Methods: This qualitative study was based on 48 semi-structured interviews with elementary school teachers, parents, and children in fifth and sixth grades. According to their geographic locations and socioeconomic status, schools were categorized into four levels: urban (county), suburb, town, and village. From each level, one elementary school was chosen (four schools in total). In each school, four schoolteachers, four children from Grade 5 and Grade 6, and the children’s parents were interviewed. Teachers purposely included in this study were all classroom teachers who played additional administrative roles beyond teaching, such as conducting home visits and managing student activities. Data were collected from December 2021 to February 2022. Interviews were conducted via WeChat phone calls. The data analysis was based on thematic analysis through inputting all interview notes into NVivo11 qualitative data analysis software.
Findings: This study revealed that the urban-rural digital divide is not rooted in differences in minimal access to digital devices per se, but rather in meaningful access to make full use of those devices for extended learning purposes. The major barriers that give rise to the digital divide include older teachers’ difficulty in implementing technology, internet addiction among children, and a lack of parental supervision of children’s digital use. However, the ready-for-use digital infrastructure in rural schools also offers an opportunity to address educational inequality.
Conclusion and Implications: This digital divide perpetuates the existing rural-urban inequalities in education, putting the most disadvantaged children further behind their peers and resulting in limited opportunity to catch up. This study, unfortunately, found that marginalized, rural children continue to be disadvantaged in digital education. Bridging the increasing digital gap between rural and urban children is a pressing issue. It calls for empowering teachers and parents to better support children’s digital needs and boost children’s digital learning experience. Well-designed virtual interventions, school- and community-based programs, as well as policy interventions tailored to unique family and community needs, are potential solutions to address the needs of rural teachers, parents, and children.