ICT and rural education in China

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answers on how best to proceed may come in all shapes and sizesLast year on this blog, I asked a few questions (eLearning, Africa and ... China?) as a result of my participation in a related event in Dar Es Salaam where lots of my African colleagues were ‘talking about China’, but where few Chinese (researchers, practitioners, firms, officials) were present. This year's eLearning Africa event in Benin, in contrast, featured for the first time a delegation of researchers from China, a visit organized by the International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education (INRULED), a UNESCO research center headquartered at Beijing Normal University (with additional outposts at Baodin, Nanjing and Gansu). Hopefully this is just the beginning of a positive trend to open up access to knowledge about what is working (and isn’t working) related to ICT use in education in places in rural China that might more resemble certain situations and contexts in many developing countries than those drawn from experiences in, for example, Boston or Singapore (or from Shanghai and Beijing, for that matter). Establishing working level linkages between researchers and practitioners (and affiliated institutions) in China and Africa, can be vital to helping encourage such knowledge exchanges.

China’s official “Plan for ICT in Education 2011-2020”, which was published in March 2012, states that “Special focus should be put on ICT use and infrastructure building in rural areas, poor areas, and ethnical areas, aiming to narrow the digital divide among regions and schools.”

(Note: We are working off a quick and unofficial translation done internally as part of our on-going activities monitoring governmental ICT/education policies under our SABER-ICT initiative. To the best of our knowledge, there is there is no official English translation of this document that has been published by the Ministry of Education, so we don’t yet have a link to share.  Once there is one, we’ll post it in the comments section below.)

With that in mind:

What do we know about how ICTs are being used in schools in rural parts of China, and how might related lessons emerging from these areas be relevant to similar sorts of communities in other parts of the world?

If you are looking for answers to these sorts of questions, work emerging out of both INRULED (documenting major initiatives) and Stanford’s REAP program (examining the impact of various small programs) may be of some assistance.

In its latest newsletter (April-June 2012, available here as a PDF), INRULED provides a helpful list of some of the largest and most interesting ICT/education initiatives that have taken place in rural China over the last decade. As part of its work under its iERD (ICT in Education for Rural Development) research program, INRULED is documenting good and best practices from these (and other) initiatives to help provide insight into lessons emerging that may be of interest to policymakers in other countries.  These initiatives include:

INRULED's list of 'Good Cases' on ICT use in Education for Rural Development from China

Case 1: Distance Education Project “School-to-School Project”
(launched in 2000, this aimed to bring Internet access to ~ 90% of Chinese schools via three basic models: instructional DVDs played on televisions; satellite TV + computers; and Internet-enabled computer classrooms plus satellite TV)

Case 2: Experiment on Leap-forward Development and Innovation of Basic Education
(228 'experiment' schools in rural areas are involved in this project overseen by Beijing Normal University)

Case 3: MOE – Microsoft “Partners-in-Learning” Project
(large scale public-private partnership begun in 2003)

Case 4: Modern Distance Vocational Education Resources Construction Project
(from 1999-2003, the Ministry of Education developed and delivered more that 130 online courses)

Case 5: “One Village, One College Student” Plan
(begun in 1999 by the open University of China, this higher education project offers courses of study in 18 agriculture-related majors)

Case 6: Poverty Alleviation through Distance Education Project
(begun in 2003 by Tsinghua University, 1,018 county-level and 2,440 village and township level teaching stations have been set up in 539 high poverty sites)

Case 7: University Agricultural Science and Technology and Education Network Coalition
(since 2003, agencies in this coalition have trained over 500,000 people)

Case 8: Village and Township Digital Learning Demonstration Center Based on the Public Service Systems
(targeting farmers and others engaged in rural agriculture)

Case 9: National Teacher Education Network Coalition Plan and National Training Programme
(building a teacher education network in China since 2003, latest initiative is training 435,000 teachers through distance learning)

Case 10: Continuing Education Network for Primary and High School Teachers
(continuing education network launched by Northeast Normal University in 2002)

Case 11: New Form of Distance Teacher Education for Less-Developed Regions
(small pilot project exploring creation of distance education learning centers in Yulin, Shaanxi)

Case 12: Training of Substitute Teachers in Primary and Junior High Schools through E-learning
(training substitute teachers in 15 less developed cities in Guangdong province)

If you are interested in this sort of thing, you may find it useful to bookmark the INRULED site and visit it from time to time in the coming months. This list may also provide a useful starting point for international researchers and policymakers looking to learn more about related Chinese experience.

let's have a look inside and see what we might learn

Based out of Stanford University, the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) is “an impact evaluation organization that aims to inform sound education, health and nutrition policy in China. REAP’s goal is to help students from vulnerable communities in China enhance their human capital and overcome obstacles to education so that they can escape poverty and better contribute to China’s developing economy.” REAP researchers, who are drawn from Stanford, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China’s Northwest Socioeconomic Development Research Center, have a special interest in “exploring the use of technology to improve schooling and health outcomes, both by providing children with extra help inside and outside of school, and by educating parents in remote, hard-to-penetrate areas.”

REAP has been publishing a series of fascinating working papers that attempt to document and evaluate the use of computers by students in rural schools. Interestingly, and notably, this research features the use randomized control trials, considered a ‘gold standard’ in many evaluation circles (including by lots of folks here at the World Bank). Back when I worked a lot in China a decade ago on ICT/education issues, I don’t recall ever coming across Chinese researchers using RCT techniques as part of their impact evaluation work – the fact that such methodological approaches are appearing with greater frequency as part of the published research output in the sector is to me an encouraging sign.  Here is a sample of some recent working papers published by REAP that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

REAP working papers on ICT/education topics

#228 Does Computer-Assisted Learning Improve Learning Outcomes? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Migrant Schools in Beijing

#233  Can One Laptop per Child Reduce the Digital Divide and Educational Gap? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Migrant Schools in Beijing

#234 The Roots of Tomorrow s Digital Divide: Documenting Computer Use and Internet Access in China s Elementary Schools Today

#235 Computer Assisted Learning as Extracurricular Tutor? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Rural Boarding Schools in Shaanxi

#237 Does Computer-Assisted Learning Improve Learning Outcomes? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Public Schools in Rural Minority Areas in Qinghai, China

#238 Computers and the Academic Performance of Elementary School-Aged Girls in China’s Poor Communities

You may wish to periodically visit the REAP web site to stay informed about upcoming research, and to download these and other working papers.


Few people are unaware of the remarkable growth the China has experienced over the past three decades.  According to World Bank figures, since 1978 the country has grown at an average rate of 9.7% a year, and became the world’s second biggest economy in 2010. The high scores of students in Shanghai as part of the last round of PISA (the highly regarded international academic assessment scheme for 15 year olds coordinated by the OECD ) are the envy of much of the rest of the world.  At the same time, as noted on a World Bank China country overview briefing note, “with the second largest number of consumption-poor in the world after India, poverty reduction remains a fundamental challenge”. This is especially true for the hundreds of millions of people who live in China’s rural areas.  Education – aided by the judicious and cost effective use of technologies, old and new – will no doubt play a role in how this story develops.  Lots of countries are keenly interested in the Chinese experience with educational technologies.  Groups like INRULED and the REAP program are helping in small but key ways to make sure that others around the world can access and learn lessons from this process.  Let’s hope that many others join them in doing so.


[Special thanks to James Liu for his help in translating related documents and insights into emerging issues in ICT use in education in rural China.]


note: The picture of terraced rice fields in China's Yunnan province used in this blog post ("answers on how best to proceed may come in all shapes and sizes") comes from Jialiang Gao via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. The picture of a door to a house in rural Yangshuo in the south of China ("let's have a look inside and see what we might learn") comes from Wikipedian Stougard via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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