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How COVID-19 transformed online education in China

February 15, 2021 |   Nicolas Chu

In late January, 2020, China’s Ministry of Education (MoE) issued its initiative entitled “Ensuring learning undisrupted when classes are disrupted.” The official mantra was: “Stop classes but don’t stop learning.” With the input of school management agencies, online platforms and course providers, telecom providers and other stakeholders, 30 million Chinese students at 3,000 institutions – kindergarteners to doctoral candidates – would get all-day TV broadcasts of state-approved lessons in math, language, English, art and physical education.

As COVID-19 persisted, the government supplied two digital options: Empower Learning which collaborated with China’s seven largest EdTech companies and offered a K-12 curriculum. The Ministry of Education also created its own site: EduCloud. Both platforms helped students access live streamed courses from their mobiles or computers.

Although both platforms existed before COVID-19, the MoE circulated its curriculum to the public for use during lockdown and introduced scheduling tools to help educators select and share content with students. The platforms were able to support 50 million students simultaneously. For regional or small institutions that lacked the resources to produce online alternatives quickly, the government provided 22 free online platforms with 24,000 higher-education courses. Materials included MOOCs (massive open online courses), SPOCs (small private online courses) and virtual labs across 12 disciplines at undergraduate level and 18 disciplines at high-school level.

The “forgotten children”: Where online education in China lagged

The problem was that while 270 million children in mainland China had all the resources of high tech to move swiftly from offline to online education, the so-called “forgotten children” mostly living in remote villages had none.

At the best of times, schools in s small agricultural townships and villages were understaffed and struggling to provide equal access to quality education. In 2006, research student and teacher, Jim Yoxall, reported that he found “extreme poverty, lack of qualified teachers, and disrespect for education”, among other problems, when teaching in these schools. Many parents couldn’t afford to send their children to school. Schools were understaffed. Pan’an Primary School in Gangu County, for example, had over 1,300 students, but only 39 teachers. Some schools had only one or two untrained teachers for six grades.

It’s probably no surprise then that when the government mandated school closures, that rapidly mastering online teaching established a significant barrier for teachers working under these circumstances. Indeed, few of these schools had reliable internet connectivity – or any internet at all.

In urban cities, on the other hand, parents typically competed to outfit their children with classes - most often in English and computer sciences - from premium online teaching platforms like VIPKID. Their ubiquitous smartphones enabled children to learn whichever subject they wished, whenever they wished. While a mother in a poor mountainous school in Shaanxi province couldn’t afford her son’s internet connection, a mother in Shanghai spent $490 for a projector that would enlarge the small script on her son’s screens, according to the South China Morning Post.

The government may have gone out of its way to give small townships and village schools 22 online platforms with 24,000 free higher-education courses. Certain online tutoring apps may have offered free classes during COVID-19, which in urban regions attracted millions of students. But little of this mattered when 49% of China’s population lacked internet connection to access these resources.

The results entrenched the education divide between haves and have-nots, and when COVID-19 came around, China struggled to disperse online education equitably to all of its students.

The Chinese Government’s solution to universalising online education during COVID-19

Almost a month after COVID-19 started, the government realised that around 69 million children who live in its impoverished regions were not getting the online education that those in urban cities received.

To address this issue, China’s Education Ministry joined forces with the Ministry of Industry (MoI) and Information Technology (MIIT) in late February 2021 to unfurl a series of educational provisions for children from small townships and village schools. These included:

  • Boosting internet connectivity for the under-served regions.
  • Increasing internet speed and providing scalable and flexible bandwidth of major online education service platforms, like the National Cloud-Platform for Educational Resources and Public Service, for internet users in poor areas.
  • Allocating money for free online courses for all primary and secondary schools through Hong Kong and China.
  • Collaborating with telecom and online platform service providers to ensure online security in remote regions.
  • Providing students in villages and small townships with the same psycho-social support programs and computer education/internet security classes that those in more advantaged regions received.

A year earlier, China had hosted a pioneering UNESCO International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Education. One of its key messages amplified the need to universalise education and to make sure that technology patched, rather than widened the digital divide. During COVID-19, the government acted on that promise.

On March 16, the MoE circulated a pledge to improve IT systems in primary and secondary schools for regional or small institutions. Some provinces also subsidised students for access to online studies. Liaoning Province, for example, awarded 20,000 local high-school students seven million RMB (about $1,200 USD) for equipment or internet access.

In short: How COVID-19 changed online education in China

COVID-19 spurred the Chinese government to spend more on education and to accelerate favourable policies on online and private education, at the same time as the MoE expanded the K12 online education market, making its material easily accessible and free for its 30 million students in urban and rural regions.

COVID-19 also impacted China’s E-learning market by shifting education from classroom computers to personal mobiles, thereby making education accessible out of school hours. Online tutoring apps that had previously been mostly for those who could afford it, competed to provided some red and gold themed content free or low-cost education for the masses. Millions of students now utilised these platforms. By March, 2020, Alibaba’s popular DingTalk software, for example, had been installed 1.1 billion times in China. While China brought nearly 200 million children back to school by September 2020, with the rural schools being the fastest to open, COVID-19 had helped its “forgotten children” become less forgotten. The pandemic had also, incidentally, guaranteed its online education market revenues of US$100 billion by 2026.

Each country has had to grapple with its own COVID-19 education challenges. How China succeeded in universalising its online education during lockdown is a lesson for countries with similar problems.

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