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Speech of the Opening Ceremony at The HKFYG Jockey Club School of Global Leadership – Summer School for Global Leadership 2021

(The Pandemic: Tackling Poverty and the Growing Educational Digital Divide)

Address by Professor Paul LAM Kwan-sing, President

16 July 2021


The topic of today's discussion is “Breaking Digital Poverty –
How can we support the lost generation?”
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on how the lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to lost educational and other opportunities for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community, particularly related to so called “digital poverty”, which is likely to affect many young people in all parts of the world. Today's theme is therefore very timely and important.
I am an environmental chemist and cannot claim that I have done a lot of research on this precise topic. However, based on my experience as a teacher, researcher and administrator at several universities for over three decades, I wish to share some thoughts with you.
In my view, there are at least two challenges that we need to pay attention to.
One is “Digital Poverty”, which refers to the loss of opportunities in areas such as education, social activities and employment, because of the lack of access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
This situation is similar to the problem of famine in some parts of the world. We know that there is enough food produced on the planet for every person alive today, but nearly a billion people on earth are hungry or malnourished. Many of us believe that the solution lies in the more equitable and efficient distribution of food.
In the case of digital poverty, clearly, governments and society as a whole must work together to tackle this problem. There is no excuse for not taking action to manage or even eliminate digital poverty in a society as wealthy as Hong Kong. In the final analysis, I think it is a matter of setting the right priorities, formulating appropriate policies, and having the determination to achieve our goals.
The second aspect of this discussion, which is equally important, is what I would like to focus on today.
About 10 years ago, a survey conducted at a university in the US, was designed to find out how undergraduate students spend their time in a typical day. The students were asked to indicate the amount of time they allocated to various activities, including sleeping, watching television, listening to music, surfing the internet, using their mobile phone, in class, eating, working, studying, and so forth.
As you can imagine, the results were very interesting and revealing. Naturally, I discovered that the amount of time students spent on various activities was vastly different from the pattern when I was an undergraduate. There were many interesting observations, but for the purpose of this talk, I would like to concentrate on just one area.
When I added up all the time allocated to the activities in a day in the US survey, it came to 29 hours. Clearly, the students were doing several things at a time. For example, they could be eating, surfing the net, listening to music and watching television at the same time. They are multitasking. But the survey found that the students were online most of the time.
One thing is clear – we live in a “Digital Age”, or we can call it the “Information Age”. The vast amount of information that is available, particularly through digital means, often described as “information explosion”, is another issue that we should be concerned about.
There are several challenges for us.
The first challenge is “where to get information”. Today, we can get information from many sources: the Internet, television, newspapers, magazines, politicians, NGOs, green groups, books, seminars, forums, talks, quasi-scientific literature, and scientific publications in academic journals, for example.
Most of you probably get most of your information from the internet; very few of you are likely to get information from peer-reviewed academic journals.
But unfortunately, there is a lot of information on the internet that is not “verified” or simply wrong.
So the second challenge is “how to handle misinformation”. There are many examples to demonstrate that much of the information in the public domain and many of our “common beliefs” are simply not true.
Let me give you a very simple example, which is related to my research area. Very often, we hear “experts” on television news or in the newspaper say that because the concentration of a toxic chemical in our food, say fish, exceeds the “safe level”, known as tolerable daily intake, we will be poisoned, get cancer, and so forth, if we eat the fish.
The truth is that “tolerable daily intake is the maximum amount of a substance in air, food or drinking water that can be taken in every day over a person's lifetime without incurring appreciable risk to health”.
It is therefore, very important that we make sure that the information we obtain and use is accurate. But even if the information is accurate, we still have the challenge of interpreting the information appropriately.
I believe the way to achieve that is to examine the facts with an open mind and consider objectively both sides of an argument. This sounds logical and simple, but many of the problems we face today stem from us adopting a different approach.
We tend to formulate a conclusion first and then look for “evidence” to substantiate our beliefs. In this information age, we can always find enough “evidence” to substantiate our belief, even though it may be unbelievable, illogical or just plain wrong.
Perhaps a good education will help towards counteracting this undesirable situation.
I wish to point out that “digital poverty” and “digital overload” can both lead to a “lost generation”. We must be wary of creating or promoting a digitally rich, but spiritually and intellectually poor society. We have to face and tackle these issues to advance social progress and work towards achieving social equity.
I was asked to talk about “Breaking Digital Poverty – How can we support the lost generation?”
In my view, we can bridge the digital divide by the government working closely with non-governmental organizations, businesses, and society as a whole. We should make a concerted effort to provide accessible and affordable Information and Communication Technologies to all members of our community.
I understand that you will have a lot of opportunities to explore this topic in detail during the next seven days, and I am sure that you will come up with many innovative and practical solutions to address this issue.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts with you. I look forward to hearing about the ideas and suggestions that come from your discussions in the next seven days. I wish you have a very successful, meaningful and fruitful time at this Summer School.