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Teacher Support through Distance Education in Rural Areas: A Case from Western China

(by Ge Yi and Zhao Yuchi, UNESCO International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education)

© Flickr/Marco Flapper

Challenges facing rural schools are associated with geographic isolation, limited school resources and the delivery of quality education. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural teachers have less access to support services and continuous professional development.

To better support the in-service training of primary and secondary school teachers in rural areas, Shaanxi Normal University (SNU, a teachers’ university in Western China) initiated a distance education pilot project in 2003 to strengthen teachers’ skills and competencies. The pilot phase of the project was set up in Yulin city, Shaanxi Province. The difficulties encountered in this region include underdeveloped educational infrastructure, limited resources and shortage of qualified teachers.

Preparation & Implementation

Before the project began in January 2003, the School of Distance Education of SNU dispatched a survey team to the 12 counties of Yulin city. They were assigned the task to identify precise information about local economic development, access to computers and the Internet, teachers’ performance, and the courses that the teachers would like to take.

Based on the survey, the School of Distance Education developed over 400 distance education courses on 18 themes, including Chinese Language and Literature, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, and Computer Science and Technology. They created an official website to support teacher trainers in their work and to manage teachers’ recruitment and learning. Considering the slow Internet connection in some areas, except for the online courses for teachers who have Internet access, the course planning team developed CDs for those unable to get connected. The website was also utilized as a resource hub and online discussion board for the courses underway.

Distance education for teachers in economically less developed areas was restrained by many factors, such as poor ICT infrastructure, scattered population, transportation difficulties and shortage of substitute teachers. To better facilitate in-service training at grass-roots level, the School of Distance Education cooperated with the 12 county-level teacher training schools in Yulin. In the pilot phase, investment was made to improve their Internet infrastructure, capacity building of teacher trainers, and training management and support provision.

The School of Distance Education addressed the learning needs of different target groups of teachers by diversified strategies (see the following table).

Learning materials

Learning support

Target group

Ÿ   Textbooks

Ÿ   Courseware

Ÿ   other online learning        resources

Courseware/ online FAQs/ online tutoring/ discussion/ online tests/ lectures

Learners unable to take courses regularly at the teacher training school but with access to Internet

Ÿ   Textbooks

Ÿ   online courses

Ÿ   courseware

Ÿ   other online learning          resources

Online courses and interaction/ courseware/ online FAQs/ online tutoring/ discussion/ online tests/ lectures

Learners able to take courses at the teacher training school

Ÿ   Textbooks

Ÿ   courses on CD

Ÿ   other learning resources

Teaching materials/ teaching CDs/ tutorship materials/ Mail & Telephone FAQs

Learners unable to take courses regularly at the teacher training school and without access to Internet

Evaluation & Expansion

In September 2005, SNU established an evaluation team to assess the progress and achievements of this pilot project. Focal points from SNU, the 12 county-level teacher training schools and policy-makers in Yulin paid field visits to the project counties to assess the project impacts and explore the strategies for project improvement and expansion. Moreover, the Department of Education of Shaanxi Province evaluated the 12 teacher training schools and all proved to be eligible training institutes.

By the end of 2005, 12% of the teachers in the rural schools of Yulin (over 6,500 teachers) have been trained. The certificate and skills acquired in the courses greatly helped with the teachers’ educational attainment and career development. This became an incentive for more teachers to receive in-service training. Since 2006, the project has expanded to more regions within Shaanxi Province and other provinces in Central and Western China. By December 2011, 139 teacher training schools and 8 clustered teacher support centres from 17 provinces (including Shaanxi) have joined this project, recruiting over 100,000 participants in total.

When designing the project, the biggest challenge was the low public recognition of the quality of distance education. By upgrading local infrastructure, establishing quality assurance system of the training courses and continuously improving the training delivery in response to feedback, the project gradually improved the participating teachers’ and their schools’ attitudes.

In 2010, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance of China launched a project nationwide – the “National Training Programme for Primary and Middle School Teachers”. It aims to promote educational development and to train teachers on a large scale, rural teachers in particular. The national project was built on several previous pilot projects conducted in different parts of China, including the distance teacher training project initiated by SNU.

Contact info:
Zhao Yuchi, zhaoyc[at]; Ge Yi, geyi[at] 

Note: This article is adapted from the book Approach of ICT in Education for Rural Development - Good Practices from Developing Countries (ZENG H. et al, eds. 2015. New Delhi: SAGE Publications).