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Digital Citizenship Study Uncovers Competency Concerns in Hong Kong

In 2016, a multi-disciplinary team led by Professor Nancy Law, Deputy Director, Centre for Information Technology in Education, embarked on a five-year longitudinal study entitled “Hong Kong Students’ Digital Citizenship Development”, with the aim of assessing digital competencies in school children.


Funded by the Research Grants Council of the HKSAR Government under its Theme-based Research Scheme, this was the first such funding received by the Faculty for any education-related project, and also the first time that the scheme has funded a project directly related to education.


In April 2020, Professor Law and Dr Elizabeth Loh, Assistant Dean (Knowledge Exchange), revealed the study’s first wave of findings, including huge differences in digital competency levels in schools in Hong Kong – differences which have become even more apparent with the arrival of COVID-19 and long-term school suspensions.


“We had no idea that the course of events locally and globally would have changed so drastically as to push digital citizenship issues to the forefront,” said Professor Law. “In fact, the unexpected changes did not only include COVID-19, but also the social movement that started in June 2019.


“COVID-19 brought a much more pervasive and a somewhat different context to the entire world. It has forced the whole society to stop as much as possible any in-person connection. However, no society can function without connections and exchanges among individuals and organisations of various types. Digital interactions and transactions have replaced much of the normal in-person exchanges, including education. Hence, the issue of digital competence as a key aspect of digital citizenship becomes even more critical.”


Indeed, such is the uniqueness of the situation that Professor Law and Dr Tan Cheng Yong, Associate Professor, Academic Unit of Social Contexts and Policies of Education (SCAPE), rapidly embarked on a new study – “eCitizen Education 360” – between June and July 2020, when schools briefly reopened, giving them the chance to see how schools were coping with having to do all their lessons on-line. The new study was supported by 1,200 teachers, 1,300 parents and 6,000 students from primary, secondary and special schools in Hong Kong. Professor Law and Dr Tan are gradually releasing the findings of this study over the coming year.


Low Performance

The original Digital Citizenship study found that, while it is true that Hong Kong is a high-tech city, this does not mean that students automatically have a high level of digital literacy. In fact, this assumption has been shown to be not true. The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) in 2013 found that Hong Kong’s performance was lower than all other developed economies that participated in the study, and even lower than some economically less developed countries.


“Now, our own assessment of students’ digital literacy based on data we collected locally from primary 3, secondary 1 and secondary 3 students between November 2018 and March 2019 shows that our students’ competence in digital literacy and cognitive aspects of collaborative problem solving are relatively low in general,” said Professor Law. “This finding is rather concerning.”


The study recorded huge differences in performance not only across schools but within schools too. In the same class, some students can be highly competent while there may be others whose digital competence is minimal. This difference was also larger at higher grade levels.


“Students learn not only through the school curriculum, and this is particularly so with regard to digital competence,” said Professor Law.“Students gain digital literacy through their own use of digital technology, such as for socialising, entertainment and games. However, these types of activity are unlikely to contribute to the learning of higher level digital competence, such as critical evaluation of information, high-quality search results, sophisticated data management and presentation, and data security measures.


“For students whose family members have high-level skills and who may also be inducted into more sophisticated applications of technology in their out-of-school digital activities, they may be able to develop high-level digital competence with or without school intervention. Where there is high diversity within school in competence, it is possibly because the school does not provide many opportunities for students to undertake learning tasks that require the use of digital technology (here, I discount the use of digital technology by the teacher for didactic instruction). So a wide within-class/within-school distribution in digital competence is more a reflection of the students’ opportunities to learn digital competence skills outside of school arranged learning opportunities.”


However, the consequences of COVID-19, as the findings from the new “eCitizen Education 360” show, are not all negative. They have forced all schools and teachers to take some action towards using digital, online means to carry out their educational functions. “We have seen great leaps in the digital competence of students and teachers alike, and the adoption of new tools and digital pedagogy by teachers,” said Professor Law.


Schools Unprepared

That said, the sudden switch to totally online educational provision has also brought challenges and put a spotlight on some of the divisions the Digital Citizenship study found.


“The difference in preparedness of schools for using technology to provide online learning and teaching is huge,” said Professor Law. “Students who are studying in unprepared schools are very much disadvantaged. If this situation is not addressed, the disadvantage brought to students in unprepared schools will only increase.”


This digital divide is often associated with social economic status (SES) divides, but it cannot be addressed simply by ensuring that all students have adequate access to large screen devices (desktop, laptop or tablet computers) and internet connectivity, although this would be absolutely necessary.


“Low SES students may not be able to overcome the competence divide to make use of the technology for online learning”, said Professor Law. “They also may not have a quiet place to take part in online learning. These issues need to be addressed through concerted efforts from different sectors in the community. This is also why we have used ‘360’ in the title of our new project. We need comprehensive data and all-round multi-sector engagement in addressing the problem.”


Asked what schools could start doing to improve the situation, given the likelihood of more suspensions, Professor Law said: “Schools can develop a holistic curriculum plan for each grade level in the school by identifying topics or aspects of the curriculum that cannot be adequately addressed only through digital means, and having a plan ready for implementing these when conditions allow, since the pandemic situation is likely to fluctuate. Site-based learning opportunities are like gold, and schools need to be prepared for taking the most advantage of them when they do occur. Schools can also develop a repertoire of e-learning pedagogies for different kinds of learning outcomes and student needs, and have these recommended for appropriate segments of the curriculum.”


From the teachers’ point of view, the study recommends seeking out professional development opportunities for teachers to learn to conduct online and blended learning, and to organise support teams within the school to overcome difficulties encountered in the implementation process. Professor Law concluded, “Most importantly, schools need to identify students in need of support, and provide access not only to technology but also the support that goes with it. Perhaps partnerships can be forged between schools and community organisations to help bridge this digital divide.”


Press conference

Professor Nancy Law and Dr Elizabeth Loh presented the research findings from the study of “Hong Kong Students’ Digital Citizenship Development” on April 21, 2020.

Dr Tan

Dr Tan Cheng Yong, an expert in familial and school factors on student learning, is the Co-Principal Investigator of the study “eCitizen Education 360”.


Professor Nancy Law released the first of a series of six bulletins of the study “eCitizen Education 360” and provided recommendations for actions.


The initial findings of “Hong Kong Students' Digital Citizenship Development” was published in April 2020.