contract research project collaborating with an international school in Hong Kong.
Details of this project are available in the chapter on iWrite in the book, The New Era of E-Learning, downloadable from www.engineering.hku.hk/ enggke/library/project-id-3/book- en.pdf
Dr Vincent Tam is a senior teaching consultant from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, at the University of Hong Kong.