Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Serving in Old Buildings

Many people in Hong Kong live in old dilapidated buildings in Shumshuipo, Kowloon City, Wong Tai Sin or some similar old district.  The building may be falling apart. There may be cracks in the walls, and the concrete may be falling from the ceiling.  There may be cockroaches, spiders, ants, rats and more.  The water pipes may be leaking.  The electrical cables may be in danger of short-circuiting.  The building may violate multiple health, safety and fire regulations.  The building may literally be falling down.

The people who live there may be quite old themselves. They may own the apartment but they may not be rich.  They may not have the money to fix the building.  They may not know what government regulations apply to their buildings.  They may not realize that there are government programs that may provide them with advice or assistance.  They may not know where to look for help.

When someone make them an offer to buy their apartment, they may not be able to determine whether the offer is fair.  They may not know the market value for their apartment.  They may not know how to find out what an apartment of a similar size and type in the same neighbourhood is worth.

In a Service Learning subject offered by our Department of Building and Real Estate, professors are taking our students to visit the people living in such buildings.  They help to inspect the building for problems.  They talk to the folks to find out the situations they are facing.  They try to find relevant information such as government regulations, assistance schemes for maintenance and improvements, etc., for the folks.  It is a wonderful way for our students to learn about the community, show their care for the people, and apply their professional expertise to real society problems.

That is service learning that is a worthy component of an academic program. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Catching Up in Service-Learning

Service Learning in some form or the other has long been broadly accepted wisdom in universities in many countries such as the USA.  It may appear under different guises or have broader or narrower meanings, such as community service learning, civic engagement, civic responsibility, ...  It may be compulsory or elective.  But many universities recognize its academic value. 

In Hong Kong (and to some extent in China), we are catching up.  More and more service learning subjects and associated service projects are being offered.  More and more students are taking them and discovering how meaningful and enjoyable they can be.  More and more teachers and educators are seeing the real and tangible benefits.

We are still encountering questions such as: It is good for students to do volunteer work, but why should they be given academic credits?  Some students do not want to serve, why should we require/force them to serve?  Some students have poor social skills, why should they be asked to serve? It is very hard to assess their performance and how much they learn, why should we do it?  It is very expensive to teach this way, why should we do it?

Perhaps, not so surprisingly, many skeptics come from the science, engineering, and business disciplines.

The fact is: Through service learning, our students are becoming more mature, more resilient, more responsible as students as well as citizens.  Isn’t it what education is about?  Perhaps it is precisely those students who do not want to do it and those who have poor social skills who need it the most?  Perhaps it is not as difficult as it seems, as many people have been doing it already?  Yes, effective education is expensive; but ignorance, the result of ineffective education, is far more costly.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Justice in Hong Kong

Between Hong Kong and mainland China, HK certainly has the better judicial system.  Most fair-minded people would agree and many have said so.  It has a longer history and stronger foundation.   It has more respect for human rights and dignity.  It is more tied into international laws and practice. It has withstood tests and challenges over a long time.  Consequently people have more confidence in it.

Most importantly, Hong Kong people have developed a healthy respect for law and order.  They abide by the law not just because of fear; there is, of course, some of that.  But they do it also because that is what is expected, that most people are behaving the same way.  That just feels the right thing to do.  They line up for the bus automatically.  Even when they are upset, they protest peacefully.  They cheat too (e.g., students in examinations).  But when they are caught, they have the decency of feeling ashamed.  That is the true foundation of the law and order.  Not just a set of well written laws that people simply try to get around.

If that is the case, why do some people insist that Hong Kong should listen to the mainland in matters of the judicial system?  Why is that the judges in Hong Kong should follow the instructions of the government officials in mainland China?  Why should experts with proven experience listen to people with no credibility?  Why is it that the laws of a more highly developed community should be dictated by a less highly developed community?  In a reasonable world, it should be the other way round, shouldn't it?

What is more upsetting is that this demand is coming from some people who have lived in Hong Kong for a long time, people who have enough experience in Hong Kong to know the difference.  The only reason that I can think of is political expedience - that some people want to say things to please people in power.

That’s what gets some Hongkong people very angry. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Service-Learning @ HKPolyU

Service Learning is entering a new phase at our university.  We have been offering credit-bearing service learning subjects since the summer of 2011.  Up to now, 200+ students have taken the 8 subjects offered.  They have taught Cantonese and computer animation to African and South Asian refugees, worked in community centers for the elderly and the ethnic minority, and provided help to people living in dilapidated buildings in Hong Kong. They have also taught English and constructed orthoses for the underprivileged in rural China.  They have even taught robotics and computer animation to children in the slums of Cambodia, and much more.

Starting with the cohort who have just entered the university for the new 4-year undergraduate programs, all students will take service learning as a required subject.  At this point, we have a total of 17 service learning subjects covering languages, information technology, real estate, social work, nursing, nursing, textiles and biomedical engineering.  Soon, we expect to add subjects in tourism, engineering, design, environment, rehabilitation, business, etc., covering the whole wide range of programs taught at the university.

In a few years time, at full implementation, we expect to have 2,000+ students taking 60+ service learning subjects each year, serving the needy in Hong Kong, mainland China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, Africa, and many more places.   It is a huge challenge, but one that is truly worth the hard work, and appreciated by all parties.