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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 issues. In 1985, the Chinese government launched a nine-year compulsory education system to cover kids ages 6-15. Since then, China has seen 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 creating an urban-rural divide at the same time. 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 and millions of rural students lag 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 find out the reasons behind the urban-rural gap. In the past 10 years, the Chinese government has invested heavily in improving rural schools’ infrastructure and attracting more teachers by offering better salaries, but many gaps still exist:


Income gap relative to education spending: unlike their urban counterparts, most rural parents can’t afford tutoring, school programs or university and/or may not prioritize them for their children


Lack of external 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 


Constraints of 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 let alone know how to effectively learn online 


Bringing technology into the fold


Thoughtworks China’s social change mission is to provide disadvantaged groups with more accessible information, knowledge and equal opportunities, with creating technology to fix the inequalities caused by technology as the ultimate goal. Thoughtworks and REAP (Rural Education Action Program) 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. According to our partner REAP’s paper, while 84% of high school grads in Shanghai go to college, less than 5% of China’s rural poor make it to university. High school attendance is just 40% in poor, rural areas of China. REAP also found that fourth grade students in poor rural areas have significantly lower scores in core subject areas than do urban students. 


Since early 2019, Thoughtworks has been partnering with REAP to build a gamified online education product, Taoli Online, for kids from 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 in early 2019. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, all schools across China closed and children had to learn at home. 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.


Learning online at home is difficult for rural children as many students’ homes don’t have the necessary connectivity to enable remote learning. 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. 

Under China's zero covid policy in the last two years, the product promotion has proceeded slower than the original plan. We partnered with Jack Ma foundation in 2021 to attract more schools, and around five rural schools started to use the product.


Meanwhile, REAP has successfully 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 and almost 200 rural schools onboard.


The collective effort to achieve our goal


Thoughtworks goes beyond providing our delivery in 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 without IT capabilities use technology to expand their reach and influence in rural education. Some lessons learnt from the partnership: 


  • Taoli Online was developed based on the OCAL, which means we weren't able to apply lean innovation into product development. One the other hand, we also learnt from REAP on how they measure 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.