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Online education has widened China’s urban–rural education gap

Coronavirus has exposed China’s digital divide; only half of rural students can take online classes, and less than 10 per cent have computers at home

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit China, the government ordered schools to move classes online and to make sure “no one was left behind”. But for Teacher Tang, the only primary school teacher in his village, online education exists solely on TV news. 

Tang teaches at the one primary school in Banjing village, located in a poor part of Hunan province. Without devices or help from the outside, Tang found himself struggling to ensure that “no one” was left behind. 

“I have no idea how to use this technology. Since the school closed, the whole teaching process stopped,” says Tang.

Before COVID-19, Tang was already doing a tough job. 

There are approximately 40 students in his school ranging from 7-11 years old. Tang must teach all these children, from preschool to third grade, all the required school subjects, including Chinese, mathematics and social studies.

As schools gradually reopened in May, the education gap between the rich and the poor has become apparent. This may have a far-reaching impact on both students and teachers in rural areas.  

“It seems like we’ve been left behind half of the semester. Now I have so much pressure to try to catch up with others in urban cities,” says Tang. 

Cut off from outside help

The inequality between rural and urban China, in relation to teacher numbers, qualifications and material resources, means that rural areas rely largely on help from outside.

Kindforce is an education support organisation in China that has been sending volunteer teachers to Banjing village since early 2019. 

However, the pandemic drove them away from the region during the lockdown.

“Our volunteer teachers are there to narrow the gap. In urban areas, every 50 students will have four to five qualified teachers looking after them. In rural villages, only one teacher is allocated to 50 students but with lower qualifications and some even don’t have a teaching certificate,” says Yang Ling, programme manager at Kindforce.

In 2018, the Hunan provincial government requested schools in big cities to live-stream lessons to schools in small towns. But due to a lack of facilities, children in Banjing, who are among those most in need, are still unable to benefit.

“It’s totally unrealistic that every family can afford a computer in Banjing. The best thing we can hope for is each school having at least one computer, and that’s what we are now raising donations for,” says Yang.

Half of all rural children in China cannot access online classes

Poor children in Banjing are not the only ones to be hit hard.

In April, the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a non-profit institution, conducted a nation-wide survey among 36,000 students and 1,281 teachers. The results show that half of all rural students cannot attend online classes as only 7.3 per cent of them have computers at home.

The secretary-general of CDRF, Fang Jing, told the Chinese news agency, Caixin, that in addition to the lack of broadband and computers, the absence of parental companionship is also a problem. 

Most parents in rural areas are not well-educated, and nearly a quarter of the rural students surveyed say their parents are unable to help them.

Different situation in big cities

Meanwhile, in small cities and towns, the online class attendance rates are much higher (from 70 to 80 per cent), and even more so in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Chen Xixi, an eight-year-old pupil at Shanghai Jing’an Primary School, has been receiving unimpeded daily online classes since February. In addition, her father bought her extra online English tutorials with native speakers, which costs 120 yuan (£14) for a 25-minute tutorial. She is also taking online ballet lessons every week.

“There’s a common saying in China: ‘don’t let your child lose at the starting line’. Parents here are competing behind each other’s backs, especially during the lockdown period,” says Victor Chen, Xixi’s father.

According to the China Internet Network Information Centre, the number of e-learning platform users reached 423 million in March, compared to 201 million at the end of last year. 

Although 64.5 per cent of people across the country have access to the internet, only 7.3 per cent are in rural areas.

In fact, China launched the “education informatisation” project a decade ago, to integrate internet and multimedia technologies in the field of education. 

Large sums of money have been poured in since then. 

But rural children are still waiting for computers and broadband coverage so that they can begin catching up with their peers; and get even a general idea of what the internet is and the opportunities that come with it.

Read more about the benefits and loopholes of private tutoring during lockdown here.

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