Can Webcasting Real-time Classes Save Rural Education in China?

A three-year-old pilot project grabbed public attention earlier this week. A new form of online courses enabled 248 schools in poverty-striken areas to gain access to top-level education provided by Chengdu No. 7 High School. Through streaming services, rural students can watch the lectures live together with students from Chengdu.

Chengdu No. 7 high school is definitely one of the best high schools in the country. Last year, over 30 students from there got admitted into top foreign universities including UC Berkeley, and over 70 students were admitted to Tsinghua University and Peking University, the two best universities in China.

live lectures (source: tech sina)

Education inequalities

Education inequalities remain to be one of the most urgent issues in China. As the Hukou household registration system categorized Chinese residents into different provinces and cities, ordinary residents will only be entitled to attend schools in their own cities and provinces, and take university entrance exams from the regions where their Hukou are registered. Generally speaking, the system made it unfair for students from populated areas such as Henan and Shandong compared with students from larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. There are limited opportunities to attend the best institutions in the country.

Ding Lei, the CEO of Chinese Internet company Netease, announced his plan to donate 100 million yuan to support the webcasting of real-time courses to help disadvantaged students achieve better results in university entrance exams.

The results proved the validity and positive effects that webcasting can bring to less-developed regions. Yet past successes did not render the project immune from potential problems. It is very important to keep in mind that it is still a pilot project: A delicately-planned experimental system that has yet to be tested in a broader market. Students who are selected to enter the projects are not just random students from the less developed regions. They are the best cohorts possible in the counties and are prepared to reach better schools through the opportunities given to them. To some extent, these students are not the accurate reflection of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged areas. Their studying ethics, willingness to strive for something better, and the resources they already possessed to enter the pilot project have already demonstrated a form of uniqueness in the region.

Lucrative business

Online education in China is far from merely charity or government-subsidized projects. Rather, it is a very lucrative business available for various companies seeking out higher profits. Perhaps it is possible for the local governments, especially the poorer ones, to fund one pilot project among their counties. Still, even then, making these projects available to all schools and students in the regions would require way too costly and unaffordable.

There is, of course, a fee to be paid to attend these classes. According to BBC Chinese, one webcast lecture costs around 70,000 yuan (about $10,000 USD). These prices are ultimately going to be taken by individual students residing in more disadvantaged regions. And the fact that they need to pay, would be a huge turndown for their families and their parents. Living under a tight budget already made it unlikely for these families to take out more money for online classes that they may or may not benefit from.

These pilot projects provided a possible solution to solve the inequalities that exist among regions when it comes to education. However, the pilot projects have not yet solved the issues. When these projects are more focused on turning a profit, the accessibility of these resources becomes a bigger problem. However, it is pointless to be pointing fingers here because that’s just how a free market works: Things may be cheaper and available for all, but there will always be people who cannot afford it. It is more ironic when the pilot project became a monopolized resource that have even driven up housing prices in nearby regions. Despite the initial successes, there are just too many unanswered questions that these innovative education approaches brought to us.

The success of this online streaming pilot project showed the effectiveness of utilizing the Internet. However, whether it will turn into a goldmine for certain corporations, or stay consistent with the project’s original intention, remains to be a critical question that it yet to be answered.

Featured photo credit to thesolutionsjournal