Special Report


By Rhea R. Borja — May 06, 2004 8 min read
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In China’s high-tech nerve centers such as Shanghai, Beijing, and the verdant southern coastal province of Guangdong, many middle and high school students surf the Internet on the latest wireless-enabled laptop computers, send text messages to their friends on personal cellphones, and download class lessons from their schools’ Web sites.

But in China’s rural west, technology is scarce. Schools often lack enough teachers, supplies, and up-to-date textbooks—never mind computers and the Internet’s “information highway.” And because of their nomadic status, hundreds of thousands of migrant children in the rural west are shut out of school altogether.

China’s varying educational topography symbolizes Asia’s digital divide. Metropolitan areas in east, southeast, and south Asia—as in other areas around the world—are generally decades ahead in school technology access and integration, compared with underdeveloped areas.

“It ranges dramatically,” says Robert McGough, the World Bank’s principal investigator of rural distance-learning projects in East Asia and the Pacific. “In China, there are many key schools that are specialized and which have very good computer support. You find these high-tech pockets all over Asia.

“But in the more remote rural areas, there won’t be any computers. Or maybe one … if you’re lucky.”

National ‘Master Plans’

Countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have implemented far-reaching national “master plans” to install high-speed computers in schools, train teachers to bolster their lessons using technology, and encourage students to conduct online research, build Web sites, and develop online projects. But other, poorer countries—such as Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia—lack such blueprints. Educational technology does exist on a very small scale, often with help from international aid groups such as the World Bank or the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In two villages in Laos’ Vientiane province, for example, teenagers and young adults surf the Internet and learn life and business skills in community learning centers through a UNESCO-funded “nonformal education” program.

Teacher training for technology in such countries is scant, if it exists at all. For example, the Hanoi education department found that only 5 percent of teachers in the Vietnam capital know how to use a computer, much less integrate technology into their lessons, according to a report by China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Countries such as China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand sit somewhere in the middle of the educational technology spectrum.

Japan, for instance, has a national plan to integrate technology into its more than 46,000 schools. Its Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology has partnered with technology companies and with other government ministries in the effort. However, teacher training in technology is not required, so the use of technology in Japanese classrooms remains uneven, some observers say.

India’s situation is similar. With more than 1 billion people, India is the world’s second most populous country. In 1998, it introduced its national technology “action plan” for schools. The plan established a national education center for information technology, trained teachers in technology use, and created high-tech “Smart Schools.”

In 2001, it also introduced computer literacy programs in 10,000 schools, computer-aided learning in 1,000 schools, and more integrated use of computers in academic work in 100 Smart Schools.

Still, technology is taught primarily as a stand-alone subject in India’s schools, rather than being integrated into academics, according to UNESCO.

‘Hidden Problems’

Whatever their level of technology integration, Asian countries’ gradual move toward more use of educational technology reflects the region’s desire to become an economic powerhouse, McGough says. China, for one, is beginning to loosen its strict government control over the education system and is now courting for-profit companies and universities from the United States and other countries to invest in its growing private education system.

“These countries are very interested in global trade,” McGough points out. “And they realize that they can’t compete if they don’t go online.”

Seeking to expand their students’ knowledge of Chinese art and culture, six art teachers from a Hong Kong primary school took 33 4th, 5th, and 6th graders to Beijing for a four-day field trip. They viewed landmarks such as the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City.

But instead of wielding a pencil and a pad of paper to sketch the landmarks before them, the students logged on to wireless-enabled laptop computers and drew on pressure-sensitive digital drawing tablets. Sitting two abreast on the steps of China’s Great Wall, which snaked for thousands of miles before them, they sketched the ancient, dun-colored, serrated edifice.

This “cyber art” project is an example of some of the sophisticated uses of technology to improve learning in select Chinese schools. Documented in the “Second Information Technology in Education Study Module,” which was sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, the project has since been emulated at other Hong Kong schools.

Technology integration in China is largely uneven, however. The country’s vast land mass—the fourth largest in the world—and its still-rigid centralized education system make it difficult to change education.

And China, the world’s most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, spends a smaller proportion of its gross domestic product on education than do other developing countries. It allots less than 3 percent of GDP to education—while Brazil, a country at a similar stage of development, spends 4.8 percent, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average among all countries is 6.1 percent.

“The [government] has recently undertaken a very comprehensive curriculum reform, and they want to make it customized for different regions,” says Nancy Law, the director of the Center of Information Technology in Education at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on educational technology in Asia. “But I don’t yet see technology use catching up.”

China had 19 personal computers for every 1,000 people in 2001, the latest data available, according to the World Bank. In contrast, there were 508 computers for every 1,000 people in Singapore, 349 in Japan, and 126 in Malaysia.

The country’s rural local governments are also hard-pressed to provide education funding, especially for big-ticket items such as wiring and equipping schools with computers. China’s rural areas are similar to undeveloped countries such as Laos and Cambodia in that regard, says McGough of the World Bank.

“There are lots of hidden problems in Asia,” he says. “It’s a matter of cost and priority. If you’re faced with [providing] a basic education, and you can pay for either basic education costs or Internet connectivity, which one are you going to pick?”

On the other hand, South Korea raced out of the starting block in 1996 to integrate technology in its schools. That year, the country founded the Multimedia Educational Research Center and launched EDUNET, its first comprehensive online-education information service.

By 2000, all South Korean primary and secondary schools had access to the Internet. By June 2003, EDUNET had more than 5.03 million registered users in the country, and the student-to-computer ratio stood at 9-to-1, one of the lowest in the world.

In fact, South Korea has the fourth-highest population of active Internet users worldwide: More than a quarter of its 48 million people use the Internet regularly, according to the Korea Education and Research Information Service, the government’s education arm.

In 1999, the country launched its first “cyber university,” in which college students earn two-year degrees via the Internet. Now, there are 16 such universities, whose online classes focus on management-related and information-communications technology courses. All of South Korea’s universities and libraries are also connected on the same network.

“They’re pretty sophisticated,” McGough says.

Japan’s Training Challenge

In Japan, students in some primary schools head outside for their science lessons. Armed with personal digital assistants or other mobile computing devices, they take digital photos of plants and insects, record their measurements and location, then upload the research and images onto a Web site that other schools can see.

Japanese education leaders would like to see more of this technology-integrated learning.

Japan started ahead of its neighbors in melding technology into education, but soon fell behind countries such as Singapore and South Korea. Now, Japan, the home of such seminal technology giants as the Sony Corp. and Toshiba Inc., is trying to catch up.

Japan introduced technology into its schools in 1994 through its One Hundred School Networking Project. More than 100 of Japan’s 43,000 schools started using computers for collaborative student learning, as well as for basic research and online interaction with other schools and education organizations.

That project was followed in 1996 by the “KONET Plan.” Students and teachers in 1,014 schools started using the Internet and videoconferencing for research and collaboration with other schools.

In 2000, the country’s “E-Square” project built on previous technology plans by developing educational Web sites, online instructional materials, links to academic resources such as museums and universities, as well as a retrieval system for educational software. Students in more than 1,100 schools took part in the E-Square project, working both within their own schools and collaborating with other schools on research projects.

While Japan tries to train its teachers on technology use, such training is not required. And technology training, which varies in quality across Japan, hasn’t improved student learning very much so far, says Takahashi Sakamoto, the director-general of the National Institute of Multimedia Education and an expert on K-12 educational technology.

“At the moment, 85 percent of teachers have already attended training courses,” he says. “But the [inadequate classroom] impact is the problem.”

Japan’s education system is slowly trying to encourage student creativity and academic exploration. But it is also still drill- and test-oriented, so many teachers fear technology won’t help students raise their test scores.

“Japanese educators are worried about failure,” says Sakamoto. “Change is coming, but very gradually and slowly.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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