Stanford UniversityFreeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Rural Education Action Program
Research at REAP

Computer Assisted Learning in Poor Rural Schools



Despite the enormous economic gains China has achieved over the past three decades, millions of Chinese people continue to struggle in poverty. Perhaps nowhere does the “development gap” in China manifest more starkly than in the nation’s schooling system. While urban public schools are excelling, rural schools are struggling.

According to a series of benchmarking studies, academic achievement among poor rural students lags drastically behind their urban counterparts

What can account for this disparity? Beginning in the 1990’s, the government began shutting down relatively small schools in the countryside due to the declining number of rural students and the need to consolidate resources for bigger, more centralized schools. As a result, students now live so far away from school that they can no longer live at home. Instead, students—even those that are 6, 7 and 8 years old—have to live and take their meals at school for most days that classes are in session. As a possible consequence, evidence indicates that the health, nutrition, and overall educational achievement of rural boarding students are declining. Children in China’s poor rural areas (including poor rural boarders), have been shown to be the worst performing group of students in the entire country.

Besides the poor state of boarding facilities and teacher quality,lack of care outside of the classroom might be an important reason for the poor performance of rural boarders. Children in boarding schools are at a severe disadvantage because they cannot access resources that can help them if they get behind. Unlike their urban counterparts, students enrolled in poor rural boarding schools do not have before and after class review sessions in school by qualified teachers, or access to commercial tutoring classes, or interested and well-educated parents to help them with their homework. Their teachers usually do not have the incentives or abilities to help them with their study after class; their parents are often busy working (many of them living away from home) and have little time to devote to helping their children with homework and class projects. Moreover, they are typically poorly educated themselves. For these reasons, although student boarders have plenty of time after school, they have no source of remedial care that could help them catch up or get ahead.

Rural students do not have the competitive advantage of urban students who receive external help

What is more, rural boarding school students have nearly zero access to computing technology. Past government programs have left the occasional school with a computer room or a few spare machines. More often than not, these tend to collect dust, as the computers have not been meaningfully incorporated into the student curriculum. As part of the 12th Five Year Plan,  the government is embarking on an ambitious program to put computers in all rural schools. This amounts to an investment of billions of dollars. But putting machines in a school is one thing; integrating them into the curriculum in a meaningful way is another. There is no evidence to suggest the relevant authorities are doing anything. 

The consequences of this combination of shortfalls in rural boarding schools—poor teachers, no extracurricular care, limited access to computing technologies—has serious potential consequences for China’s economic future. As China’s economy continues to modernize, demand for higher skilled labor will rise. At the same time, millions of rural Chinese will continue to migrate from rural areas to cities in search of opportunity. If China’s labor supply—composed in no small part of these migrants—does not posses the know-how to contribute to an innovation-based economy, the nation’s economic progress will be sharply curbed. Such know-how is rooted in a grade school curriculum that integrates technology in a supportive environment that is attentive to student needs. 

A promising means to deliver remedial care and exposure to computing technology exists in Computer Assisted Learning (CAL). Rigorous evaluation studies in other developing countries have shown that access to computers with innovative educational software can significantly improve a student performance in poor or otherwise ill-equipped learning environments.

However, currently very few poor rural boarding schools have functioning computer facilities, and none have computer assisted learning programs. Students in these areas do not typically have access to computers at home or in their home community.


This project will provide a high quality Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) program to needy rural boarding schools and evaluate the impact the program has on academic performance among students. Our objectives in doing so are three fold:

Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) will be implemented and assessed for its impact on educational performance

Intellectual objective:

  • Provide clear, quantitative evidence about the linkage between CAL programs and the educational performance of underserved children.

Policy objective:

  • Demonstrate that computer assisted learning programs lead to better educational outcomes and that such programs should be scaled up in areas where poor student performance is chronic.

Educational objectives:

  • Develop a curriculum (and training manual for teaching the curriculum) for a computer assisted learning program for China’s disadvantaged youth. This CAL intervention is carefully designed so that if it is found to be effective, it can be handed off to a national, state affiliated foundation to implement cost effectively and on a larger scale. Handoff components include: a math software suite pegged to the national curriculum; student and teacher instruction manuals; and comprehensive training materials.


We will fulfill the above goals by implementing a CAL program in rural boarding schools in five national designated poverty counties in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province. We will then evaluate the impacts of this program on student performance using a randomized control trial.

To do so, REAP will randomly select 60 schools from within the designated counties. The schools will be randomly divided into 30 treatment (intervention) schools and 30 control schools. Third graders and fifth graders will be tested for the purposes of this study. The methodology of randomization ensures that any students from either group of schools are statistically identical.

Each intervention school will receive six to eight computers with math learning software installed. Students in intervention schools will have two hands-on sessions with the software each week, totaling two to three hours per student per week.

Some teachers will be trained on CAL procedures to maximize effectiveness for students

One or two teachers in each grade in the program school will attend a 3-day intensive teacher training course before the intervention. The training will include lessons on CAL procedures and basic computer operation skills. The lessons will help ensure that teachers can properly manage the CAL sessions and assist students in using the software.

A hotline will be set up to address any technical problems encountered over the course of the program. Back up computers will be available if any in the schools happen to fail irreparably. REAP’s CAL research team will call the program schools regularly, inquiring about the progress of the intervention and answering CAL-related questions. Research staff will visit each school every month to check on schools and make observations.


The students in both intervention and control schools will be tested once at the beginning of the project (in December 2010 prior to the program implementation in March) and again at the end of the project (in late June 2011).  Both tests will be identical in nature and will measure basic mathematics competencies. We will be testing other disciplines in order to see if there were any positive (or negative) spillovers from the CAL intervention on achievement in other disciplines.

The surveys will also collect information on family and student characteristics, attendance rates, subjective enthusiasm/interest in school, etc.


Our results Following 13 weeks of the CAL program (approximately 20 hours of computer time), standardized math scores have improved by nearly 0.15 standardized deviations for third graders, and 0.11 to 0.12 for fifth graders. This is roughly the equivalent of providing one semester more of schooling, or a C+ to a B. 

Interestingly, when we looked at the intervention's heterogeneous effects we found that the biggest improvements in math scores occurred among the most economically disadvantaged students--those that were eligible for poverty subsidies from the government. These are exactly the students for whom CAL was designed to help most: the ones with the least access to resources.

REAP was also careful to measure non-academic outcomes related to the CAL intervention. Before and after the intervention we measured how interested the students were in school, their self-confidence, and the perceived impact CAL had on their studies. We found improvement across the board in these variables for the intervention students when compared to the control.

With respect to the perceived impact of CAL on their studies, 90% of the intervention students believed CAL had at least moderate positive impact. Over half expressed increased interest in their studies after the CAL program, revealing additional positive spillover effects that can further boost student engagement and performance in school.