Barbara Schulte writes:
The most striking observation from my fieldwork at schools in regions as diverse as Beijing, Kunming, Zhejiang Province, and the greater area of Chongqing was that the new technologies were used for teaching, but not for learning.
They were mostly used by teachers for presentation purposes, e.g. for powerpoint and smartboard presentations, or for showing micro-lectures downloaded from the internet.
Students on the other side had little to no contact with ICT4E.
Firstly, they did not use information and communication technologies for knowledge-seeking purposes. This fact is confirmed by international studies, which find that Chinese students rarely use the internet for school-related tasks and that they are not taught how to navigate the internet efficiently.
Secondly, ICT4E were neither used for individual learning nor for interactive purposes. School principals and teachers attributed this to problems of access, e.g. in the students’ home environments or in the dormitories, and lack of skills in the students’ families, such as parents and grandparents being unable to help children with these tasks.
Thirdly, teachers as well as families were generally reluctant to view ICT as capable of replacing books and teacher-centered learning. Computers and information and communication technologies were rather seen as distractions that needed to be constrained and should be used as rewards for students who studied diligently (with clear time limits, of course). This attitude towards ICT as potentially dangerous and non-virtuous has also been found in earlier studies on Chinese youth.
Fourthly, and perhaps surprisingly in a society that is exposed to tight political and ideological control: there is almost no training in digital literacy for either teachers or students. In a time when content from the internet can challenge conventional media and politics, students and teachers alike are given astoundingly scarce guidance as to how to retrieve reliable information. Most training in ICT regards technical questions, such as how to use a computer, or design a presentation; but even those classes are often replaced by subjects that are deemed to be more relevant to the university entrance examinations.
Urban schools produce, rural schools consume content
The fifth finding came as even more of a surprise: in many cases, disadvantaged schools were better equipped than their urban counterparts. While smartboards – including ready-made presentations and lectures created elsewhere – were integral parts of teaching in rural areas, many well-off schools refused to use these technologies entirely. In fact, teachers at high-performing schools did not even believe that ICT could improve student performance, and preferred traditional methods of teaching.
The risk is that the use of ICT4E in China amplifies a more controversial feature of the Chinese education system. In many cases, the technologies have been employed to incentivize cramming (instilling content) rather than active learning.
What is lacking in the Chinese education sector – also according to Chinese experts – are bottom-up strategies for learning: students need to be able to formulate their own questions, learn about various ways to seek relevant information, and come up with their own ideas and solutions.
These are also complaints about the American education sector.