Roughly 70% of China’s population lives in rural China. This also means that more than 70% of China’s students live in rural areas, making up some 160 million students of compulsory education age.  With the rapid decline of the price of smartphones to sub-US$80, there is a huge opportunity to distribute and democratize education to China’s poorest and largest population. Armed with a foray of educational applications, smartphones have the capability to be powerful learning tools.

Between 2003-2007, the Distance Education Project for Rural Schools (DEPRS) was implemented by the Chinese government to improve the quality of basic education in rural areas of China, especially in the poorer western provinces.  It has been referred to as “the largest ICT project in the world up to now” because “it serves a larger population than any other similar projects and therefore will likely start a far-reaching information revolution in China.” Now if the government re-enacted or continued this project, I believe low-end smartphone’s  could play a central role.

I say smartphones would enhance distribution of education, due to the very literal ability to distribute them because they are small and light.  As the technology improves, people are starting to use their smartphones more than their laptops. Although laptops become increasingly smaller and lighter, they will not be able to become smaller than smartphones. By greatly subsidizing the cost of smartphones for rural children or their families, it is almost unimaginable what they can and will do with them.

I say smartphones would democratize education because they provide access to information and learning tools anywhere and anytime. Of course attending schools will always play a role, but why cap learning to the time they are in school. Many rural children have to travel very far just to reach school. Once they are there, there is only so much time they can effectively concentrate and absorb information. Urban children have a greater advantage in terms of access to education simply because teaching quality is higher, they can afford it and they can more easily go to school.  If kids had the ability to explore a world of information and play with apps that improved their learning, the feasibility of making smartphones in rural areas should definitely be explored.

Of course there are a number of challenges involved in trying to adopt such a policy. Perhaps the greatest challenge is making wifi and internet accessible in rural areas. But I don’t see this as an impossible obstacle to tackle. I’ve been impressed with internet coverage in the very high and rural mountains of Vietnam. A more simple challenge is educating how rural children should use smartphones as a learning tool in the first place. What’s to stop them playing Angry Birds all day?

This idea and topic is actually very heavy and needs to be given much more thought. All the implications and impacts have to be carefully examined, but my point is to trigger the idea of developing countries using smartphones in a more creative and impactful way.

Jason Lim

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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