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March 30, 2012

Stanford economist narrows China's education gap with research, technology and policy

Stanford economist Scott Rozelle says 80 percent of urban Chinese students have Internet access, compared with 2 percent of their rural peers. The gap threatens to leave too many children behind and jeopardizes China's economic future.

By Adam Gorlick

Primary school principal Ma Guanghui,right, watches one of his students, Ma Xuelian, play a computer game designed to help children in rural China learn Mandarin. The fourth-grader demonstrated the software during a recent conference at the Stanford Center at Peking University that focused on China's digital divide. (Photo: Matthew Niederhauser)

When the computers arrived at Ma Guanghui's primary school in China's rural Qinghai Province, the principal worried that his students would break them. It's not that the third- and fourth-graders are a malicious bunch. They just wouldn't keep their hands off the new machines.

"They were so enthusiastic because they had never seen computers before," Ma said, mimicking how the children whacked the keyboards, poked the monitors and pounded the mice before realizing they work with just a click.

"They couldn't leave them alone," he said.

The 15 computers that were suddenly being used by about 60 students were part of an experiment to see whether educational software and computer-assisted learning techniques would boost the scores of China's most disadvantaged students. It's a question that Stanford researcher Scott Rozelle and his collaborators in the Rural Education Action Project have answered with a resounding "yes."

An economist and senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Rozelle has worked for years to narrow the income and education gaps between China's rural poor and urban middle class. He's now focusing much of his attention on bridging a digital divide that threatens to leave children without computer skills even further behind.

Huge gap uncovered

His research – the first academic work to really measure those technological disparities – has revealed stark contrasts. While about 80 percent of Chinese students living in cities use the Internet at home, only 2 percent of those in rural areas have online access at home. Rural kids are unable to surf the web at school, and few have access to working computers.

"This is probably the greatest digital divide of any country in the world," Rozelle said during a REAP conference last week at the newly opened Stanford Center at Peking University, where Ma and a few of his students came to discuss how computers have helped improve test scores.

Loaded with games and software that taught Ma's students Mandarin, the computers provided by ADOC2.0 – a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the Acer computer company – had a quick payoff.

Within 10 weeks, test scores rose on average from the equivalent of a C+ to a B. "We were No. 1 in the whole school district," Ma said. "All our students should have computers and Internet access"

Chinese officials agree. A 10-year plan laid out by the government calls for every student in China to have access to the Internet.

"This is a very ambitious plan," Zheng Dawai, a director in China's Ministry of Education, said during the conference. "But the Internet is an important way to promote learning, especially in the rural areas."

Rozelle says the costs of a bad education and missed opportunities for China's youngest generation are too big for China to ignore. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are making their ways from the countryside into big cities where jobs await.

But as wages go up, so will the demand for skilled labor. Being poor and looking for a job is one thing. Being poor and uneducated is another.

"Nearly 40 percent of China's kids are in poor, rural areas," Rozelle said. "What's the nature of their education? Are they ready for a new era where you need to know how to use a computer and navigate the web? We're talking about more than 100 million rural kids going through the system without the skills they need."

That premise sets the stage for a disenfranchised class, increased violence and greater poverty that can destabilize China and jeopardize its role as one of the world's economic stars.

Seeking to influence policy

Rozelle's goal is to influence Chinese policy with the results of his research and lead government officials to the decisions that will improve the health and education of the country's up-and-coming workforce.

He and his colleagues have already had success in tackling anemia, an iron deficiency that's rampant in rural areas where diets are often unbalanced and consist of hardly any meat. Anemic children tend to do poorly in school because of the lethargy and lack of concentration that accompany the disease.

Thanks in large part to REAP studies that have shown students' test scores go up when they take vitamins or eat more meat and vegetables, the government has committed about $20 billion during the next decade to improving school lunches.

Now the REAP team is measuring the best ways to use technology to improve school performance so Rozelle will have the data he needs to convince government officials to move faster and spend more money on computer-assisted learning.

Along with computer manufacturer Dell Inc., Rozelle is now partnering with toy and game developer Mike Wood. Wood is the founder and CEO of SmartyAnts, a software program that teaches English as a second language and reading skills through a series of games where the player helps "teach" an ant avatar how to read, write and enjoy learning.

With the cost of technology getting cheaper – tablet computers can cost as little as $50 – Wood is looking for ways to get educational software into the hands of children in the world's poorest areas.

"It's possible to load a low-cost platform with top-notch software that's personalized and will give kids from pre-K through sixth grade access to as good a curriculum as is available to the richest kids going to the richest private schools there are," he said. "It's possible. And it's something we should be doing."

Through his research and collaborations, Rozelle and his colleagues in the Chinese Academy of Sciences aim to convince Chinese officials that Wood is right.

Adam Gorlick is the communications manager for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.



Adam Gorlick, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 724-9842,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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