Asia Life | Society | East Asia

EdTech in Rural China

EdTech companies are starting to address the urban-rural disparity in educational opportunities prevalent throughout China.

Layne Vandenberg
EdTech in Rural China
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Rural Education Action Program (REAP)

Educational technology, otherwise known as “EdTech,” is rapidly proliferating across the world due to increased virtual learning during the global pandemic. While other countries may be adapting to new online educational tools and procedures, China has a leg up in its approach and integration of EdTech into formal (schools) and informal (tutoring) education.

China is also unique in its pre-COVID investment in EdTech companies. China has identified e-learning as a key direction for improving education across the country. Science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics (STEAM) classes along with K-12 constitute the largest segments of China’s EdTech market, which in 2018 reached $300 billion in revenue. China’s attention to this market may not only indicate foresight into the future of education, but also points to developing solutions to larger societal issues.

There are currently large disparities when it comes to education inequalities. These are most obvious between urban youth and “left behind children,” or children whose parents migrate to urban areas while they stay in the village or township with their relatives, who are usually uneducated grandparents. With this urban and rural divide in access to quality education, EdTech could be a “great equalizer” for a society built upon the Confucian principle of meritocracy.

The Diplomat spoke with Ekaterina Kologrivaya and Emma Shleifer, Yenching Scholars who are researching Chinese EdTech, about the emergence of EdTech in rural areas.

On a broader scale, has there been a large difference between the urban and rural embrace of EdTech?

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Kologrivaya: On a broader scale, challenges like budget allocation, administrative dependence, and uneven distribution of higher institutions across regions set the scene for the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities. While urban youth, especially in the East, receive more financial support from the government and access to universities, the rural population still mostly relies on their families and local collectivities and don’t achieve the higher education that would potentially allow them to change the registration “hukou” and social status.

In terms of COVID-19, cities met this new demand quite quickly, with the State Council investing $6 billion into AI and tech support for education. In rural areas, the picture is slightly different. According to the data by Li Guirong, the director of Icare in Henan University, only 13 percent of the schools for the children of migrant workers organized online classes. 

How has COVID-19 refocused the conversation on EdTech?

Shleifer: The use of EdTech jumped when schools brought classes online for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a week, 300 million students started using Zoom, ClassIn, and Blackboard along with multiple online course platforms. What started as a temporary solution to the pandemic, however, began to evolve as more offline schools went bankrupt. Now, EdTech market players have expanded their offline offerings beyond the typical English-learning or math and science tutoring classes.

It sounds like EdTech companies were well positioned to adapt quickly to COVID regulations. What allows EdTech companies to run a lean business model?

Shleifer: Aside from online tools, most companies offer in-person tuition, paying rent for physical centers that often constitute the bulk of their business. Online learning is more cost-effective than brick and mortar. Through our interviews, we learnt online tools didn’t have the cash-flow burden of physical schools, which cost upwards of $550,000. 

Which Chinese EdTech companies are at the forefront of this industry?

Kologrivaya: The EdTech market is primarily dominated by huge companies like New Oriental, TAL Education, Tarena Intl. Inc., and RYB Education. Their offerings reach millions of students but primarily cater to already privileged populations who can afford additional tutoring outside of public education.

What about rural areas?

Kologrivaya: Some projects specifically target the urban-rural educational disparity. Qingxi Yuanshan Foundation, supported by TAL education and New Oriental, is one example. The project has now reached more than 300,000 children and fundraised 18 million Chinese yuan ($2.7 million) to develop AI dual-teaching classes and training programs for educators. Lessons are held by teachers both offline in a village and online through an urban school. One teacher with a higher professional expertise may give a lecture, while another teacher assists in replying to questions. While this approach’s results have not yet been reviewed, it has the potential to be a great step towards linking the rural and urban schools in China.  

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Shleifer: Another example is the Rural Education Action Program (REAP). Apart from children-caregiver training and financial and psychological support for rural families, the program educates thousands of students in field research and quantitative methods. To ease the learning process, REAP is using Taoli Online, a gamified online education software, that utilizes quizzing to award participants with in-game currency. The NGO’s project manager, Cody Abbey, said they found a small to medium improvement in kids’ performance in control groups and are now concentrating on upscaling the project.

Why is EdTech reaching into the rural education space through philanthropic projects rather than with the brand behind their core business?

Shleifer: Considering the philanthropy arms are usually attached to the big-brand bodies, there are three reasons for this. First, the allocation of local governments’ budgets can act as a barrier. With limited government budgets and lower local income, there is little motivation to buy the firms’ EdTech products. Second, it can be a good long-term investment. EdTech companies can potentially try out new technologies while helping build a larger pool of better-educated individuals and improving local socio-economic status. The third reason takes into account the popularity of philanthropy in China. Going into the rural space through philanthropy helps build trust with future consumers and local governments, and trust is one of the key challenges companies face when trying to enter public schools. At the company level, engaging in philanthropy in rural areas demonstrates a certain degree of confidence that the company’s core business is relevant to all sectors of Chinese society. 

Do you believe EdTech’s strategy is the most efficacious in tackling the educational disparity between urban and rural areas?

Kologrivaya: First, let’s define the “most efficient.” If it means high implementation speed, low costs, and impressive results, then, in many ways, EdTech does fulfill those requirements.  

Do these firm-backed, state-backed philanthropic projects achieve that?

Kologrivaya: One important point is universities in China are still concentrated in eastern China. Even when educational disparity is addressed at the school-level, it doesn’t mean the effects result in access to higher education opportunities for rural students. 

Rural EdTech projects are helpful because EdTech brings big-brand expertise and networks into previously uncharted territory. Although not necessarily the most efficient, the lowest cost and biggest impact is the human connection. For example, through Zoom classes the “Educating Girls of Rural China” organization links native English volunteers from developed countries to students from impoverished areas in China. During the lockdown in February 2020, groups of volunteers used online tools to coordinate foreign teachers and help high school students in Hubei. Online classes are easily scalable and it’s quite simple to find teachers and introduce them to students in need. Learning results can improve just by giving kids access to native speakers via video chat.  

To learn more about EdTech and education in China, please contact Ekaterina Kologrivaya and Emma Shleifer via their respective LinkedIn profiles.