Computer Assisted Learning in Poor Rural Schools

Having demonstrated CAL's effectiveness in raising academic performance in poor rural schools, REAP hopes to further integrate the program into the curriculum of all rural schools. 

Despite the enormous economic gains China has achieved over the past three decades, millions of Chinese people continue to struggle in poverty. Perhaps nowhere does the “development gap” in China manifest more starkly than in the nation’s schooling system.


In the 1990’s, China began closing small rural schools to consolidate resources for larger schools. As a result, many rural students transferred to faraway schools, where they live as boarding students. These students are the worst performing demographic in the entire country.

One reason for boarding students’ poor achievement is that they lack remedial academic support when they fall behind in class. On top of that, most rural boarding school students do not have access to computer technology. These shortfalls in rural boarding schools create a labor force that is unable to contribute to a modern economy.

Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) provides students with two important opportunities: remedial academic support and exposure to computers. Studies have shown that access to computers with educational software can significantly improve student performance in disadvantaged schools.

However, very few poor rural boarding schools have functioning computers, and none have CAL programs.



This project provides a CAL program to poor rural boarding schools and evaluates its impact on students’ academic performance.

We have three goals for the project: to design a CAL math curriculum for disadvantaged Chinese students; to find CAL’s impact on students’ academic performance; and to demonstrate that CAL programs should be scaled up.



We selected 30 intervention and 30 control rural boarding schools in northwest China’s Shaanxi province.

Each intervention school received six to eight computers with math learning software installed. Third and fifth grade students in intervention schools spent two to three hours with the software each week.

Teachers in each grade attended a 3-day intensive training course before the intervention. They learned CAL procedures and basic computer operations.

During the intervention, we regularly called and visited intervention schools. We also set up a hotline to address technical problems.


Following 13 weeks of the CAL program, standardized math scores improved by nearly 0.15 standardized deviations for third graders, and 0.11 to 0.12 for fifth graders. This is roughly the equivalent of providing one semester of schooling, or improving from a C+ to a B.

Interestingly, we found that the biggest improvements in math scores occurred among the most economically disadvantaged students.

REAP also measured non-academic outcomes related to the CAL intervention. The intervention improved the students’ interest in school and their self-confidence.



Aside from its benefits towards academic performance, CAL has the additional goals of increasing student interest level and self esteem

Phase I of the project measured CAL’s impact when used outside of school hours. For Phase II, we wanted to see whether integration of CAL during school hours would have stronger impacts.

We also needed to explore the possibility of CAL’s positive effects vanishing after a short period of time. Thus, we examined whether CAL improves students’ long-term educational outcomes.



We worked with poor, rural schools in four counties in Shaanxi province. In each school, REAP introduced full computer rooms that accommodate entire classes. All grade 3, 4, 5 and 6 students in the schools used the room with their math teachers at least twice each week.

We created two semesters of curriculum for grades 3, 4, 5 and 6. Intervention schools received math software based on the national curriculum, student and teacher instruction manuals, and comprehensive training materials.


Our results fall into two categories: the impact of the in-school program and whether it affects normal classes; and the long-run sustainable effect on students’ education. We discuss these groups of results below.


In-School Program and the Substitution Effect


The impact of the in-school program does not vary significantly from the impact of the out-of-school program. Both programs significantly improved the performance of the students who participated. However, the students participating in the in-school program improved slightly less than those participating in out-of school program.

Long-run Sustainable Effect


The CAL program that was implemented for one year and a half had significant beneficial effects on student academic performance. Throughout that time, students continued to improve in math.

The third grade students in the treatment group and the control group started at similar levels. After three semesters of treatment (Phases I and II), the treatment group improved more in math than the control group. The difference in change in standardized math test scores between the two groups was 0.21 standard deviations for the third grade students. The results are similar for the fifth grade students: the students in the treatment group improved by 0.29 standard deviations more than the students in control group.

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