Abstract: Bridging the Urban-Rural Gap: A Qualitative Examination of Perceived Access, Barriers, Risks, and Opportunities of Children's Digital Learning in China during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Bridging the Urban-Rural Gap: A Qualitative Examination of Perceived Access, Barriers, Risks, and Opportunities of Children's Digital Learning in China during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Saturday, January 14, 2023
South Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* 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: The COVID-19 pandemic brought profound changes to education around the world by introducing the widespread use of digital learning. The pandemic thus disproportionately impacted children of low socioeconomic backgrounds (Subur, 2021). Rural children experienced the most learning loss due to school closure and being unprepared for remote learning (UNICEF, 2021). Extant research regarding children’s digital learning is limited: (a) the majority of studies investigated education during the COVID-19 pandemic from only one perspective (b) most studies captured individuals’ experiences during lockdown, without scrutinizing the persistent impacts in the time of post-lockdown; and (c) current studies regarding the urban-rural divide have stressed the comparison between big cities and the most poverty-stricken rural areas, with a massive “missing middle,” rendering small cities or counties invisible. This case study is intended to fill research gaps by focusing on a county in China to elevate the responses parents, teachers, and children had to digital learning during and after the COVID-19 lockdown with a particular focus on the rural-urban divide.

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.