It was January 24 and just before the four-day Chinese New Year festival – Hong Kong’s biggest annual break. The territory should have been gearing up for the holidays, but instead found itself bracing for COVID-19.
The virus had already stricken neighboring mainland China, and the number of local infections had started to mount.
Amid rumors that a lockdown, including school closures, might be imminent, Ben Chan – who leads Microsoft’s education business in Hong Kong – reached out to scores of teachers and school leaders on social media.
“They were worried that the next semester would not go ahead,” he recalls. “I started seeing a lot of really troubled discussions among some (social media) groups.”
School leaders were confused and uncertain. They were calling out for reliable and secure solutions to empower teachers and students so lessons could go on at home.
The first few days of Chinese New Year were frenetic as Chan and his team stayed online, continually answering questions and giving advice.
“We kept monitoring social media. We took the initiative and responded to inquiries from teachers. We started providing technical guidance as quickly as we could,” says Chan. “My team members worked all sorts of hours during the holidays. They became consultants.”
A big solution within 11 days
Then on January 31, Hong Kong authorities announced that schools would not reopen until 2 March. (That was later extended and at the time of writing they were still closed until further notice.)
“That news drove us to deliver a bigger solution. We launched a campaign so all schools could meet the challenge and switch to remote learning immediately,” says Chan.
To do that they built on an already existing program: The Partners in Learning (PiL) initiative, which gives all Hong Kong schools complimentary access to Office 365 Education for eLearning and collaborative learning anytime, anywhere, and with security.
The PiL Initiative started in 2004 in collaboration with the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong SAR Government (EDB).
Chan’s team also partnered with a Microsoft Hong Kong showcase school, which had already been embracing new technology to enhance learning experiences for its students.
The Christian & Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Primary School was the first to deploy the #FutureReady Limitless Learning Program on February 5 – just 11 days after Chan first reached out to worried school leaders on social media.
Its teachers quickly started conducting daily lessons in empty classrooms via their laptops while their students stayed safe watching, listening, interacting, and learning on their devices in domestic lockdown.
“Modern learning cannot be confined to the classroom, and it is more important than ever to empower our teachers to continuously guide and nurture students during this difficult time,” the school’s principal Kenneth Cheng explains.
“We have been using technologies to teach in the classroom, but this is our first time to implement remote learning. It is reassuring and encouraging to see how technology can transform and elevate education with greater agility and flexibility.
“It is increasingly critical that we embrace technology when needed so that we can groom the next generation of digital talents.”
Empty classrooms, but engaged students
Today more than another 250 schools in Hong Kong have signed on to the program and are remotely holding all sorts of classes at all sorts of levels via Microsoft Teams.
Teachers are also using OneNote within Microsoft Teams to arrange assignments and quizzes. These replicate normal physical class interactions and ensure teachers can monitor the progress of their students at all times.
Chan says the #FutureReady Limitless Learning Program demonstrates the value that technology can bring to education – not just during the current COVID-19 situation, but also into the years ahead.
As a Hong Konger, he is pleased that his team “went the extra mile,” so the school year could continue for thousands of students.
“School performance is something that is really important for families in Hong Kong,” he says. “You want your child to do well, to get to university, and have a career. It is of top-of-mind value here. You don’t want your child’s learning to be disrupted for too long.”