Lifestyle & Belief

China's challenges


Nine-year-old Chinese pupil, Sun Minyi, listens to his teacher during a special English class at Chongming county, north of Shanghai, July 12, 2002. (Claro Cortes/Reuters)

SHANGHAI, China — After watching a 13-year-old boy operate a desktop PC at the Shanghai Exhibition Hall in 1984, China’s senior leader Deng Xiaoping famously said, “To universalize computers, one must begin with the little ones.”

These words have pushed the development of China’s technology infrastructure forward over the last 25 years. Even today, computer teachers in Shanghai proudly echo Deng’s remark, even as they readily acknowledge the shortcomings of tech education in Shanghai classrooms.

“Some teachers don’t have much knowledge of computers and the internet, and some school administrators don’t view computer education as a priority,” said Guo Dazhong, assistant director of computer education in the state-run Jingan District Youth Center in Shanghai.

The center offers a range of supplemental curricula for elementary, middle and high school students. Additionally, high school students are required to spend a certain number of classroom hours at the youth center. On offer in the computer department are classes in labor technology (better known in the U.S. as home economics), shop, computer assisted design and IT.

“But even if that weren’t the case, the sad fact is that our kids just don’t have time to play around,” said Guo.

According to Guo, the hurdles to getting more technology into Shanghai classrooms are many, and include a lack of computers, do-or-die standardized testing and a heavy homework burden.

There is now more than one computer per household in Shanghai, but formal technology education for kids begins in the third grade, with assignments of multimedia projects that aim to teach students to use the computers as a tool to convey their ideas. A teacher assigns a topic such as, “What it means to be a Chinese citizen,” and asks students to look for creative ways to express their answers.

Beyond a concerted effort to allot classroom time for projects such as these, the use of technology in school seldom goes deeper than PowerPoint presentations. The same students who are constantly texting from their cell phones and chatting on instant messaging programs at home rarely use a computer to type reports or for writing assignments.

Computer addiction is a major worry for parents and teachers. The state-run China Daily newspaper reported in March that China’s Ministry of Health is conducting research on internet addition, which is to be termed “pathological internet use,” according to Shen Jiahong, director of the Guangzhou Baiyun Psychological Institute.

“How to solve the addiction to online games is a big challenge,” said Guo. “Kids are naturally drawn to computers. Other countries also face similar issues.”

As a father, Guo sees it as his responsibility to foster healthy computer-use habits in his 15-year-old son. After coming home from school at 4:30 p.m., Guo’s son plops down at his desk to do homework until well past 10 p.m. If he has a lighter load, then Guo allows his son to play on the computer, but never more than two hours a week, and usually on the weekends.

The computer teacher runs a tight ship at home, because like 1.6 million other high school students in Shanghai, his son is studying in anticipation of the most crucial test of his life — the high school examination. It’s a three-day ordeal with pencil and paper and cannot be retaken. Success is critical in order to secure a place in a good college.

“Chinese education is all about tests, so the question parents ask themselves is: Can using computers and the web raise my child’s test scores?” said Gao Yang, a junior at Fudan University. “The answer is, probably not.”

Under such pressure, kids in Shanghai very occasionally have the chance to let their interests run unfettered.

“Shanghai is ahead of most cities in China,” said Guo. “But there’s still work to be done.”