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It was back in 1992 that the personal computer changed Eric Chin's life. In April that year, he joined the Chamber's first Hong Kong Franchise Association mission, which was to the International Franchise Expo, in Washington DC.

"I was lucky enough to participate in that trip. Because of that mission I started this business," said the president for Futurekids, Hong Kong and Macau.

Mr Chin met the founders of Futurekids Inc. at the expo, and the more they explained their operation to him, the more convinced he became that the idea would take off in Hong Kong.

"You know the IBM PC was invented in 1981, and Futurekids started teaching kids in the U.S. to use them in 1983. When I met them it was already 1992, which means they had already been doing this for nine years! At that time in Hong Kong there was no structured programme or similar curriculum for our kids to learn computers. So I thought this offered huge potential if I could bring it to Hong Kong," he said.

He extended his stay in the United States for two days and travelled to Futurekids' headquarters in Los Angeles to discuss franchise rights for Hong Kong. The owners were enthusiastic about the idea of expanding their Asian network, which at the time included Australia, Japan and Indonesia.

"I became the ninth country to join Futurekids. Now the global network consist of over 2,000 computer learning centres in 75 countries. There are over 1 million students worldwide studying Futurekids' curriculum," he said.

But when Futurekids first booted up in the territory in 1993, business in Hong Kong was on a more modest scale. At that time, 386 PCs cost almost HK$10,000 per machine. Having spent over HK$1 million for the franchise rights, Mr Chin said he only had enough money to buy six computers.

"When we first set up, at that time 386 computers were so expensive. On top of that we also had to install multimedia systems -- soundcards and CD-ROM drives, which at that time were also very, very expensive. We really had a hard time getting started," he said.

With new technology being rolled out every six months or so, upgrading machines and software ate up any income the company made in the first few years of operation.

But Mr Chin said the beauty of being in a franchise is that during training in the U.S. he was told exactly what he need to do, and advisors would help him better understand the system and subsequent upgrades of hardware and software.

Educational philosophy
In addition to being amazed at how early children in the U.S. were learning how to use PCs, Mr Chin said he was also impressed that the system did not merely teach students how to use Windows or do word processing.

"I discovered that they had a sound education philosophy when they developed the whole system," he said

Called "scope and sequence," the system was developed by teachers in the United States in the 1930s. It basically defines course content interwoven with over 500 learning objectives.

The curriculum covers 10 technology skills, including graphics, desktop publishing and multimedia, and introduces children as young as 3 to the computer. Mr Chin concedes that getting a 3-year-old child to sit still for longer than two minutes -- let alone studying for 30 minutes -- can be a challenge.

"For kids it must be fun, otherwise they will feel bored and they won't want to learn. That is why we not only focus on technology. For kids, they think they are playing, and when they first start you can see they are so excited about getting their hands on a computer and start exploring what they can do with it," he said.

While kids play, they learn one of the infused academic subjects: science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics.

"As a result, the kids will find they are being challenged. This motivates them to learn by spending time on mastering the skills, then they can create their own products, or express themselves creatively through what they have learned," he said.

Around three years ago, Futurekids changed its global strategy to sell its concept to schools. Called School Technology Solutions, Mr Chin said he is introducing the system to private and public schools in Hong Kong, which has so far been well received.

"We provide a whole curriculum for schools to use. Because the computer curriculum is a completely new concept for existing educators, at first they are bewildered," he said. "But by providing a turnkey solution to schools and teacher training, we are making the system more accessible to students."

Now, more than ever, governments, parents and educators are worrying about equipping children with technology skills to help them prosper in the knowledge economy. Every Futurekids member that Mr Chin meets from other countries says that their government is aggressively promoting IT education.

But he cautions that simply spending millions of dollars to set up computer labs in schools will not produce IT savvy kids.

"You have to ask: Can students use the tools effectively? When they go out into the workforce, can their IT skills help them become more productive and make a valuable contribution to their company and society?" he said.

"It's important that the SAR Government is putting much emphasis on IT training in schools, but it must also look at what results are being achieved, and how it can improve them."
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