First Lady’s Visit to China School Shows Its Advanced Connectivity

Associate Editor

First lady Michelle Obama’s blog post today from her stop at a high school in Chengdu, China, contained some eye-popping stats that may shine a light on China’s connectivity in education.

Mrs. Obama visited No. 7 School—a high school attended by over 5,000 students, with another 42,000 “beaming in” remotely, routinely, from 182 schools in smaller cities and rural areas across southwest China.

“I started my visit at the No. 7 School by speaking with about 600 students in their school auditorium—and about 12,000 of the remote students participated by video,” Mrs. Obama wrote in her post.

After her speech, Mrs. Obama participated in an English class with about 40 students who were physically present in the Chengdu classroom, and over 18,000 students from 160 schools watching remotely.

To anyone who follows current connectivity issues in U.S. public schools, this magnitude of participants and the technological capabilities needed to connect them are noteworthy.

“Those numbers are very impressive,” said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “You’ve heard stories of MOOCs [massive open online courses] where you see numbers like that, but it’s very unusual to see those numbers at the secondary level.”

He also said that, in tech circles where other countries’ capabilities are discussed, China is not mentioned as a bellwether. “I don’t think we’ve looked at China as a country that’s led the way in how to use technology for learning,” he added, “but this is pretty astounding.”

Levin qualified his comments by pointing out that the quality of the video transmission wasn’t mentioned in Mrs. Obama’s blog post.

Education Week asked the White House about that, and how the schools are connected. In an email, the U.S. Embassy responded that “the program uses a satellite uplink to connect to all the schools,” with a Chengdu-based company controlling the program from the school to monitor classes and to transmit video and audio to the various schools.  

“Schools are brought into the program slowly,” the embassy wrote. Those deemed suitable for the program are first set up with a test class. If the test succeeds, the program is expanded.

The actual physical setup is comprised of a series of cameras that are capable of transmission being set up in all classrooms. Generally, it is the classes from No. 7 that are transmitted to distance schools. Smart boards in No. 7 can also be used to send lessons, the embassy indicated.

Are U.S. schools capable of this level of connection? “Two-thirds of them are not,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperhighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates upgraded Internet access for schools. “For that number of students to attend via video, you need a significant amount of bandwidth, and 72 percent of [U.S.] schools don’t have it.”

“It really gives you a sense of what’s possible,” Marwell added,  “China is saying, ‘We have some amazing teachers and we want to make those amazing teachers available to as many students as possible, and we want to do that with technology.’ This is all about giving equal access to opportunity.”

China’s Ministry of Education plans to provide 10 million teachers and more than 50 million students with Internet access by 2015, according to C.M. Rubin, writing for FormarHub.

Chengdu’s No. 7 School in China shows that “this is possible on a large scale, and there’s no excuse why all students in this country couldn’t be connected, too,” Marwell said. “And once again, we’re falling behind.”

To help us catch up on connectivity, President Obama announced his ConnectED initiative last year, setting four goals to make the transition so that 99 percent of U.S. students—up to 40 million students—would have access to broadband by 2018.

The initiative received major support from the Federal Communications Commission, and major corporations, earlier this year. Proposed changes to the E-rate program—expected to pump an extra $2 billion into high-speed broadband over the next two years—are likely to produce significant benefits for the nation’s schools over time, but they aren’t likely to reach schools until calendar year 2015, my colleague Sean Cavanagh writes.

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