E-learning project benefits underprivileged children in rural China


Description of impact

China has experienced unprecedented growth rates in recent decades. Yet, some fundamental problems brought about by urbanisation remain unsolved and are among the biggest challenges that stunt the country's development. In one of his research projects, the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences Prof Wei Xiangdong attempted to tackle the urban-rural gap in education and the problem of "left-behind-children" in rural districts through the introduction of e-learning pedagogy.

Low-cost e-learning tool for underprivileged children
Despite huge effort devoted by the Chinese government in the past several decades to provide universal nine year education in rural areas, significant resource inequality remains between schools in urban and rural areas. The problem is more acute for the "left-behind-children" whose parents have joined the urban workforce, as they face not only lack of educational resources at schools but also limited family support at home. This often leads to unsatisfactory academic performance. To unlock the "black box" of this educational problem, Prof Wei Xiangdong carried out a large-scale randomised experimental study in China to examine the effects of a series of policy interventions which combine the use of an e-learning programme and different incentive schemes to motivate student learning. It is expected that the study will have implications for policy in developing countries. "After helping the 'left-behind-children' in another project, I realised the unequal distribution of educational resources is the main problem China faces. That's why I initiated the project," said Prof Wei.

Under the project, a new set of e-learning resources was introduced to children in rural areas to improve the quality of their education and reduce the gap between them and their urban counterparts. As a collaborative partner of the project, Prof Wei designed the mode of e-learning and assessed the effectiveness of different e-learning modes while the local Education Bureau provided the learning equipment and Intel China provided experts to train teachers.

Pilot test at Nanchang
Based on a General Research Fund of HK$1.2 million granted in 2014, Prof Wei, Intel China and the Nanchang Education Bureau launched the first pilot test entitled "Incentive for study, e-learning and Educational Outcomes: Experimental Evidence from China".

The first stage of the pilot test carried out in early 2014 involved six primary and secondary schools, with benefits extended to 1,555 students and 79 teachers. The second stage was launched in late 2015, involving 10 schools in the same province. Among the various e-learning modes, the "flipped class" mode will be trialed under which students do online study at home before each class and engaged in in-depth discussions and class activities in the classroom as opposed to the traditional mode of receiving lectures from the teacher. Students were divided into small groups for either peer discussion or tutorials led by teachers based on their performance in the short online test conducted at the beginning of the lesson. Not only did this pedagogy facilitate small class teaching but it also encouraged individualised and self-directed learning. Initial results indicated that children who participated in the e-learning mode experienced significant advancement in their language and mathematic studies. Their motivation and satisfaction in learning have also improved.

Project extended to Zhaoqing
Riding on the success of the Nanchang pilot test and the continued support of Intel China, Prof Wei brought the model to Zhaoqing in fall 2015. The 31 schools selected by the local government in Zhaoqing province have been equipped with the e-learning system and are expected to familiarise themselves with the system before further assessments are carried out in 2016.

As a pilot project, there are still issues to be solved, in particular the lack of quality online teaching materials for teachers and the technical issues relating to internet access in rural areas. Yet, Prof Wei is confident about the development of e-learning for underprivileged children. He was particularly glad to hear from a child, "E-learning really makes me look forward to going to school every day." With a PhD student researching e-learning system in Hong Kong, he plans to combine their research efforts to organise exchange tours for Hong Kong and Mainland teachers in the coming year.