Computer Assisted Learning in Migrant Schools

Migrant children are
among the lowest performing
students in China.

Among the country’s most vulnerable populations, migrant communities in China’s cities often lack access to basic services—including state-funded education—that regular urban dwellers enjoy.


These communities often lack access to basic services that regular urban dwellers enjoy. Because of their migrant status, these families face significant difficulty in enrolling their children in the urban public school system. Instead, privately run, unregulated schools have emerged to offer them educational services.

Even with basic access to schooling, migrant children have been shown to be among the poorest performing group of students in the entire country. There are many possible reasons for this poor performance: inferior teaching facilities, poor teachers, or the curriculum disruption that occurs when students—or entire schools—move from one area to another. Anecdotal evidence suggests that one particularly serious problem that migrant children face is lack of care outside of the classroom. What happens, for example, to a student who does not understand a lesson? If a child needs extra time to learn a concept or a new idea, how can he or she catch up?

One promising alternative to extracurricular tutoring and care is Computer Assisted Learning (CAL). If integrated CAL programs in schools are proven to effectively and inexpensively raise student performance, we believe they can be readily employed across wide areas of the nation’s school system.


REAP aims to test the potential for CAL programs to improve educational outcomes among migrant students in China. The proposed intervention is based on the premise that well-designed educational games can sustain interest and curiosity in an otherwise unsupportive school environment, and good educational software can be reproduced at nominal cost.

First, we will provide clear, quantitative evidence about the linkage between CAL programs and the educational performance of underserved children and demonstrate that computer assisted learning programs lead to better educational outcomes and that such programs should be scaled up in areas where poor student performance is chronic. Then, we aim to develop a curriculum (and training manual for teaching the curriculum) for a computer assisted learning program for China’s disadvantaged youth. Finally, we will build an institutional channel for providing opportunities to students and recent graduates (from Stanford/other universities) to go to China during the summers and become involved in CAL programs. The students and recent graduates can serve are trainers, assessors, technical support, observers and data analysts.


Nap time at a Beijing area migrant school

REAP tested the potential for CAL to improve educational outcomes among migrant children by conducting a randomized control trial among fifth grade students in Beijing area migrant schools. Beginning in the first half of 2010, we randomly selected 100 schools to participate in a CAL intervention. 50 of these schools served as the treatment group and 50 served as a control group. In September 2010 , after developing and testing a new educational games-based curriculum, the treatment schools received four high quality computers each. Fifth grade children in each treatment school were offered two hours of shared computer time per week. They played educational computer games that involved solving math problems and performing English language exercises at varying levels of difficulty.

A screenshot from a math education software.

The games were designed to emphasize basic competencies in these areas per the local curriculum. The student pairs played the games for two hours per week under the supervision of a teacher outside of the school’s regularly scheduled classes (e.g., during the homeroom, study period; and during the lunch break). REAP also trained fifth grade schoolteachers in the migrant schools to act as program managers. With the project team’s aid, and the help of an on-call repair team, they were responsible for scheduling students and monitoring their progress and keeping the computers running. Children also completed simple worksheets designed to track their progress at the beginning of each session.

Students during a CAL session

The students in both intervention and control schools were tested once at the beginning of the academic semester (before any intervention has begun in early September 2010) and again at the end (in early January 2011). Both tests were identical in nature and will measure basic mathematics and English language competencies. The surveys also collected information on family and student characteristics, attendance rates, subjective enthusiasm/student interest in school, etc.


Academic performance

Our results showed that CAL has significant beneficial effects on student academic outcomes. Two 40-minute CAL math sessions per week for thirteen weeks increased the student standardized math scores by 0.11 standard deviations. That is a large effect, comparable to—indeed, often exceeding— the effects of much more costly and complicated interventions such as reducing class sizes and providing extracurricular tutoring, the equivalent of roughly one semester’s worth of learning! So, thirteen weeks of CAL improved test scores as if the intervention students had attended over a semester’s worth of school more than the control students.

Heterogenous Effects

Interestingly, when we looked at the intervention’s effects on different types of students we found that the biggest improvements in math scores occurred among the most vulnerable students—the students who performed least well on the baseline test and those with less-educated parents. These are exactly the students for whom CAL was designed to help most: the ones falling behind.

Self-confidence and self-efficacy

REAP was also careful to measure non-academic outcomes related to the CAL intervention. Before and after the intervention we measured how students liked school, their self-confidence, and their self-efficacy in math—a characteristic that relates to their perceived ability to learn new math skills. In all three cases we found improvements in these variables for the intervention students when compares to the control. CAL raised these outcomes! There was also a modest spillover effect in which Chinese test scores improved in the intervention group versus the control, reinforcing the finding that CAL can instill a love of learning that can manifest outside the confines of CAL subject matter.

Project Video

Below is a video of our April pre-pilot in action!

Research Materials