The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many school students around the world to embrace remote learning. But not all have computers at home.
Now a group of companies and non-profits in Hong Kong are taking part in a global program by Microsoft that breathes new life into old office PCs and distributes them to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I live in a village in Sha Tin, and my family’s income is limited,” says Wu Jiahui, a Secondary 5 (Year 11) student at Toi Shan Association College. “We don’t have the ability to purchase computers.”
Instead, Jiahui has had to rely on her smartphone to study. “But the speed is slower, and the software is not sufficient,” she says. “Because of the small screen, it’s hard to read, and the long-term use of my mobile phone caused shoulder pain and dry eye syndrome.”
Without a proper device, students can’t learn efficiently. The quality of their work and their health can be seriously affected.
– Albert Wong, Association of IT Leaders in Education
Before the COVID-19 lockdowns, Jiahui would finish her homework in her school’s computer room at the end of each day’s lessons. “But I couldn’t make any revisions to my homework at home.”
Barriers to learning
Albert Wong, chairman of the Association of IT Leaders in Education (AiTLE), says students without a computer at home usually end up using their smartphones. “But mobile devices are made for communication, not for learning,” he says.
“Some learning websites have layouts that are not optimal for mobile devices, making it difficult for students to watch video lessons or view slides. Formatting text and visuals for school projects on a smartphone can also be arduous. Not having their own computers hinders students’ creativity and makes learning time-consuming.”
Wong says computers have become essential for learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. “With school suspensions lasting for months due to the pandemic, online learning activities, such as webinars and virtual projects, are necessary,” he says. “Without proper devices, students can’t learn efficiently. The quality of their work and their health can be seriously affected.”
A recent survey of almost 600 students in the territory found that over 70% either don’t have computers or have outdated machines, while 51% don’t have a desk for studying. Moreover, 83% of students said these hurdles made them worry about falling behind their peers.
Empowering students in need
Recognizing this challenge, Microsoft has partnered with corporate groups, computer refurbishers, and education associations to provide computers – once used in offices – to students in need.
“Not every family is in a financial position to provide their children with a computer. Remote learning makes this situation especially hard,” says Ada Ng, Microsoft Hong Kong’s director of corporate affairs and philanthropies. “Donating refurbished hardware is a great way to make a positive impact on a student’s day-to-day life.”
Volunteers at the non-profit Crossroads Foundation overhaul donated PCs under Microsoft’s Refurbisher Program — through which authorized refurbishers across the globe collect secondhand devices, fix them up, and preinstall genuine Microsoft software.
In one recent two-month effort, more than 1,000 used desktops and laptops machines were serviced and refitted, and then sent out to needy students.
Not every family is in a financial position to provide their children with a computer.
— Ada Ng, Microsoft Hong Kong
To decide how to allocate these new-life computers, AiTLE created an application process by which schoolteachers apply on behalf of their students.
“The teachers need to elaborate on how their students are in urgent need of computers — not just for general learning, but also for remote lessons, completing homework, and specific online practices under COVID-19,” says Wong.
As one of the recipients of a refurbished computer, Jiahui can now learn from home more effectively. “The speed is faster. The screen is bigger. The software is better and more updated. I can now use a keyboard to type,” she says.
Having her own computer allows Jiahui to enjoy her favorite subjects even more. “I personally love math and liberal studies. Both subjects require us to watch video lessons and do homework using different e-learning platforms.”
“With the proper device, not only has my health condition improved, but it has also saved me time from staying in school to finish my homework. I can study at home, so the quality of my homework will hopefully improve.”
Looking beyond the current pandemic, Wong plans to promote “blended learning,” an approach to education that combines online materials and opportunities for remote and face-to-face interactions.
Microsoft’s Ng supports this aim. “We hope that educators and students in Hong Kong will continue to explore other practices for students to achieve their maximum potential in school,” says Ng.
“Apart from encouraging more corporate groups to donate their used devices for students in need, we also hope more NGOs will provide training on computer and technology adoption for underprivileged students, so no one is left behind.”
MAIN IMAGE: Volunteers from the Crossroads Foundation get down to work. From left to right: Joanne de la Zilwa, Akan Onihana, Grace Pacheco, and Jackson Mudi. Photo credit: Michael Perini.