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.
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.
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