Chinese and Hong Kong universities have been lauded for shifting quickly to e-learning while classes remain suspended during the coronavirus pandemic − some elite institutions even boasted of getting tens of thousands of staff and students online in a manner of weeks.
However, there are growing concerns that students from less privileged backgrounds, or less well-funded institutions, could be left behind. The financial and digital divide in Asia has become even more apparent now that students are physically removed from campuses and thus from resources such as libraries, computer labs and common spaces.
“Online class quality depends very much on the environment and equipment available to the students,” Kai-Lung Hui, associate dean (research) at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, toldTimes Higher Education.“It’s more than just the computer and network per se. The home environment also matters. This tends to put poorer students at a disadvantage.”
Although learning materials and servers can be accessed remotely, “the bigger problem is space”, Professor Hui said. “Closing libraries and computer labs forces students to study from home, and not all students have a quiet space.”
He also emphasised that many places in Asia had greater digital challenges than Hong Kong. “Online classes may not pose a big problem in places like Hong Kong or Singapore, but it could significantly affect the learning opportunities and education outcomes among poorer families in the low-income countries,” he said.
Allan Yuen, president of Hong Kong’s Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education, told THE that the issue went far beyond hardware. “On one level, it’s about equipment and infrastructure,” he said. “On another level, it’s about the way students use computers and their readiness for digital learning. This is not about the computer itself but about culture – how one learns and how one communicates with others.”
“I’m more concerned about that second level and whether students are ready to use computers to achieve good performances and to enhance their well-being,” continued Professor Yuen, former director of the Centre for Information Technology in Education at the University of Hong Kong .
The “digital divide” is certainly apparent across different parts of the region. States such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have average internet penetration rates of about 90 per cent, but mainland China’s internet penetration rate is only 60 per cent, with numbers heavily skewed towards affluent urbanites.
A 2019 report by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) showed that urban residents made up three-quarters of Chinese netizens. Universities are also more likely to be located in major coastal cities.
China’s education ministry seems aware of this, and on 30 March announced a project that would send more than 100 retired professors to aid higher education institutions in the “less developed” Western part of China. These professors would assist with “short-term teaching, remote teaching [and] synchronous courses or lectures”.
The CINIC report also showed that 99 per cent of Chinese netizens accessed the internet on mobile phones, which is convenient for apps, but not for the hours needed for lengthy assignments or research. Only 46 per cent of Chinese netizens used a desktop computer, while just 36 per cent had a laptop.
“Some students just have a cell phone,” said Professor Yuen. “But for sophisticated activities, having a computer is important.”
Professor Yuen does see some bright spots, though, in the race to ensure equal access to digital education. China’s internet penetration rate is rising, and rural Chinese universities do “have an idea about technology”. The country’s students also benefit from a culture that puts education first. “Chinese parents – poor and rich – will put all their resources into ensuring that their children get the best education, including buying a computer,” he said.