Computers in Chinese schools cannot close the urban-rural divide

Reposted with permission from the Mercator Institute for China Studies

In a recently published blog, I argue that digital solutions have not delivered on the promise to guarantee high-quality education for all in China. The introduction of information and communication technology has encountered resistance from teachers and parents. It has also created a new divide between the producers and the consumers of ICT content.

The idea is certainly tempting: if all students in a country had access to the same kind of digital resources – such as state-of-the-art textbooks, individualized and interactive learning tools or micro-lectures by excellent teachers – wouldn’t that help decrease the performance gap between students and teachers at both elite schools and disadvantaged schools?

The Chinese government places high hopes in the equalizing effect of information and communication technologies in education (in short, ICT4E). China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-2020) promotes digital solutions as a way to bridge the divide between rural and urban schools; and party and state leader Xi Jinping wants “millions of children to enjoy high-quality education.” China is pushing ICT4E not only domestically, but also aims to export its digital education products to the rest of the world, particularly to African countries.

Considering China’s global ambitions, it is fair to ask how digital education initiatives have fared within China. So far they have not yielded the intended results. Paradoxically, ICT4E can actually create new inequalities between high- and low-performing schools.

At first glance, China’s heavy investment in ICT4E has born fruit. By 2016, 87 percent of all primary and middle schools had access to the internet; 80 per cent of Chinese classrooms had multimedia facilities; and teachers can now draw on millions of online instruction units. The picture looks less favorable when taking the individual student into account: 8 students in average share a computer at school (OECD: 1.3 students per computer). At home, only 59.8 percent of students have access to a computer (OECD: 91.2 percent), and only 64.6 percent have an internet connection (OECD: 94.3 percent).

Technologies are used for teaching, not for learning

These numbers however tell us little about how digital teaching methods are employed, and whether they have led to the desired improvements in student and teacher development.

The most striking observation from my fieldwork at schools in regions as diverse as Beijing, Kunming, Zhejiang Province, and the greater area of Chongqing was that the new technologies were used for teaching, but not for learning. They were mostly used by teachers for presentation purposes, e.g. for powerpoint and smartboard presentations, or for showing micro-lectures downloaded from the internet.

Students on the other side had little to no contact with ICT4E. Firstly, they did not use information and communication technologies for knowledge-seeking purposes. This fact is confirmed by international studies, which find that Chinese students rarely use the internet for school-related tasks and that they are not taught how to navigate the internet efficiently.

Secondly, ICT4E were neither used for individual learning nor for interactive purposes. School principals and teachers attributed this to problems of access, e.g. in the students’ home environments or in the dormitories, and lack of skills in the students’ families, such as parents and grandparents being unable to help children with these tasks.

Thirdly, teachers as well as families were generally reluctant to view ICT as capable of replacing books and teacher-centered learning. Computers and information and communication technologies were rather seen as distractions that needed to be constrained and should be used as rewards for students who studied diligently (with clear time limits, of course). This attitude towards ICT as potentially dangerous and non-virtuous has also been found in earlier studies on Chinese youth.

Fourthly, and perhaps surprisingly in a society that is exposed to tight political and ideological control: there is almost no training in digital literacy for either teachers or students. In a time when content from the internet can challenge conventional media and politics, students and teachers alike are given astoundingly scarce guidance as to how to retrieve reliable information. Most training in ICT regards technical questions, such as how to use a computer, or design a presentation; but even those classes are often replaced by subjects that are deemed to be more relevant to the university entrance examinations.

Urban schools produce, rural schools consume content

The fifth finding came as even more of a surprise: in many cases, disadvantaged schools were better equipped than their urban counterparts. While smartboards – including ready-made presentations and lectures created elsewhere – were integral parts of teaching in rural areas, many well-off schools refused to use these technologies entirely. In fact, teachers at high-performing schools did not even believe that ICT could improve student performance, and preferred traditional methods of teaching.

Ironically, many of these high-performing schools had produced the ICT content (mostly in the form of micro-lectures and micro-lessons) that was then distributed to rural schools. After taking the credit of having participated as an ICT4E producer – not seldom resulting in awards and prizes – these schools would then return to their old ways of teaching.

As has also been suggested by a study carried out in Sichuan Province, this division into active producers and passive consumers of ICT4E can create new inequalities: whereas prestigious schools use ICT4E to add even more feathers to their caps, disadvantaged schools are expected to reproduce the lessons from elsewhere. To replace, or complement, low-skilled teachers with ICT4E may look like a smart shortcut; but it runs the risk that, firstly, less emphasis will be placed on training highly qualified teachers for all schools; and secondly, that teaching will lose local relevance and thereby its connection to students’ lives – which is likely to impact learning negatively. ICT4E should not simply be reduced to “scripted lessons,” which have been criticized for creating “zombie teachers” who teach irrespective of teacher-student dynamics, class and student context, and the wider community in which the school is situated.

The risk is that the use of ICT4E in China amplifies a more controversial feature of the Chinese education system. In many cases, the technologies have been employed to incentivize cramming (instilling content) rather than active learning. What is lacking in the Chinese education sector – also according to Chinese experts – are bottom-up strategies for learning: students need to be able to formulate their own questions, learn about various ways to seek relevant information, and come up with their own ideas and solutions. ICT4E can assist in these processes, e.g. by facilitating communication or knowledge seeking and sharing. However, the use of technology cannot transform established educational practices overnight. As long as high-stakes examinations reward rote learning, inquiry-based learning will be subordinated to the goal of achieving high test scores.

To read more about the Chinese ICT4E initiatives and their outcomes, and other public services overhauled by the Xi Jinping administration, see the freely downloadable MERICS paper on China Serve the People: Innovation and IT in China’s Social Development Agenda.

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University
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