Netting a future
Inter-generational poverty is an issue of urgent concern for Hong Kong’s social and economic development. It is an issue not only of growing differences in financial wealth, but a widening gap between those who have access to life’s chances, to better schooling and career path.
Access to information technology and computer literacy are vital social and livelihood skills in a sophisticated information society like Hong Kong. To deny someone the opportunity to become computer savvy at a young age might dash his or her aspirations to climb to a higher rung on the social ladder.
Most people know the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. The government’s "i Learn at home" Internet Learning Support Programme aims to do that. It supplies inexpensive yet quality digital equipment and instruction to young students who would otherwise be deprived of a chance to acquire crucial technological life skills.
It gives them the opportunity to pursue knowledge and experience the world beyond their immediate surroundings, and thus a chance to begin life’s race on the same starting line as their more affluent counterparts.
However, the programme has some serious loopholes and the funds could be spent in vain.
An annual grant of HK$1,300 is directly credited to the bank accounts of the parents of the 400,000-plus eligible students, with no provisions for proof of purchase of the intended computers, internet connection and training.
There is no safeguard against parents spending the money on other things – even gambling or drugs. Tragically, we do see parents feeding their gambling or substance-abuse problems rather than looking after the education needs of their children, damaging their children’s hopes for a better future.
It might be argued that the administrative costs of monitoring and enforcing the use of these funds would be prohibitive, and that most parents know best about the situation of their children.
But, in some cases, it is likely that parents themselves lack digital experience and possibly distrust computers and the internet, which may work against their better judgment. It is the government’s responsibility to see the plan through, and replacing cash handouts with, say, a simple coupon system is unlikely to take much more manpower than arranging bank transactions.
Another problem is that the two government-approved service providers do not get grant recipients’ contact information. There is no reason to leave them in the dark about where their potential new service recipients are. The effort involved by service providers in finding and approaching the eligible students means that half an academic year may be lost before the children are on-line. The resources could have been devoted to sourcing more competitive hardware, software and after-sales technical support for schools and students.
Schools are an essential part of the equation in bridging the information-access gap. However, the government has unfortunately been reluctant to kick-start co-operation between parents, schools and service providers. This has encouraged scepticism among school administrators, who – a bit like some parents – are perhaps wary about digital learning and the idea of accepting professional help to develop their establishments as technologically-savvy educational institutions.
This is a great pity because schools can play the key role in ensuring that disadvantaged students can access computers and the skills needed to use them productively.
It is understandable that with this new technology, new problems like cyber safety, addiction, bullying and crime may lead to scepticism. The "i Learn at home" service providers are working on that by providing tailor-made packages for disadvantaged children. Training workshops and counseling sessions are included to help children, parents and schools handle cyber misbehavior. Schools can be rest assured that their students will be equipped with both the physical tools and the right attitude to master information technology.
With equipment and training readily available, there is good chance that the government, parents and schools can take decisive steps towards granting our next generation the opportunity to learn valuable life skills. Should this programme fail to deliver the expected results, we should not blame our poorer youths, claiming that they are not intelligent enough to adopt to the digital age. Instead, we must hold responsible those who provide an inadequate service and unfavourable environment for them.
- Mr. Erwin HUANG, CEO of WebOrganic, a subsidiary of HKCSS, which operates Internet Learning Support Programme funded by the government.
( * The article was published on 31 May, 2012 on the South China Morning Post )
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