Congested curricula and incompatible goals: the curious absence of ICT from school-based learning in China

I presented this paper at the 46th congress of NERA (Nordic Educational Research Association), March 8-10, 2018.

Worldwide, information and communication technologies (ICT), particularly in the sense of digital literacy, are increasingly considered as both inevitable and indispensable parts of the school curriculum. Also, international student assessment studies like PISA have on several occasions assessed computer and information literacy. Additionally, classrooms, teaching and learning, as well as school administration and school-family interaction have become more and more web-based.

China is no exception to this global trend. In parallel to its massive investment in digital infrastructure and technology, it has launched large-scale plans to digitalize education and schooling. The declared goals are not only to make teaching and learning more efficient and interactive, but also to bridge rural-urban divides in educational access and quality, thus reflecting challenges that can be found both in developed and developing contexts.

The aim of the paper is to investigate how these ICT initiatives operate on the ground, and examine (1) to which extent, and which ways, digitalization has affected the school, teacher-student-family interaction, and student learning; and (2) if these ICT initiatives have, as proclaimed, made learning more efficient/interactive and education more accessible and equitable.

The paper draws on both document analysis (government plans for ICT in education, curriculum documents etc.) and data collected during fieldwork at Chinese schools. These data include (1) interviews with teachers and school principals; (2) class observations; (3) interviews with educational experts; and (4) lay observations made by Swedish students on an exchange visit in China.

The analysis draws on the concept of ‘translation’ as utilized within Scandinavian neo-institutionalism: globally travelling ideas and programs are not only literally translated into the local context’s words, but also into this context’s institutions and action frames (e.g. Czarniawska and Sevón, 2005); as well as on the concept of ‘micropolitical literacy’ (e.g. Kelchtermans, 2002), which takes into consideration teachers’ political and emotional learning processes when implementing the curriculum.

In the course of transferring and implementing ICT into Chinese schools, the proclaimed aims of efficiency, interactivity and equity do not only become watered down, or at times completely lost; but due to structural constraints and system-inherent logics, these aims are frequently found to have been transformed into their exact opposites: regarding learning processes, into more teacher-directed learning and less interactivity, accompanied by teacher perceptions of ICT as distracting from, rather than facilitating, learning; and regarding educational equity, into an even greater divide between the digitally able, active, wealthy schools in urban centres, and the passive and poor schools in the countryside, whose role it is largely to ‘receive’ the digital content provided to them by their wealthier, better-quality peers.

Even though the empirical data pertain to the Chinese context, questions of curriculum implementation in diverse social, cultural, and political contexts are of more general interest, and findings can also provide theoretical insight. More concretely, the lay observations made by Swedish students, and analysed for this paper, contribute new methodological insights concerning lay theories/lay comparisons.

About Barbara Schulte

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