Bridging The Digital Divide Among School Age Children

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In this new information technology era, we should hardly neglect the benefits the internet brings to our lives. While we are relying more and more on the World Wide Web to enhance our living quality, the rapid popularization of internet surfing has actually widened the digital divide particularly for school-age children from low-income families.In Hong Kong, the great disparity between the rich and the poor has further deepened the gap of digital divide in society as the disadvantaged group could not have equal opportunity to access to information technology (IT).

This paper aims to investigate more on this issue and evaluate how effective are the existing measures promoted by the government, NGOs and the business sector in bridging the digital divide in Hong Kong. Among the three areas, we found that an all-rounded planning of IT development of the Hong Kong government is the most influential in tackling the problem. Yet, the cooperation between the three of them also plays an essential role to improve the situation.

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Overview --- present situation

With reference to figures from the 2009 UN report, the Gini Coefficient score of Hong Kong is 43.4, which indicated a huge gap between the rich and the poor in society. While the amount of $250 per month for a broadband connection (pricing of mid 2010) seems affordable to many families in Hong Kong, the advancement of technology could brings a more desperate life of the disadvantaged group.

According to Sin (2001), low-household-income families are less likely to accesses to information technology (IT) than the high-income group in Hong Kong. For instance, among families that have less than $10,000 for monthly income per household, less than 8% of them have computer to access to the internet. In contrast, more than 70% of families with monthly household income more than $50,000 have digital devices that allow internet connections.

This distinct disproportion has created a wide gap of digital opportunity received among children with different family backgrounds. The term digital divide are commonly used by educators and politicians today to address the problem.

Some may ask: Do students really need to be knowledgeable about computers so as to be successful in school? , the result of a study1 carried out by Goode2 could give a clear answer. I found that opportunities around technology really shape students abilities to engage fully in academic life Goode said. She also mentioned that computer technology is the core component to success in school, but students from low-income families often with very little skills and poor equipped for the job market.

Frankly speaking, digital divide will not just hinder school-age children s academic performance but also bounded their career development in the future. If we do not take action to solve the problem now, it will be a vicious cycle that generates various kinds of social problems in long term, such as inter-generational poverty and Hikikomori3 .

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[1] Findings of the study was published in the journal New Media and Society in July,2010

[2] Joanna Goode, a professor of education studies in the University of Oregon's College of Education

[3] Hikikomori, a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive teenagers who have chosen to withdraw from social life

Introduction

Our Chief Executive has stressed on the importance of shortening the digital divide among school-age children in this year s policy address4. It is obvious that students in this technology-driven society are doing much more of their work online. For instance, using Powerpoint for presentations and finding resources for projects via the web.

Ironically, majority of the students from the low-income group are now having their school-life without the computer. It may due to the lack of school policy on IT development, inadequate IT training among teachers and shortages of government funding on IT.

In this paper, I try to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing measures in enhancing the learning opportunity among school-age children in Hong Kong. Following the exploration, brief conclusion and a number of recommendations will be included so as to tackle the problem.

Definition of digital divide , digital opportunity and digital inclusion

Before evaluating the current measures, I would like define several terms which appear frequently in this paper. With regards to Kuttan and Peters (2003), digital divide is the gap between those people who have access to information technology and those who do not .

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On the other hand, they also stated that digital opportunity refers to chances provided to disadvantaged children to have effective usage of IT. The transformation from digital divide to digital opportunity marks the process of digital inclusion within the community (Monica, 2000).

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[4] To mitigate the impact of the digital divide on the quality of learning, possible options will be examined to provide Internet learning opportunities for students in need. (Policy address 2010, Paragraph 92)

Existing measures and effectiveness

1. Government

To bridge the digital divide among school-age children, our government has pursued several campaigns. Since 1999, the Community Cyber-point project has started by the Home Affairs Department. 2200 computers are provided for community centers, libraries and other public facilities for public uses (Sin, 2001).

In the same year, the first IT strategy targeted toward student was introduced in the same year by the Education Bureau, entitled "Information Technology for Learning in a New Era: Five-year Strategy". Concerning the projects, it aimed to increase the Internet connection in schools, equipped teacher with basic computer skills and maximized students opportunity to use IT in project-based learning (Digital 21 Strategy, 2004).

Followed by that, a similar project named Empowering learning and teaching with Information Technology was carried out and the Digital solidarity fund was established to sponsor worthwhile digital inclusion projects in 2004.

These programmes had successful improved the connectivity in schools. After 2007, over 60% of schools could enjoy 10 to 100 Mbps bandwidth for broadband connection5. Yet, the Community Cyber-point project was a one-off activity and most of these computers were outdated and could not meet the huge demand of uses by the general public in recent years. Also, the latter project and funding was stopped after 2007, which diminished its success in tackling the problem.

2. NGOs

a. IPROA6

The Internet Professionals Association (IPROA) has launched various events to promote digital inclusion in society. From 2000 to 2002, they carried out the IT Awareness Programmes , more than a thousand computer classes were organized by NGOs to low-income families.

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[5] A survey conducted in early 2004 found that on average, each primary school had 91 computers while secondary school had 247. (Education Bureau website: http://www.edb.gov.hk/)

[6] Information of details of the campaigns launched by IPROA is extracted from the Web Care Presentation v.6 (IPROA website: http://www.iproa.org/en/)

The Web Care Campaign is a long-term measure which started from 2001 until now. With the continuous support of nearly 50 organizations and other sponsors from the government and the business sector, the campaign has productively

increased the Internet accessibility among citizens and set a good model for the on-going actions. Still, as this programme targeted at all groups in Hong Kong, the number of school-age children benefits in it is still restricted.

b. YMCA of Hong Kong

The Nice computer bank (Net-book Inclusion of Computer Empowerment project has been carried out since last year to provide net-books to 50 school-age children from grass-root families in Sham Shui Po and Tung Chung in stage 1 and 100 of them in stage 2. Owing to the remarkable result of this project, it has expanded the Internet accessibility among the participants in a great extent. This is because it has provided both the hardware (the net-book) and soft skills (net-surfing techniques) to children of disadvantaged group;

3. Business sector

Many companies from the private sector have made significant contributions to the process of digital inclusion in Hong Kong. Majority of them play the role as sponsors to provide funding or materials to NGOs. Programmes mentioned above could exemplify the importance of cooperation between corporations and NGOs in solving the problem.

Large-scale enterprises7 like Microsoft, Town gas Hong Kong and PCCW Insurance are sponsors of the Web care campaign (by IPROA). Also, Samsung Electronic Hong Kong has provided net-books and CSL is offering the unlimited broadband connections for nearly 150 participants in the Nice computer bank project of YMCA.

These examples suggested the possible area of cooperation between the private sector and NGOs to advocate digital inclusion in Hong Kong. The business sector could furnish financial subsidy, technological support and equipments to NGOs so as to maximize the efficacy of their projects.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________[7] Large-scale enterprises include both international companies and local corporations from different fields. (e.g. COMPAQ, DG Corporation, Ecomhere Ltd, MingPao and ESD life)

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Recommendations

In regard to the present measures that help to increase digital opportunities among school-age children in Hong Kong, the government, NGOs and the private sector are the three core parties involved. Given the fact that digital divide is still a threat in Hong Kong, I would like to suggest some possible means that make digital inclusion achievable in our society.

1. Government

a. Government department of IT

From our past experiences, majority of the government-led activities was not effective enough. As many of them were on a one-off or temporary basis, the assistance was insufficient so it restricted the number of beneficiaries.

To boost the effectiveness of related programmes, an official department of digital inclusion is needed. The department should be responsible for the formulation of development plans and policies in the community, providing funding for sensible projects from NGOs and constituting the beginning of a digital inclusion program knowledge base to keep record for future development (Fung, 2006).

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b. Quality Education Funds (QEF)8

Over the past 14 years, the QEF has been providing a valuable channel to offer funding for worthwhile projects from the educational field. As the digital divide is a continuous problem among school-age children, regular funding should be provided to every primary and secondary school in Hong Kong on an on-going basis.

Schools should be required to hand in an annual report to justify their uses of the sum of money given as a monitoring system of the government. It allows school use the funding flexibly according to their needs (e.g. trainings to teachers and staffs, buying computers and software)

2. NGOs

There are increasing numbers of NGOs that concentrate on reducing the digital barrier among Hong Kong students. Although the problem receive more and more

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[8] In October 1997, the Chief Executive announced in his Policy Address the establishment of the Quality Education Fund (QEF) to finance projects for the promotion of quality education in Hong Kong. It was formally established on 2 January 1998 with an allocation of $5 billion. (QEF website: http://qef.org.hk/eng /main.htm?aboutus/aboutus02.htm)

attention among NGOs, the lack of financial back-up especially in this year of economic downturn has raised the difficulties of their works. As a result, the government should take the led to offer adequate sustenance to them.

Referring to Fung (2006), many NGOs have limited resources to provide training and support for their volunteers. Volunteers are lacking motivation due to this reason and their input will be unsustainable. Funding parties should take the support for volunteer as real human capital investment to our society and recongnise its importance.

3. Business sector

Without the generous support of the business sector, it is very difficult for NGOs to put their ideas into practice. Apart from the cases listed above, there should be many other organizations which need financial banking form private companies.

Over the past eight years, more than 2000 companies joined the Caring Company Scheme9 and they have sponsored over 400 NGOs in Hong Kong. This kind of cross-sector social service partnership indicates the dramatic effect that private sector could make to help needy in the community.

In the future, this scheme should focus more on the digital inclusion in HK. Especially for companies in the IT field like IBM, Microsoft and the hp, they should be the pioneer to expand the connectivity of the Internet among students.

Conclusion

From the above analysis, the duration of activities and sufficient funding to NGOs and IT developments are curial in bridging the digital divide in our community. Through effective promotion of digital inclusion in Hong Kong, it would not just guarantee the bright future of the next generation, but also ensure the future development of our society as a whole.

When you are thinking which e-book to choose on the web using your i-pad, it is not surprising that a large number of school-age children from the low-income group even do not know how to use the search agents like Google. It is time for

our society to be alerted to the potential harm of the growing digital divide on the future owners of our society. Hence, tripartite collaboration between the government, schools and also the business sector are vital to promote digital inclusion in the community.