Has Covid-19 Shown that EdTech Can Close China’s Education Inequality Gap?

The causes of educational inequality are not so easy to pin down to factors such as income disparity, varying parenting styles, gender and health. In China, geographical divisions are particularly pronounced with education in the north-east better than in the south-west. Migrant children and low rural transfer rates into high school, for example, have been highlighted as key areas of concern.

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According to the IMF, whilst China has seen a sharp decline in poverty, the opposite is true for inequality. French Economist Thomas Piketty found that China’s upper crust of the society increased from 6% to 14% between 1978 and 2015. Nevertheless, since 2008 China has begun to experience a modest decline in its inequality albeit with mixed results; “with rapid technological transformation and fast capital accumulation, the demand for high-skilled labour grew quickly and with it returns to education and wage inequality”. The consequences of educational inequality are dire with instability and hamoered growth being an unfavourable couple.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fervent push for EdTech to protrude to the surface of China’s education industry. On January 29th, the Ministry of Education announced plans to open a “National Network Cloud Classroom”. Available from first grade to high school, it planned to offer widely used textbooks online and for free. For those in the countryside with limited Internet, the Ministry of Education promised to arrange China Education Television to broadcast relevant courses and resources. By February 2nd , 22 free online course platforms spanning 24,000 online courses had already been rolled out.

Covid-19 may have been the catalyst for a boom in EdTech, but it was not the beginning. In May 2019, China hosted the UNESCO International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Education. During which, a key takeaway was that of ensuring inclusion and equity in education amidst widespread digitalisation. Director of the UNESCO Beijing office, Marielza Oliveira, said; “It is impressive how fast China created partnerships between national and local governments, private sector and civil society, so that these capabilities could be augmented by additional learning resources, through, for example, TV broadcasting and social media live streaming”.

In light of its swift shift to online education becoming the norm for the 278 million students affected, Beijing’s Education Ministry joined forces with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to prevent a digital divide. Three of these measures included: strengthening online security via increased collaboration between online platform service providers and the telecom sector, boosting internet connectivity (for the anticipated 875 million Internet users as of 2020) particularly for under-served regions, as well as enabling teachers to adopt “flexible” and “appropriate” methods of teaching based on, for example, availability of apps, TV or e-readers.

Meanwhile, in the private sector online education services were frantically trying to adapt to China’s overnight online dependence. “Hard-core competition” is just one attribute associated with the industry. No matter what curriculum content, service quality or teaching competence, many resulted in offering free online tuition simultaneously with the intent of retaining current customers and as an act of goodwill. VIPKID, a main player in the industry, announced on January 29th on Weibo that it would offer 1.5 million free online courses to children aged 4 to 12. The company noted that children in Hubei and offsprings of medical workers would be given priority.

Before the virus hit, there were rumours that China’s online education industry was lagging. Companies such as New Oriental sought to distinguish themselves from the masses, adopting an “offline experience store acquisition and small class live broadcast” model. Yet parents in China’s first-tier cities found aggressive advertising and too much choice a problem; one netizen labelled online education “complicated and cumbersome”.

Talk of a “re-education wave” given the changes enforced by COVID-19 has coincided with WeChat releasing a “smart education plan”, which promises to pump 1 billion yuan into a start-up fund encouraging schools and education bureaus to utilise WeChat’s offering of quick-start smart education solutions at no cost, which will reduce the burden on teachers and parents. The 1 billion yuan was announced on April 23rd to add to the 100 million yuan already promised in early March.

WeChat has elaborated on its four areas of focus. The first is a home service for schools and education bureaus which facilitates management such as uploading recorded lessons. The second is the cooperation of WeChat with their service providers to develop education solutions. The third is a deep customization function which seeks to meet the needs of individual students. Fourth and final, smart hardware linkage in order to develop a smart campus.

Along with the new technology came a wave of reluctance and an inevitable struggle to adopt and integrate new systems into daily practice. Currently, the need for multiple apps to complete classes and upload homework for example, is considered too troublesome. Moreover, worries of sharing files and conducting online classes with children under 18 have been verbalised by parents.

An article in The Diplomat raised the question of whether the surge in EdTech during COVID-19 will slump as both teachers and students have been reluctant to retain online tools since the reopening of schools. A representative from ClassIn, an online classroom platform founded in 2015, said; “we have a lot of places in China where internet coverage is not good enough and the speed of connection is low. We want to upgrade our videos, so it’ll be easier to watch them in places with slow internet.” The question remains as to whether China’s EdTech can penetrate rural areas with limited Internet and make a noticeable difference.

No doubt, China’s EdTech industry has come a long way in the past 40 years. Whilst efforts are being made to reduce educational inequality via EdTech, just how effective these policies and initiatives will be remains to be seen. As the private industry is keen to capitalise on parents willing to spend 120,000 yuan (US$17,400) per annum on extracurricular tutoring for their children, those that can provide additional support for rural students should no doubt be prioritised.