Before schools across Hong Kong successively resume classes, technology has been used to keep things ‘normal’ during the pandemic but questions remain about what online learning can teach us about schooling more broadly.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent school suspensions, education across the globe has been forced to make a significant shift to online teaching and learning.
Before the outbreak, online learning played only a minor role in the Hong Kong school system, a norm that has been challenged by the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
"Schools in Hong Kong have been notoriously slow to adapt to the internet," said Patrick Yun, senior lecturer in the department of curriculum and instruction at the Education University of Hong Kong.
"Since low end, traditional face to face teaching was the predominant mode of teaching before the pandemic, a demand gap has appeared for educators to fill."
Educators have resorted to two types of online learning in response to the challenges posed by school closures.
Made possible through videoconferencing software like Zoom, the first is synchronous e-learning, which enables real time learning activities and teacher-student interaction.
The second is asynchronous e-learning, which relays information with a time lag and involves teachers uploading learning materials and pre-recorded lesson videos onto e-platforms for students to study offline.
Where the gap between classroom learning and online learning is most apparent is in a lack of comprehensive software, like the advanced Learning Management System.
"While LMS, like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams, has seen a surge in usage, some schools are still using outdated e-platforms, which hinders teacher-learner communication," said Yun.
"Consequently, timely feedback to students cannot be provided."
Another challenge is the level of technical proficiency required to make use of widely used software such as Zoom.
"Having communicated with teachers regarding the quality of online learning, we have found that the majority lack the confidence to teach online - especially in the case of older teachers who are out of touch with digital technology," Yun said.
The integration of technology in teaching necessitates a certain level of digital literacy, and the need for this literacy is more pressing than ever.
Hong Kong students vary greatly in their competency with digital technology.
This digital divide will widen even more after the pandemic if the proper mitigating steps are not taken, University of Hong Kong researchers warned in their Hong Kong Students' Digital Citizenship Development report released in April.
As part of a five-year study, it looked into the development of student competence in digital technology from childhood to early adulthood and investigated how external factors, such as those associated with schools and families, may relate to this development.
The study revealed vast economic divides, with some families unable to afford the large screen digital devices, such as laptops and tablets, or the broadband technology needed to facilitate online learning.
While online learning was never applied on such an extensive and intensive level and scale prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the pandemic has revealed inherent inequalities and infrastructure deficiencies in the local education system that, while already present, had not been brought to light by classroom-based education.
As a result, educators feel there is a need to scrutinize the issues of fairness, particularly in how technology can make online learning safe, accessible and equal for all.
"The crux lies in developing a robust online learning support system to meet the ever-changing needs of 21st century learners," said Nancy Law, the founding director of the Centre for Information Technology in Education at the faculty of education at HKU.
"One of the first steps is training educators so that they have the digital literacy to teach effectively using technology.
"It is also of paramount importance to enhance students' capability in using digital technology to maximize online learning outcomes. That may include integrating digital competence as a core curriculum element throughout K-12 education."
At the system level, Yun said that the post-Covid-19 crisis period is opportune for education authorities to forge partnerships across different communities in developing all-rounded, coordinated strategies for virtual learning.
Perhaps a sign of progress is that the education bureau has reportedly been inviting quotations and tenders from private information technology companies to develop such infrastructure.
The pandemic demonstrates how technology can be harnessed in times of uncertainty, as e-learning tools offer educators and students access to resources they would not have had otherwise, regardless of their status or location, Yun said.
"Online learning takes learners beyond the constraints of a brick and mortar classroom to connect with the wider world, through which educators can explore new ways to motivate learners," he added.
Above all, the main thrust of e-learning should be to optimize the learning outcomes of students, said Law.
She added that, as the pandemic forces teachers and schools to consider how technology can better support education, there is no better opportunity for educators to collectively consider and experience how true learner-centered instruction can be achieved in the internet era, where digital innovation continues to open up possibilities.