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Educational equality in China: How online learning during coronavirus has changed the status quo

For perhaps the first time, all students in China — rich and poor, urban and rural — have equal access to classes with the most experienced and best-trained teachers. All it took to make it happen was an epidemic.

 

 

Much of China is currently in lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. In urban centers, streets are empty and many businesses remain closed. Subways and buses are shuttered or running on limited service. The most visibly functioning public places are supermarkets, but even those lack their usual hustle and bustle. Schools are also closed — but that doesn’t mean learning has stopped.

During this period, educators are doing what they do best: making use of the time and resources available. Public schools across China have been ordered by the Ministry of Education to suspend the spring semester, but, as they put it, tíngkè bù tíngxué 停课不停学 — stop classes but don’t stop learning.

This has had an interesting consequence: The Chinese education system, which has been notoriously riddled with inequality, has seen a convergence of access to learning resources for all of the country’s students. For the past two decades, wealthier, urban students have enjoyed the lion’s share of resources in the form of better-funded public schools and access to a highly competitive industry of private prep centers. Today, fissures between urban and rural students, between rich and poor, have suddenly narrowed as China’s 260 million students take their studies online.

The 300-plus high school students I teach in Shaanxi Province, for instance, are taking full days (7:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.) of classes online. This includes indoor exercises for physical education and even the daily eye massage exercises that students do in the Chinese public school system. For me, in addition to college counseling, I also teach ACT Writing to about 100 students (now online). Teaching online has proved difficult for some, especially foreign teachers who were required to suddenly master multiple software platforms entirely in Chinese, but most have gotten the hang of it.

There are problems, of course. At the top of my list are technical issues, which can be, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. Slow internet and poor audio/visual equipment means questions need to be repeated before they can be answered. Other challenges include getting students to not leave their devices: I try to require all students to answer questions during the online session — at least this way, I can distinguish which students are participating and which are not. With only basic conferencing software, it is nearly impossible to efficiently check understanding and force accountability on so many students — typically 30 to 70 per class at the high school level. It is too easy for students to hide in the comparative anonymity.

As education has moved from schools into homes, parents have also been affected. Most obvious is that the responsibility for disciplining misbehavior has shifted from teachers onto parents. As a result, many parents are struggling because they never had to manage their children’s schoolwork beyond missed homework assignments. Now they must ensure punctuality and participation, making sure their children aren’t distracted by computer games, simultaneously completing homework for other classes, or streaming the Avengers film series. Many parents have struggled to adapt to their new role as full-time teacher’s assistant.

But at least all households across China are facing the same challenges. Online teaching has been a great equalizer for millions of students. With the rise of online learning in the wake of the coronavirus, the quality of education now depends less on teacher quality, teaching equipment, or other school resources. All learning is happening in students’ homes, and only their homes.

In Shaanxi, under the “stop classes but don’t stop learning” initiative, national curriculum classes are being recorded by expert teachers across all grade levels, which are broadcast on TV free for everyone. Technically, for the first time ever, all students — rich and poor, urban and rural — have equal access to classes with the most experienced and best-trained teachers.

Most of all, learning now depends almost exclusively on the students and their families. If a student works hard or is well-managed by their parents, that student can more or less maintain the same achievement as with offline teaching. However, if a student does not participate, they will quickly fall behind, more quickly now than ever before.

So are we actually closer to educational equality in China? On the one hand, the impact of socioeconomic and regional factors that once greatly influenced a student’s education have been temporarily lessened. But has COVID-19 truly democratized education in China? Of course not. Internet access, family demographics, student learning styles, and other factors are still affecting the quality of education.

Still, if schools remain closed even next month, education bureaus may be forced to think longer term about incorporating online learning into their curriculums. There’s a chance, then, that the benefits from a more democratized and equal education system might continue even after this coronavirus epidemic passes. In the meantime, a big step in online education has brought us a small step closer to educational equality.

Special thanks to Jin Zhou 周瑾 for assistance and research for this article.

Francis Miller

Francis Miller has spent almost seven years studying and working in China. An EALC major at the University of Pennsylvania, he later studied Chinese at IUP at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He first interned with Project Pengyou at the Golden Bridges Foundation, and also worked as an education consultant at AIC Education in Beijing. He is currently Director of College Counseling at Xi’an Tie Yi High School in Shaanxi Province, and a coverpage staff writer for the Shanghai Students’ Post.

5 Comments

  1. Nora Reply

    I enjoy your article but I am not entirely certain whether online learning leads to democratization of the education process. Online learning still depends on the class background of the person. I mean, sure, you have standardized materials of high quality plus a platform that is not constraint by regio. However, we cannot assume that all Chinese students have a properly functioning computer at home that grants them access to these materials and/or have parental oversight over their education (which is not the case of left-behind children in the rural areas).
    I am not saying that online learning does not open doors for the people in the rural areas but I think that the lines between the haves and the have-nots are drawn differently by online education, not blurred.

    1. Francis MillerFrancis Miller Reply

      Thank you for you comment. Online learning certainly hasn’t made education easier or more accessible for everyone. Learning online absolutely requires self-discipline (or perhaps the presence of a mindful parent). Additionally, there are still many factors that affect educational equality in China. However, when the Education Bureau in Shaanxi decided to record experienced teachers instructing national curriculum classes and broadcast those on regional TV including rural areas (almost all rural households own at least one TV), it was a sudden and significant redistribution of educational resources. Many rural students, who had never seen or heard a class from a top teacher in an urban school speak standard Mandarin, suddenly could for the first time.

      1. Nora Reply

        Sorry for my late response, Mr. Miller

        By reading your comment, I realise that I did not look at the various aspects of democratization of education. I kind of narrowed down its meaning of democratization to ‘accessibility of vulnerable groups to materials’ while you referred to the unprecedented dissemination of high-quality learning materials. From that angle, I agree with you more or less, although It’s not 100% perfect (for the same reasons as those you already stated in the article).

        This all makes me curious. Would this online learning actually increase the chances of rural adolescents at higher education? Or if not, does the campaign increase the awareness of inequality among lower classes as well as the discontent towards policies? These questions are not something one can answer right now, only time can tell (as well as sufficient data) but it is very intriguing.

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my comment. Keep it up and take care!

        1. Francis MillerFrancis Miller Reply

          Don’t apologize for a thoughtful comment!

          As for your questions about whether or not online learning actually increases the chances of rural adolescents pursuing higher education, that is a tough question and any answer would just be speculation. Also, online education requires a certain degree of autonomy and self discipline to be effective. As for increasing awareness of inequality, I feel more confident saying that online learning in China won’t do much for public awareness of inequality, unless you count the small number of people specifically taking classes about inequality, demographics, diversity, or similar topics. After all, just because you can access an online class doesn’t mean you will think about the people who can’t.

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