A Cursory Postmortem of the Satellite Distance Education Project in Rural Ankang

by brachbach

Around the world, governments and NGOs like to give vast amounts of hardware to schools. Citizens and donors like to hear how many computers they have helped get to kids. Unfortunately, these projects are often undertaken with far too little attention to how the equipment will actually be used. Such seems to be the case with the deployment of satellite distance education in rural China.

(Note: this is the second in a series of blog entries that I’m spinning off from my research on a computer tutoring program in rural Chinese schools. The first entry is here.)

First, the mind-boggling numbers. From 2002-2007, the national government installed satellite receiving stations in about 380,000 schools serving about 80 million students (Chen et al 84, Yu and Wang 274, McQuaide 4). Adding in the other components of the Modern Distance Education Project for the Rural Schools (installing CD/DVD viewing equipment in the smallest schools and computer labs in the biggest ones), the facilities were installed in rural schools serving over 100 million rural students. The project cost about 10 billion RMB, or a little less than two billion USD (Chen 84). Each satellite installation costs about 16,000 RMB, or a little over 2,000 USD. Researcher Yu Wang goes so far as to say that the project “has a wider scope and serves a larger population than any other informational project in the world” (1).

Second, how the satellite receiving stations are supposed to work. The satellite receiver is hooked up to a computer. Teachers can download tapes of urban model classrooms for teacher training or to show directly to students, as well as other educational videos and content. Schools can also tune in to live broadcasts on China Education TV. A tech-savyy teacher is put in charge of the station, helping other teachers use it if they have trouble (Our interviews, Yu and Wang). The goals of the project are to improve the poor quality of rural education and to fight educational inequality between rural and urban China by digitally bringing superior educational materials into rural schools (Yu and Wang 273).

And that is where most research available on the program in both English and Chinese more or less stops. These articles tell you the numbers, describe the basic structure of the program, provide a few pretty diagrams of satellites connected to computers connected to other computers connected to monitors, and then leave you with their fervent hopes that the program succeeds in its lofty goals.

In trumpeting the impressive numbers without seriously criticizing the implementation of the program, these researchers replicate and perpetuate the government’s failure to consider the details of implementation. It’s these details that determine whether a technology-for-education project is successful or not. Chen et al and McQuaide pretty much fall into this trap. To be fair to them, they do identify some potential pitfalls of the program. Yu and Wang are much more thorough at exploring potential issues, but still talks about them as avoidable bumps on the road rather than fatal flaws.

To be fair, there are a few more trenchant articles in Chinese, and my research partner Hao Xue and I will be reading them more thoroughly in the near future. Still, our observations in two schools in rural Ankang suggest that more critical research is necessary: in those schools satellite distance education was very weak from the beginning and is now completely dead.

Neither of the schools uses its satellite facilities anymore. The most obvious reason is that the hardware is broken. Wind has damaged the satellite dishes, rendering them unusable. The equipment at the school in Ningshan county broke two years ago, but still hasn’t been fixed. That’s because although the central government installed the dish, it doesn’t provide any help with fixing it. So the school is left to fend for itself, paying for satellite repair out of its general operating budget. In fact, according to Hao Xue, a fire-and-forget approach to educational resources is commonplace for the national government; whether textbooks or desks, the government tends to distribute them without any follow-up.

To make matters worse, the satellite equipment can only be bought as a complete set, because spare parts are not available. And the equipment can only be purchased in the provincial capital Xi’an, four hours from one school and six hours from the other. The principal of the Ningshan school said that he wanted to fix his broken satellite, but he didn’t seem to have any concrete plans to do so.

The principal told us that the satellite equipment is broken in most schools in the area. Satellite distance education ran into similar problems in Gansu province: wind knocked the antennae out of place, interfering with signal reception (Yu and Wang 279). So the hardware problem is widespread. It seems to be that this problem could have been avoided through a combination of more robust hardware, and hardware repair supported with national funds. In my research center’s computer tutoring program, for example, tech fixers working for the program are on call and can arrive at the school within days if there are problems.

Besides outright hardware failure, there are also more subtle issues in the implementation of satellite distance education. According to the Ningshan principal, the school hardly ever used their equipment back when it was functional. It was complicated to access learning materials using the satellite, because the content had to be searched for, downloaded onto the computer connected to the satellite, loaded onto a USB drive, and then transferred to the target computer or computers. Only one tech-savvy teacher was really proficient at this, and the other teachers didn’t want to bother him all the time. Then, that teacher left to teach in the county seat and was never replaced.

I surmise that the other teachers didn’t receive much training in using the equipment. That would seem to be another oversight of the program.

The principal told us that the content available via satellite integrated well with regular classes in the school. From casually surfing the satellite distance education website, it looks like there is content available for some but not all textbook chapters, and that quality ranges widely from unusably poor to sophisticated videos. However, it seems like there was not much incentive to go to the extra trouble of downloading content when teachers could just use traditional methods. The very limited use of the satellite contrasts starkly with teacher’s daily use of PowerPoint.

The program made some effort to force schools to use the equipment, requiring them to turn it on for daily broadcasts at 8:00 AM and noon. I have heard that at some schools, teachers simply tuned in and left the room, avoiding trouble with higher-ups and inflating use statistics.

Really, though, the reason that satellite distance education is truly dead in the two schools we visited is not due to any failure of the project, but rather to the fact that these schools are now connected to the Internet. Internet arrived a few years after the satellite, and is far more convenient. Teachers can easily find educational materials on Baidu, the Chinese Google, which maintains a special repository. In fact, there’s a lively community of teachers downloading each other’s PowerPoints, revising the presentations to fit their own classrooms, lecturing from them, and then reuploading their slides. At a glance, materials on Baidu seem at least as good and significantly more comprehensive than those available on the special distance education site. With Internet access, there’s really no point to the satellite.

Since satellite distance education wasn’t the focus of our research, our understanding of it is incomplete. Additional potentially difficult details that Yu and Wang identify include student preparation to participate in this kind of class and external financial auditing to make sure program funds are not embezzled. And of course, we have little idea how widespread the problems that we have identified are.

Still, I have identified pitfalls in hardware durability, hardware support, teacher training, usability, and monitoring of use that weakened the project. The really sad thing is that these are exactly the same factors that have been known for many years to derail educational technology projects all over the world. All of these could have been addressed through a more serious financial and intellectual commitment to the details beyond the distribution numbers. The arrival of Internet was the coup de grace for the program, and I wonder if this could have been predicted, saving millions in hardware investment.

So why did the satellite program fail to make an impact on these schools? Did the central government not really care how it worked in practice? Were they unable to deal with local complexities? I find it hard to believe that it was pure ignorance. I’m working with Hao Xue to write a research proposal to further investigate the failure of distance education. I return to the US in July, but he will continue to investigate this issue and hopefully come to some deeper answers about what factors at the school and government levels led distance education to fall short of its potential.

Works Cited

Chen, L., Chen, H., & Wang, N. (2009). Distance education in China: the current state of e-learning. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(2), 82-89.

Mcquaide, S. (2009). Making education equitable in rural China through distance learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1), 1-12.

Yu, S. Q. & Wang, M. J. (2006). Modern distance education project for the rural schools of China: recent development and problems. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 273-283.

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