More than ever before, technology such as livestreaming offers high-school students across China, including those considered economically or geographically disadvantaged, the chance to learn from the best minds in the world.
Yet, if reaction to an article that showcased one use case is anything to go by, equal access to education remains a hot button among many Chinese people.
On Dec. 14, state-owned China Youth Daily, published an article featuring Chengdu No. 7 High School, a prominent school in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan.
The article described how the school livestreams some of its classes to schools in rural, less developed parts of the province. Such a facility helps many disadvantaged students, who would otherwise be denied access to highly qualified teachers and learning materials, to score well on the national college entrance examination, or gaokao.
This allowed them to secure a coveted place at some of the nation’s leading schools, including Peking University and Tsinghua University. According to the report, more than 70,000 students across 248 schools nationwide are benefiting from the program.
The story clearly struck a chord, prompting many to take to social media to praise the power of technology, while spurring others to criticize the story for not fully reflecting the realities of China’s education system.
One Chinese netizen who posted to microblogging platform Weibo under the name Mia described educational livestreaming as “the biggest gift tech has brought” to the world. “I’m so touched, [given that] people pour so much cash into internet celebrities’ live streams,” Mia added.
“Sharing knowledge is better than sharing anything else,” another netizen called Meng Qiqi wrote also on Weibo. “All people have the right to education, which is of huge virtue.”
Soon as more education commentators entered the discussion, a raft of critical voices emerged, picking apart the story and questioning the real value of remote learning.
For one, it was pointed out that, in the case of No. 7 High School’s courses, not everybody benefits equally. For example, it transpired that not all students are eligible to participate in the livestreamed classes—only selected top students at certain schools in rural areas are granted access.
Neither are the courses free—schools must bear the costs of communications equipment fees, maintenance fees, and tuition fees. One estimate puts the price of communications satellite equipment at around RMB 200,000 (or just under $29,000)—a significant amount for less-developed rural communities.
An article in Shanghai-based media outlet The Paper raised several other concerns, including whether teachers in rural schools would be rendered mere “teaching assistants” to the teachers No. 7 High School.
A common theme running through several commentaries was that it’s the students who are responsible for their advancement in life and not technology.
“We shouldn’t exaggerate online learning’s roles in pushing forward equal access to education,” one education expert told Chinese media outlet Caijing. “And we can’t have the illusion that installing a screen will deliver education experiences city students enjoy to those in rural areas,” the expert said, adding that improving teaching quality at the local level was key.
Still others consider livestreaming of classes preferable to doing nothing, describing it as a step toward bringing equal access to education.
China’s education system is often criticized for its examination-focused nature that many say destroys curiosity and creativity. Still, others see the gaokao as a vital means to change the fate of students, especially those who are not from wealthy backgrounds and who may not be able to afford to study overseas.
In 2018, around 9.8 million students applied to take the gaokao, which takes place in June. Each student has only one chance to sit the exam each year. Those not satisfied with their performance must wait another year before they can retake the test.
Xiong Xuanang, a student who ranked top in the 2017 national college entrance examination among Beijing students, tackled the issue of privilege in a recent interview with Chinese media.
“It’s getting harder and harder for students in rural areas to get into good universities,” Xiong said. “Students like me—born into a middle-class family where both of my parents are intellectuals, in this big city of Beijing— enjoy privileged education resources that are not available to those in other cities or rural areas.”
“Knowledge will not always change your fate,” said Xiong. “But without knowledge you surely can’t change your fate.”