H1N1: HK teachers stay online

2009-06-19 11:52

Hong Kong - The closure of dozens of Hong Kong schools to try to halt the spread of swine flu has kept thousands of children at home, but new technology has meant they can no longer escape their teachers.

The government announced the closure of all primary, kindergarten, nursery and special schools last week, after the city discovered its first local case of the A(H1N1) virus.

In addition, several secondary schools have been shut down and disinfected after pupils tested positive for the virus, which has now infected more than 170 people in the territory.

In response to the tough measures - which have drawn some complaints from parents - many schools in the southern Chinese city have implemented online instruction programmes so students can keep up with the curriculum from home.

Cameron Reed, a primary school teacher at the Australian International School, said his four-year-old pupils were going online to solve puzzles sent out earlier that morning.

"It is surprising how technologically savvy children are getting from a young age," said Reed.

"Students see the integration of IT (information technology) as a logical progression in their school life."

Schools have created online systems that enable teachers to distribute course material and homework assignments via the internet.

Chat programmes

The pupils can then ask questions through email or chat programmes and pass the work back once they've completed it.

"Our teachers are building a video database of different classroom activities for students to watch online," said Sabrina Lee, vice principal of a kindergarten in Causeway Bay.

Instructors at Lee's school record themselves reading story books and singing songs as if their students were in the classroom and send the videos out the next day.

Parents of students at Parkview International Pre-Schools can now access the school's website to download weekly assignments and step-by-step activities for subjects such as language, maths, arts and crafts, science and cooking.

Pupils there are even offered physical education classes through printable handouts illustrating step-by-step guides to playing select games, although the government has discouraged children meeting up outside school.

Jason De Nys, a secondary teacher at the Australian International School which was shut down this week, said such a closure was inevitable considering Hong Kong's history of infectious diseases.

"We were prepared and somewhat expecting this to happen at some stage," said De Nys.

In 2003, nearly 300 people died in Hong Kong from Sars which spread globally, killing a further 500 people. The city became a virtual ghost town.

Southern China remains a hotspot for seasonal flus and avian flu, which has killed more than 250 people in the last few years.

Free software

As a result, Hong Kong's government is cautious about infectious diseases, an attitude which led to the school closures.

The concept of online education has been around since the internet began to spread in the 1990s, but has flourished in recent years partly thanks to free software schools can now download for web-based courses.

And some of the practitioners believe swine flu has just helped speed up an existing development that is becoming a crucial educational tool.

"While traditional face-to-face meetings can still be effective, applying (these) tools opens up new possibilities for learning that weren't possible 20 years ago," said Paul White, a technology adviser for the English Schools Foundation, which runs 20 schools across the city.

"I don't see online learning replacing traditional teaching, but supporting it. Swine flu will just help to speed that process."

Teacher Joanne Townson said that her two daughters, aged six and nine, were already familiar with working online as part of their IT course.

"My kids do at least four hours of work every day," said Townson. "The communication's been excellent and I'm impressed with the school's crisis management skills."

- SAPA

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