Caixin Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide


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“I like school. I can’t wait to go to class.”

Zeng Lei is sitting on the steps of the old classroom building. He is 15 minutes early. But, Zeng Lei is not alone. Nine of his fourth-grade classmates are crowded around the front door, unable to keep still. Eagerly they scan the schoolyard for the teacher-supervisor to come over and open the door. They can’t wait. 

Are these the school’s top, fast-track students? Are they meeting with their teacher to prepare for the Math Olympics? Are Zeng Lei and his classmates the young, motivated geniuses that are ready to lead China into the 21st century?

Actually, these are not the best students. Only three of ten will graduate from high school. If these fourth grade students took a math test that was also given to a group of second grade students from an urban public school, the second grade city kids would outscore Zeng Lei and his friends. Easily. In fact, there are many first graders in China’s cities that would outscore these rural fourth graders in math, Chinese and English.

So what is Zeng Lei waiting for? Why are these children—who have never been especially interested in school before—so anxious to get into the classroom?

Computers, games, learning and more

Zeng Lei and his friends are in our Computer Assisted Learning program. All of the fourth graders in his school are part of the program. We call Computer Assisted Learning “CAL” for short. It is one of the most prominent initiatives of our research group, the Rural Education Action Project (or REAP).

CAL is a game-based remedial tutoring program. Each week, twice a week, all fourth graders in a CAL school attend a 45-minute session in a computer room. Some of the computer rooms are new. We set them up. Some of the computer rooms were already there. We got them into shape for the CAL program.

But CAL is more than just hardware. On each of the computers, there are two pieces of software that REAP has created to help students in poor rural schools catch up and stay caught up. The software is calibrated to the curriculum that is being taught in the classroom. The software reviews the material taught during the week and then provides—in a game format—targeted review questions. Lots of review questions. Lots of games. Music and rhymes and riddles and challenges.

So, are we talking about a complicated new technology that is technically difficult to deliver and maintain? In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. The CAL program is made up of two simple pieces of software. One of the programs cost REAP less than US$5000 to develop. A group of Tsinghua University undergraduate computer majors created the software in six weeks during the summer of 2009. It is not copyrighted. Any one can have it. It can fit on any USB drive. The other piece of software can be purchased online for around 50 yuan. It takes about 5 minutes to install. Even I can install it—and I am a 58-year-old technology caveman. Simple. Attractive. Using off-the-shelf, low-powered computers as tutors to drill students in a way that they think is fun. 

Each class has a teacher-supervisor but with only one simple job. In Zeng Lei’s school, she speaks to the math teacher before the CAL session to find out what lesson the class covered during the week and then tells the students which icon to click. And that is about it.

So how much impact does this simple program have? We conducted a little test to find out. We picked 148 schools in 3 provinces and randomly selected half of those schools to receive the CAL program (our “CAL schools”) and half to receive no intervention at all (our “control schools”). And with such a simple intervention, the results were really nothing short of amazing.

We found that after just one year of using CAL, test scores of the students in the CAL schools were significantly higher than the students in control schools (who had no CAL program). And we conducted four more studies—a total of five separate, large-scale field experiments. In all of these studies our results were the same. Test scores rose for CAL students in migrant schools in the suburbs of Beijing. Test scores rose for CAL students in rural mountainous schools in the Qingling Mountains of southern Shaanxi. Test scores rose for CAL students from minority community schools in Qinghai. In all of these environments, test scores went up in math. Test scores also went up in Chinese. Scores on scales measuring mental health (especially anxiety) improved. Students became more confident in problem solving. All of this from two 45 minute sessions per week.

Remember, the ONLY difference between the CAL treatment schools and the control schools was the CAL program. When we ran the program for a second year—we were afraid that the initial effect of CAL might be the result of short-term student excitement rather than true change in learning behavior—we found that CAL continued to improve student learning. CAL did not eliminate the gap between urban and rural students. But the CAL program did reduce the gap significantly. 

And according to the REAP studies, students in CAL schools gained something even more important. They started to like school. During the baseline, only about 25% of students said that they liked school (in both the CAL schools and the non-CAL control schools). At the end of the school year, after several months of CAL, more than 60% of the CAL students said that they “liked” school. There was no significant change in the control schools. With the addition of just two CAL classes per week!

So, this is why Zeng Lei lined up early outside the CAL classroom on CAL day. He could not wait to get on the computer. He could not wait to play the CAL games and answer the questions. He could not wait to learn. And for maybe the first time in his life, he really liked going to school.

China’s digital divide: The widest in the world

In this article, we are not pushing CAL. Hey: we believe every child in rural China could benefit from CAL. But, the real reason for our column is to discuss some of the fundamental structural problems of China’s rural education system. Let’s use CAL as a lens to examine some of the problems that are plaguing rural schools today.

Why is it that such simple computer games can make such a difference? There are many reasons. First and foremost, we believe it is due in large part to the simple fact that computers are new and novel for these students. The engaging and effective way in which a computer can convey information is something most of these kids have simply never experienced. Unfortunately, most rural children still do not have access to computers or other electronic technologies.

In a paper that REAP wrote and published last year, we documented that the digital divide is wider in China than in any other country in the world. In the city, just about every student has access to computers and software and other electronic learning devices. In poor rural areas, almost no student has this access.

Here are the facts: According to data on more than 10,000 students in Beijing, Shaanxi and Qinghai, we can convincingly show that the gap in computer access between urban students and rural students in Western China ranges between 13:1 and 36:1. In China’s largest cities, 80% of children have computers at home and 73% of children have Internet. In poor areas of Western China only 6% of children have computers and only 2% have Internet at home. We can find no country in the world with such a wide digital divide.

And in schools, access to computers and Internet and educational software is even more skewed: Every child in China’s cities has access to modern ICT technology in their schools; almost no students in remote rural areas do. The digital divide in China is wide indeed.

And, this digital divide has consequences for learning. As REAP has shown with its CAL programs, if you give children access to the technologies of the 21st century—equipped with simple, fun and relevant learning software—they learn. And they have fun doing so. If they do not have access to computers, the Internet and relevant software, they miss out on that opportunity.



Lots of hardware; an absence of learning

This is a story of opportunity lost.  It is disheartening. If incompetence and institutional failure irk you, do not read any further.

The good news: In the same REAP paper that documents the digital divide, we also demonstrate that there are easy, effective ways for rural public schools to moderate the digital divide. When schools install computers; keep them maintained; have teachers that know how to use them; and teach structured, learning-based material during computer class, the students in those schools overcome part of the disadvantage of not being able to afford a computer or Internet access at home.  

The bad news: There are almost no schools in rural areas that have invested in all of the components that are needed for a successful computing program. And, there are even fewer that use modern technologies to deliver quality, learning-based curriculum that helps students learn.

Why is this the case? Why aren’t rural schools able to deliver quality educational learning to students? The answer is complicated. Certainly it is not an absence of hardware. In the current five-year plan, billions of dollars are being spent on equipping rural schools with computer rooms. In China’s poorest areas, much of the funding is allocated by the central government. Beautiful new facilities are being equipped with new, perfectly adequate computers. Over the past five years since we have been working on CAL, we have seen rows and rows and rows—literally miles of rows—of new computers. And new desks, lots of screens and plenty of other hardware. Could this mark the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of China’s formidable digital divide?

Unfortunately not. While this hardware is important, the support from above appears to stop there. There is almost nothing else provided. The new machines may have Microsoft Office Suite installed. Students are able to learn Powerpoint, Word and Excel. There are typing programs on some machines. The third most common piece of software is one that teaches students how to program in Basic. Never mind that Basic is a computer programming language that was out of date in the 1990s. But there is almost no educational software. There are almost no learning applications. One of the most common ways that computers are used in junior high schools in Northwest China is to give students a way to watch DVDs, usually the latest movies or old reruns of popular TV series. And that’s about it.

Even if there were educational software or other learning tools loaded onto these shiny new computers, it would not necessarily help. In almost no school in rural China is there a professional, trained staff member that is charged with maintaining and managing the computers. We have collected budgets from thousands of schools in Western China. There is almost never a budget for using, maintaining or replacing computers once they break down. As we all know, computers—especially those in a busy school computer room—inevitably break down or stop working. It is natural. It happens all of the time to me. It happens all of the time to all of us. When it happens, of course, we fix it. In many rural schools, however, when computers break down, they stay broke. There is no one to fix them. There is no budget to fix them with. There is no intention to fix them. The national government pays for the initial hardware. After that, the schools are left on their own. And the local bureau of education does not have the resources (or are not willing to spend the resources) for staff or maintenance.

How bad is it? In a recent project, we ran a contest: let REAP implement CAL in one set of 30 schools (the REAP schools); let educators from local bureaus of education implement CAL in another set of 30 schools (the government schools). The schools were randomly assigned—half became REAP schools; half became government schools. And there was no other difference between these schools at the outset. We were interested to find out: Which set of students would learn more? By this point we knew that CAL worked… now the question was, would CAL still work if implementation were turned over to local government?

So who won? Well, it is safe to say that REAP won before the competition started. The reason is that when many of the computers in the government schools did not work, they made no effort to fix them (at least initially). They simply did not have any budget to do so. It is difficult to run Computer Assisted Learning programs if the computers do not work. On top of that, the teams from the government did not even bother launching the program in a number of their assigned schools.

Meanwhile, before REAP launched its CAL program in the REAP schools, we had two teams of two students spend less than a week repairing and fine-tuning the computers. That’s all it took. Some computers were beyond repair; most were not. And we fixed all we could. In the end, REAP implemented the CAL program in 28 of the 30 schools that were assigned to us. We spent only around 2000 yuan or so on repairs and about 15 days of technician time. The result? 28 working computer rooms ready to educate excited rural kids.

A call for remaking computer management in rural schools

Lots of hardware. No learning software. No maintenance funds. No trained computer staff. That is the state of China’s rural computer programs today.

This is a failure of program design from the national government. The Ministry of Education should not spend any more money on hardware without first making sure the entire package is complete—computers; software; maintenance; staff. There needs to be national curriculum set up for installing effective, fun and accessible learning software in computer classes. We have shown over and over that these programs work: simple, game-based software packages are effective in raising test scores, in improving mental health, in building confidence and in making learning fun. Otherwise, buying more hardware is little more than showmanship. And a tragically wasted opportunity.

“Ask me. I will tell you I like school”

Just ask Zeng Lei. He will tell you. Since CAL came around, he loves school.

Where can you find Zeng Lei? Where is Zeng Lei? Oh, that is easy. You do not have to look very hard. He is standing in line outside the CAL computer room squirming in anticipation. He has 15 minutes to tell you all about it. He is always 15 minutes early.


About this series:

REAP co-directors Scott Rozelle and Linxiu Zhang are writing a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." See below for more columns in this series:

> Column 1: Why We Need to Worry About Inequality

> Column 2: China's Inequality Starts During the First 1,000 Days

> Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 1)

> Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 2) 

> Column 5: How to Cure China's Largest Epidemic

Column 6: A Tale of Two Travesties

>Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide

> Column 9: China's Most Vulnerable Children

> Column 10: Why Drop Out?

> Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education

> Column 12: Reforming China's Vocational Schools (in Chinese)