Abstract: Perceived Access, Opportunities, and Risks of Online Learning for Rural Children in China: A Qualitative Study in YY County (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

392P Perceived Access, Opportunities, and Risks of Online Learning for Rural Children in China: A Qualitative Study in YY County

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Linyun Fu, MSW, Doctoral student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Yingying Zeng, Ph.D Candidate; MSW; MSP;, Doctoral student, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Xixi Kang, MSW; MSP, Project Coordinator, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China
Background and Purpose: School education has been dramatically reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing attention to the potential of virtual learning to address educational needs in remote rural areas in China. However, the digital divide is the main barrier preventing rural students from receiving quality education during and after the pandemic. Prior research has focused on the rural–urban digital gap but paid little attention to the specific contours of that gap: the educational or informational divide between urban and rural children rather than unequal access to the Internet. This study aimed to comprehensively examine the access, opportunities, and risks that students, school-teachers, and caregivers perceive regarding Internet use. It focused on online learning experiences and identified potential policy-level recommendations to address those challenges and enable rural communities to fully leverage existing resources.

Methods: We conducted 45 in-depth semi-structured interviews with rural school children, teachers, and parents in YY county in southwestern China. Quota sampling was employed to obtain a representative sample. Rural villages were classified into three levels on the basis of their socioeconomic status. From each level, one elementary school was chosen (three in total). In each school, five children, five school-teachers, and five parents were interviewed. All selected teachers were “classroom teachers,” who play the major management role in the classroom.

Results: This study found that the main challenges for rural children are insufficient education and knowledge on utilizing online learning tools. Surprisingly, most rural students had full access to digital devices and high-speed Internet, benefiting from the infrastructure building during and after the COVID-19 pandemic in rural China. However, they received little guidance or education on how to better use those devices. This educational gap is not only reflected among students but also among teachers and caregivers. Many rural teachers and caregivers lack the knowledge to support their students or children and to utilize and navigate online resources. Therefore, exposure to the Internet without guidance and protection can lead to unpredictable threats and harm to children’s well-being. However, the massive educational resources that the Internet can provide offer additional opportunities to achieve educational equity and bridge the rural–urban gap. Rural children, school-teachers, and caregivers are in urgent need of additional training and support to assist them in better leveraging Internet resources.

Conclusion and Implications: Our findings highlight how inadequate digital education and supervision of Internet use can pose potential risks and threats to rural children’s educational outcomes and overall well-being. Meanwhile, the largely increased access to online learning may bring potential benefits to close the educational gap. We recommend 1) launching targeted training programs to support teachers and caregivers with low levels of digital literacy; 2) in light of the well-built Internet and digital infrastructure in rural China, initiating more online intervention programs for rural children to address their educational and mental health needs; and 3) encouraging new Child Welfare Directors in rural villages to play a crucial role in supporting children, teachers, and caregivers in better utilizing online learning tools and implementing new online intervention programs.