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Distance learning project bridges the digital divide in China

© UNICEF China/2006/Huang
Children at Xinjing Centre Elementary School in Jingxi County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, use one of the school’s 40 computers, 10 of which have Internet access.
By Rong Jiaojiao

GUANGXI PROVINCE, China, 19 April 2006 – Primary school children across China are learning about their peers, and communicating with them, with help from a UNICEF-supported distance education initiative. The project engages youngsters from diverse backgrounds in rural and urban areas to research issues of common interest using the Internet.

Tang Zijun, 11, is a fifth-grader at Haizhuzhonglu Elementary School in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. She is in contact with Tong Jingyan, also 11, a student from Jingxi Pilot Elementary School in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, more than 600 km west of Guangzhou. Tang, Tong and their fellow students have been working on a project about housing, interviewing local residents and photographing their homes. After carrying out further research on the Internet, they shared their pictures and exchanged findings via e-mail.

Not all about school work

“The ancient farmers’ houses of these Zhuang minority groups have three floors,” says Tang, an urbanite who never thought the countryside could be so interesting. “The first is for raising animals, the second is for people and the third is for storing grain and corn. It’s a pretty smart design because it saves space and is very environmentally friendly.”

Meanwhile, Tong, who has never been to a big city, has been marveling at photos of skyscrapers sent by his online pal, Tang. “They’re like rockets on top of the road,” he says.  “I think my head will hit the back of my shoulders if I try to see the top of one. If I were there, I think I might fall over.”

But the information exchange is not all about school work, admits Tong, who has picked up other handy tips from Tang. “I now know how to play online electronic games,” he giggles. “I need to practice regularly to improve my skills, but teachers don’t allow us to play.”

Reaching those left behind

This exchange forms just one small link in the UNICEF project, launched last year, which involves 15 poor Guangxi and Chongqing primary schools and 7 prosperous Guangdong, Shanghai and Anhui Province schools. Students exchange ideas and discuss their findings in a chat room on the project website.

© UNICEF China/2006/Huang
With the help of teachers, students from the fourth through sixth grades in Jingxi County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, chat with friends online using the school's computers.
The project is a joint venture between UNICEF and the National Centre for Educational Technology (NCET). With $230,000 in funding from US CitiGroup, the effort is designed to help bridge the great digital divide between eastern and western China.

The number of Chinese with Internet access rose to 111 million at the end of 2005, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre. But that number includes only 2.6 per cent of the rural population and 17 per cent of the urban population – with most Internet users living in cities in eastern China.
“It's easy to forget about those who have been left behind and whose lives remain largely untouched by the information revolution,” says NCET official Li He, who is in charge of the joint project. “So distance education reaches people deprived of opportunities to learn.”

Computers and Internet access

Hu Xinghua, one of the teachers involved in the project, sees real benefit for both sides from the exchange. “Students learn to share information together and seek answers to questions actively, instead of waiting for teachers to feed them,” she explains.

“Plus,” says Hu, “these urban kids come to realize that some children of their age in the west are deprived of the resources that they often take for granted.”

The Chinese Government is making efforts to narrow this gulf. By the end of 2003, at least 10,000 primary and middle schools in the poor western provinces had been equipped with basic computing facilities or Internet access.

The UNICEF-NCET project plans to expand from 15 to 50 schools this year, adding Sichuan Province and more counties from Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In addition, more partner schools in the eastern cities are expected to join the project.

Rachel Bonham Carter contributed to this story from New York.



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