An ‘ed tech’ intervention in China had long-lasting positive effects across outcomes, suggesting potential for reducing the rural-urban education gap

In most countries, there tends to be a large gap between urban and rural education outcomes. For example, according to data by the World Inequality Database on Education, the urban secondary-education completion rate is larger than the rural completion rate by 288% in low-income countries, by 62% in lower middle-income countries, by 46% in upper middle-income countries, and by 18% in high-income countries.

The traditional solution intended to narrow this urban-rural gap relies on monetary subsidies to allow rural schools to acquire better resources, especially higher-quality teaching personnel. However, this type of programme is usually unsuccessful since high-quality urban teachers are often reluctant to relocate to rural areas. In more recent years, education technology (‘ed tech’) has provided new and better solutions to this problem by allowing high-quality teachers in urban locations to connect with rural students through remote learning. 

In China, rural schools face a variety of challenges, including poorly qualified teachers, insufficient resources, and large classes. In 2000, only 14.3% of teachers in rural secondary schools had a bachelor’s degree, compared with 32% of teachers in urban secondary schools. Rural schools also had an average student–teacher ratio of 17.13, much higher than the 12.43 student–teacher ratio in urban schools. As a result, only 7.1% of students in rural middle schools enrolled in high school, while high-school enrolment was 9.4 times higher in urban schools (Source: National Bureau of Statistics China 2000 Population Census).

The programme

Our study (Bianchi et al. 2020) assesses a 2004 Chinese reform – the Modern Distance Education Programme in Rural China – that connected high-quality teachers in urban areas with more than 100 million students in rural primary and middle schools through the use of satellite internet. 

Specifically, the programme was based on three separate pedagogical ‘modes’ (Wang et al. 2015). First, it delivered 440,142 DVD-player sets, comprising TVs and DVD players. These sets were used to play teaching CDs that contained lectures and learning materials prepared by some of the best teachers in the country. Second, the programme installed 264,905 satellite receiving sets, comprising satellite antennas, satellite TV equipment, computers, and other related devices. These satellite sets allowed the Chinese government to deliver new lectures and learning materials through Internet, instead of relying on the transfer of physical CDs. Moreover, it allowed local teachers to use computers and Internet in preparation of their own lectures. Third, the programme built 40,858 computer classrooms, which included a network of computers and a projector. In these computer rooms, students could follow the new teaching materials prepared by the central government from their own device. Moreover, the computer rooms could be used to introduce computer science in the curriculum of the receiving schools.

Key findings

We report three key findings. 

  • First, exposure to the reform in middle school significantly increased students’ academic achievement in the long run. Completed education increased by 0.85 years (+9%), maths skills measured at the time of the survey (seven to ten years after exposure) increased by 0.18 standard deviations, and Chinese skills increased by 0.23 standard deviations (Figure 1). 

Figure 1 Leads and lags in the effect of computer-assisted learning (CAL)

  • Second, the reform significantly improved students’ labour market outcomes in the long run. Students who were exposed to the reform were more likely to be employed in occupations that focused more on cognitive skills, instead of manual skills. They also earned, on average, 59% more than individuals living in the same county but not exposed to the new education technology. 
  • Third, the reform increased Internet and computer usage by 15% several years after middle school. 

Overall, exposure to the policy can explain a 21% reduction in the pre-existing urban–rural education gap and a 78% reduction in the pre-existing earning gap.

Implications for education policy

Out of several pedagogical changes introduced by the reform, access to high-quality teachers through remote learning seems to have played the main role in increasing human capital. Other mechanisms, such as access to new technology for local teachers and the inclusion of computer science in the curriculum, are not corroborated by data and anecdotal evidence. 

Prior research on remote learning highlighted how online education requires a level of self-discipline that most students might not have (McPherson and Bacow 2015). Moreover, it might induce students to postpone studying until just before the exam, leading to sub-optimal learning (Figlio et al. 2013). In our context, however, remote learning happened in the classroom under the direct supervision of local teachers. These implementation features limited distractions and procrastination. 

Overall, the results of our recent study make three main contributions to the debate on computer-assisted learning. 

  • First, they show that the effects of computer-assisted learning can last for several years after the initial exposure to education technology. These findings complement existing evidence that indicates how computer-assisted learning might improve test scores in the months immediately after its implementation. 
  • Second, they show that the positive effects of education technology can be tracked across different outcomes. In our setting, computer-assisted learning affected education outcomes, labour-market performance, and Internet usage. 
  • Third, they show how technology can be an effective way to close the rural–urban gap in education.

As proven by the Chinese experience, technology is able to connect students in rural schools to the best teachers in the country without teacher relocation. Considering that the rural-urban gap is a phenomenon common in both developed and developing countries, these findings have important policy implications that transcend the Chinese experience.

Editors' note: This column also appeared on VoxEU.


Bianchi, N, Y Lu, and H Song (2020), “The Effect of Computer-Assisted Learning on Students' Long-Term Development”, NBER Working Paper 28180.

Figlio, D, M Rush, and L Yin (2013), "Is it live or is it internet? Experimental estimates of the effects of online instruction on student learning", Journal of Labor Economics 31(4): 763-784. 

McPherson, M S and L S Bacow (2015), "Online higher education: Beyond the hype cycle", Journal of Economic Perspectives 29(4): 135-54.

Wang, Z, H Zeng, and Y Wang (2015), “ICT Integration in Rural Classrooms”, in H Zeng, W Xia, J Wang, and R Wang (eds), Approach of ICT in Education for Rural Development. SAGE China Studies.

China Education technology Students Teachers Remote Learning Rural-urban education gap