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Closing the education gap in China with technology

The gap between rural and urban education systems has been a long-standing challenge in China and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the issue. In 1985, the Chinese government launched a nine-year compulsory education system to cover children from age six to fifteen. Since then, China’s Ministry of Education has reported great advancements in education, including:


  • The adult literacy rate rising from 65% in 1980 to today’s 96%

  • University attendance skyrocketing from 20% in 1980 to more than 60% in 2022


Yet even these gains have been uneven with the system simultaneously creating an urban-rural divide. While compulsory education guarantees more rural children are able to attend school—and rural education has seen major improvements in the past—the quality of education for millions of rural students lags far behind their urban peers. 


There are an estimated 60 million ‘left-behind’ children in China. To eliminate education inequalities in all forms, we have to investigate the reasons behind the urban-rural gap. In the past ten years, the Chinese government has invested heavily in improving rural schools’ infrastructure and attracting more teachers by offering better salaries, but many gaps remain:


  • Income gap: unlike their urban counterparts, most rural parents can’t afford tutoring, school programs or university 


  • Lack of support: tutoring services are generally unavailable, teachers have heavy workloads and parents often migrate to urban areas for work, leading to many rural students being left behind academically 


  • Digital literacy: despite the government boosting rural internet connectivity and funding computer labs in schools, many rural students are not even able to type properly and don’t know how to effectively learn online 


Reducing this education gap remains critical to China’s future, which may help it transform and avoid the middle income trap. China’s goal of transitioning from a developing to a developed country relies heavily on improving quality education, especially in rural areas, to create a more skilled workforce.

How Thoughtworks is addressing the issue


Thoughtworks China’s social change mission is to provide disadvantaged groups with more accessible information, knowledge and equal opportunities; creating technology to fix the inequalities caused by technology as the ultimate goal. Thoughtworks and Rural Education Action Program (REAP) share a common goal to bring OCAL (online computer-assisted learning) to the real world, and the partnership was established in June 2018. 


REAP is a program run by Stanford University to help China’s rural poor. Through partnerships with China’s leading universities, they conduct research and evaluations to help solve the most difficult issues facing rural communities. 


Since early 2019, Thoughtworks has been partnering with REAP to build a gamified online education product, Taoli Online, for children in grades 3-6 in rural China. The product aims to help rural kids improve their academic performance and nearly 200 rural schools have used it since its launch. Taoli Online is a learning platform that is based on online games. The idea is to allow users to study core subjects (such as math, Chinese and English) while building their dream cities.


With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, all schools across China closed and children had to learn at home. Learning online at home is difficult for rural children as many students’ homes don’t have the necessary connectivity. In April of 2020, we quickly developed the Taoli app (Android version) and, in the first week, we saw 382 rural student users interacting deeply with the system. 


The collective effort to achieve our goal  


Under China's zero covid policy, the product promotion has proceeded slower than the original plan. We partnered with the Jack Ma foundation and REAP has worked with the Ya’an Education Bureau to ensure the product covers all rural schools in the town. Today, we have nearly 40,000 registered web users.

Thoughtworks goes beyond providing our delivery excellence and also offers expertise and resources to support the operations of Taoli Online. Our partnership with REAP is a great example of how we help our partners use technology to expand their reach and influence. 


Some lessons learned from the partnership: 


  • We learned how REAP measures success in a scientific way to ensure stronger impact 


  • Developing a low-cost, scalable technology solution is difficult. When serving the public sector, we have to keep thinking about how to make tech solutions more cost-effective.


When we hear feedback from rural school teachers, both teams feel rewarded, “Taoli is really fun and you can truly learn when playing the game. My students never wanted to leave the lab, because they can’t stop answering questions to gain rewards to build their own cities.”  

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

Our purpose in action