Ed­u­ca­tion On­line learn­ing may solve ru­ral teacher short­age Re­mote tu­ition over­comes dis­tance and gives iso­lated chil­dren a taste of the out­side world. Zou Shuo re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA -

When Yang Xiaoli was younger, she would ask her mother what lay on the other side of the moun­tain that stood op­po­site their house. Her mother would al­ways re­ply, “More moun­tains.”

Re­cently, when asked about her dream life when she grows up, the 12-year-old from Ninglang county in the south­west­ern prov­ince of Yun­nan replied with­out hes­i­ta­tion, “To travel the world.”

How­ever, the far­thest the fifth­grader has ever been is the cen­ter of Ninglang, about 20 kilo­me­ters from her home. The jour­ney took about three hours, and con­firmed her mother’s state­ment — Yang had to cross three moun­tains to reach her des­ti­na­tion.

Since 2016, like the other stu­dents at Xinx­ing Pri­mary School in Ninglang’s Yongn­ing town­ship, Yang has had two English teach­ers: one is a class-based teacher, while the other is a for­eign, na­tive speaker who pro­vides on­line tu­ition from thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away.

Most of the lessons are pro­vided free by ed­u­ca­tion com­pa­nies as part of their cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity pro­grams.

“For the first time in my life, I can see a for­eign per­son talk­ing to me in English. I am so ex­cited,” Yang said.

The on­line teacher showed Yang and her class­mates pho­tos of iconic build­ings and places, such as the Eif­fel Tower, the Statue of Lib­erty, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art and the Lon­don Eye.

Since then, the once-weekly classes have be­come more than just learn­ing a lan­guage. “They are a win­dow to the out­side world and make me think that some­day I can cross more moun­tains and see what the world has to of­fer,” Yang said.

Since 2012, schools in China’s ru­ral ar­eas have seen great de­vel­op­ments in in­fra­struc­ture and fa­cil­i­ties as a re­sult of gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion amount­ing to more than 4 per­cent of GDP. Last year, the fig­ure was 3.4 tril­lion yuan ($494 bil­lion).

How­ever, the big­gest ob­sta­cle to pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tion for ru­ral chil­dren is the lack of teach­ers will­ing to take jobs in im­pov­er­ished, re­mote ar­eas.

De­spite gov­ern­ment mea­sures to at­tract and re­tain more ru­ral teach­ers — in­clud­ing higher salaries, sub­si­dies and even free col­lege ed­u­ca­tion for trainee teach­ers who com­mit to work­ing in ru­ral ar­eas for a cer­tain pe­riod — num­bers con­tinue to fall.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data from the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, there were 4.7 mil­lion ru­ral teach­ers in 2010, but the num­ber fell to 3.3 mil­lion in 2013.

In re­sponse, ex­perts have sug­gested that on­line learn­ing could be the an­swer to the prob­lem.

For Luo Zhi­fang, Yang’s class­mate, ev­ery minute of the on­line English class is the high­light of her week. She spends a lot of time pre­par­ing be­fore class so she can be the first stu­dent to an­swer the teacher’s ques­tions, in­clud­ing role-play­ing with Yang dur­ing class breaks to prac­tice speak­ing English.

One time, Eliz­a­beth (the teacher from the United States) showed the class a clip from the TV show Amer­ica’s of Tan Zhiyun, a 9-year-old Chi­nese girl with “huge lungs” singing Ce­line Dion’s My HeartWil­lGoOn.

Luo was mes­mer­ized. “Eliz­a­beth told me I have a beau­ti­ful voice and will be­come a good singer if I keep prac­tic­ing,” said the 11-year-old, who loves singing and is a good dancer. “Some­day, I might be­come a su­per­star and tour the world.”

The on­line English pro­gram at the school was launched in 2016 by VIPKID, an ed­u­ca­tion provider in Bei­jing.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhong Haomei, head of the com­pany’s pub­lic re­la­tions de­part­ment, by Au­gust, the 300-plus for­eign teach­ers on the plat­form had taught about 3,000 classes schools.

A screen is set up in the class­room so the stu­dents can see their teacher in real time via the on­line learn­ing plat­form, Zhong said, adding that re­mote tu­ition is an ex­cel­lent way of over­com­ing the teacher short­age in ru­ral schools.

“In the past, ru­ral stu­dents such as these used text­books that had not been up­dated for a long time and their lan­guage teach­ers spoke very poor English,” she said.

Wu Xingzhen, prin­ci­pal at more than 300 of ru­ral Xinx­ing Pri­mary School, said the re­al­time classes mean stu­dents can eas­ily in­ter­act with the teach­ers. “It is like they are in the same class­room,” she said, adding that the stu­dents are thrilled when they win praise for an­swer­ing ques­tions cor­rectly.

Most stu­dents take on­line classes at least once a week, which has helped them achieve bet­ter grades and be­come more con­fi­dent in ex­press­ing their views and par­tic­i­pat­ing. More­over, re­mote tu­ition is a highly ef­fec­tive way of shar­ing high­qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional re­sources and pro­vid­ing an ac­cu­rate, per­son­al­ized teach­ing ser­vice, she added.

A num­ber of ed­u­ca­tion providers have launched free plat­forms to pro­vide ru­ral stu­dents with a wider range of ed­u­ca­tional re­sources.

Last year, the TAL Ed­u­ca­tion Group in Bei­jing launched the Xi­wang On­line Ed­u­ca­tion Pub­lic Wel­fare Plat­form where ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers from China, many in large cities, pro­vide free classes across a range of sub­jects. The plat­form also gives stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to study sub­jects their schools are un­able to of­fer.

Man Chao, se­nior di­rec­tor of TAL’s cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity de­part­ment, said the plat­form aims to em­power ru­ral stu­dents by help­ing them ac­quire the lat­est knowl­edge and skills so they will fit eas­ily into ur­ban so­ci­ety.

“In ru­ral schools, there are teach­ers who teach well and there are oth­ers who don’t. Some schools don’t of­fer sub­jects such as mu­sic or art be­cause they can’t get teach­ers for them,” he said. “Now, thanks to the in­ter­net, we can ac­tu­ally do some­thing about this.”

The de­vel­op­ment has given the stu­dents — many of whom had very lim­ited ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and re­sources be­fore — more con­fi­dence, ac­cord­ing to Man. “When they in­ter­act with city kids, they don’t feel any dif­fer­ent,” he said.

The classes have helped the chil­dren to de­velop on­line re­search skills and they have also learned to build Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tions.

On­line tu­ition also ac­cords with the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion’s strat­egy of con­nect­ing ru­ral schools with “open and ex­cel­lent teach­ing re­sources”. By 2016, about 87 per­cent of pri­mary and mid­dle schools had ac­cess to the in­ter­net, ac­cord­ing to the min­istry.

De­spite the ap­par­ent suc­cess and ben­e­fits of on­line tu­ition, not ev­ery ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sional is in fa­vor of the model.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy di­rec­tor of the 21st Cen­tury Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute in Bei­jing, is not sold on the idea of on­line learn­ing as a so­lu­tion to the teacher short­age in ru­ral ar­eas. In­stead, he be­lieves that it is im­por­tant for chil­dren to be taught by teach­ers who are phys­i­cally in the class­room.

“Ed­u­ca­tion is more than just knowl­edge be­ing passed from teach­ers to stu­dents — learn­ing also comes from a teacher’s be­hav­ior and their per­son­al­ity,” he said. “These in­ter­ac­tions be­tween teach­ers and stu­dents, as well as among stu­dents, are lost when classes are held via ma­chines and screens.”

He added that the gov­ern­ment should take more mea­sures to at­tract, de­velop and re­tain pro­fi­cient teach­ers in ru­ral ar­eas, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing more train­ing and op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­mo­tion, and bet­ter salaries.

To bet­ter build a team of ru­ral teach­ers, the State Coun­cil, China’s cabi­net, is­sued the Ru­ral Teach­ers’ Sup­port Plan in 2015.

The plan noted that the de­vel­op­men­tal im­bal­ance be­tween cities and the coun­try­side — such as poor tran­spor­ta­tion and low-qual­ity equip­ment at schools in ru­ral re­gions — means teach­ing in un­der­de­vel­oped ar­eas re­mains an un­ap­peal­ing job. “This blue­print is aimed at at­tract­ing tal­ented teach­ers to ru­ral schools,” it stated.

It lists com­pre­hen­sive mea­sures to re­cruit and re­tain teach­ers, and re­quires lo­cal gov­ern­ments to sub­si­dize col­lege stu­dents who com­mit to teach­ing in vil­lages af­ter grad­u­a­tion. More­over, the plan called for the rais­ing of ru­ral teach­ers’ salaries and said schools should of­fer more long-term em­ploy­ment con­tracts.

In July, ed­u­ca­tion and fi­nan­cial au­thor­i­ties un­veiled the “Sil­ver Age” project, which aims to en­cour­age 10,000 re­tired teach­ers to re­turn to work in the next three years as teach­ers and prin­ci­pals in ru­ral pri­mary and ju­nior mid­dle schools. The for­mer re­tirees will re­ceive an ap­pro­pri­ate salary, boosted by an an­nual sub­sidy of 20,000 yuan.

The project, which has an added fo­cus on schools in poverty-stricken re­gions, aims to im­prove the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion and pro­vide a fairer bal­ance of ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­sources be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas.

Con­tact the writer at zoushuo@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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