What can be learnt from China’s recent experiences with Covid-19 and school closures that can inform other countries’ education technology-enabled responses?

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Summary of report

Scope of study

  • This report reviews what can be learnt from China’s recent experiences with Covid-19 and school closures that can inform other countries’ education technology-enabled responses.
  • It is informed by a recent EdTech Hub review’s conclusion that ‘China’s experience [during Covid-19] will be particularly valuable. The review addresses two areas that the review identified for further exploration: first, ‘the government’s strategy for subsequently filling gaps in content, equity of provision or improving quality.’ Second, ‘whether these refinements have been managed at a national or local level’.
  • It is also informed by the other EdTech hub reviews, in particular the review on remote teaching that included a focus on China.
  • The report’s remit included Hong Kong and Taiwan. It also gathered information from as many as possible of China’s 28 provinces.
  • The scope of this review is limited to school-age learners.
  • Evidence regarding policies on school re-opening and the role of schools and teachers in controlling further outbreaks is being covered in a separate Ed-Tech hub review.
  • The research for this was entirely desk-based: the rapid nature of the report meant that interviews were not feasible.

Summary of findings

China’s response to Covid-19 built on the distinctive foundations of its existing education political economy, in particular

High levels of pupil performance with low achievement gaps (as measured by PISA); highly centralised school system decision-making, governance and development processes (although this may be gradually evolving); a political culture that is generally less encouraging of debate about education practices; and a professional culture in which teachers are open to change and finding new ways to solve problems.

China appears to have a high level of ‘education technology maturity’ in terms of coverage, investment, usage and attitudes.

It has made significant progress in improving access, major Chinese technology companies are rapidly increasing their focus on education, and China is the world’s largest investor in machine-based personalised learning. The prioritisation of education technology already appears to have impacted on school policies, professional skills and attitudes. According to 2018 PISA data, over 90% of Chinese students are enrolled in schools that have an effective online learning support platform, significantly higher than the OECD average. In the four major Chinese cities, over 90% of school principals agreed or strongly agreed that teachers have the necessary time, technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices into their instruction. However, despite this positive enabling environment, national restrictions prevent the availability of much of the content that many other teachers around the world use to support teaching and learning.

From its work with EdTech hub, K4D, governments around the world and its own large-scale programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa, Education Development Trust has created a draft diagnostic framework that includes key components of effective Covid-19 policy response. Although this framework remains subject to change as new evidence emerges, this review has adapted six key components of the framework to categorise China’s responses.

2. Clear role accountabilities across different levels of the system

  • Whilst China’s centralised system was able to take swift action, provincial-level education authorities used their knowledge to tailor policy and guidance to local needs.
  • National guidance, reinforced by local messaging, encouraged a holistic, balanced home learning environment, prioritising family wellbeing over ‘home-schooling’.

2. Evidence-based policy decisions and communications

  • The Chinese Ministry of Education responded rapidly and communicated messages clearly through its “Disrupted Classes, Undisrupted Learning” initiative.
  • The government’s most fundamental evidence-informed decision was to guide against excessive ‘screen time’, both to support pupil wellbeing and to prevent network congestion.

3. Rapid evolution of coalitions and partnerships

  • National and provincial governments initiated a number of rapid multi-sector partnerships to support significant growth in online access, learning and teaching opportunities.

4. Technology-enabled learning and teaching

  • China’s overall approach was significantly informed by the concept of ‘teacher presence’, synthesising appropriate blends of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.
  • Provinces, municipalities and schools adopted different technological solutions based on local need and capacity.
  • Digital resources that provided rapid feedback and assessment mechanisms were core to many of the online learning approaches.
  • There was limited evidence of province-level professional development programmes that helped teachers to improve their online teaching pedagogies.

5. Explicit focus on the most vulnerable, including psycho-social needs

  • China’s overall approach and province-level activity during closure has been designed to promote equal, universal access to online learning, rather than target disadvantaged pupils.
  • Psychosocial support is often built into universal curriculum-based teaching and learning, as well as being addressed specifically, but targeted support for vulnerable pupils or groups does not appear to have been prioritised during school closure.

6. Adaptive, evidence-informed leadership to continually improve quality and reach

  • There is no current evidence on how China systematically tracked the impact of its approach during school closure, and what adaptations – if any – were made during this time period.
  • The recent release of a large-scale national online survey and official responses to this survey show a willingness to reflect on and adapt approaches in preparation for future school closures. As an official statement suggested:

“This large-scale online education practice has exposed outstanding problems such as insufficient network capabilities, insufficient high-quality digital education resources, insufficient teacher capacity in use of information technology, and insufficient online teacher-student interaction and emotional communication. These problems will need to be solved for future work.

Preparing for and enacting the transition back to school

Transition from online learning to classrooms has followed national health and safety guidelines, with the specifics of implementation determined at or below provincial level, with planning for transition occurring in some provinces from the moment that school closures started. China is still early in its transition from remote learning to classrooms and will continue to be a source of interest and learning based on how these transitions are carried out in practice.