Online learning widens China’s education gap, study warns

Linda J. Dodson

HONG KONG — China’s shift toward online education due to the coronavirus pandemic means students from less-developed regions are likely to fall behind their urban peers, a new survey shows.

Only half of rural students had undisrupted access to online classes, according to the study by the China Development Research Foundation, a Beijing-based nonprofit organization. Their peers in small cities and towns, meanwhile, had unimpeded attendance rates of 80.1% and 70.3%, respectively.

Among the rural students who struggled to get online, nearly one-third of those in first to third grades had no access at all. Only 5.7% of urban youngsters were completely cut off.

“Distance learning may have widened the educational gap between cities and villages,” said the report authors, who surveyed roughly 36,000 students and 1,281 teachers across eight provinces in early April.

The researchers attributed the problem to a lack of computers and family support as well as weak internet connections. Only 7.3% of students in Chinese villages own a computer, compared with over 40% in urban areas. Similarly, only 43.8% of rural families have internet access at home, versus over 80%.

One in five rural students said they were never tutored by their parents, while the figure was as low as 3.7% among urban students.

“As the pandemic continues, [students’ ability to] access remote learning will contribute to a wider gap between junior students in rural and urban areas, which may have a long-lasting impact on their performance once schools reopen,” the authors added.

The findings highlight one challenge facing China amid the coronavirus outbreak: The most vulnerable citizens are also the ones who can least cope with the countermeasures.

In the central province of Hubei, where the virus is believed to have originated, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy starved to death after his father was taken to a quarantine center. In the manufacturing hub of Guangdong Province, which was crippled by the outbreak, a jobless couple who had migrated from the countryside in search of work abandoned their newborn at a hospital because they ran out of money.

Inequality in education has also had tragic consequences. State media covered the case of a teenage girl in the northern province of Henan who attempted suicide after her school was shut down. The news report said the girl wanted to take her own life because she could not attend online classes, as her family shared a single smartphone.

It is not only in rural China, however, that the pandemic is widening educational disparities.

Even in Hong Kong, where the average income is higher than in mainland China, the digital divide is hindering students.

A separate report, released on Wednesday by the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, found that 8% of surveyed primary school students in the city had no access to any digital devices for distance learning. For those lucky enough to have access, most had to share their device with other family members.

“This becomes particularly challenging for students when they are forced to learn online at the same time with other siblings and may even have to compete for device use with work-at-home parents,” the report said.

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