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Connecting Sichuan: Education for More Promising Futures

In the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a new program takes advantage of ICT to build replicable, scalable and sustainable models of 21st century education.

By Jenny Carless

July 12, 2010

Collaborative technologies are critical in establishing premier education programs. When they can be harnessed to improve access to 21st century learning for those who have been affected by a natural disaster, all the better.

Just like many others around the globe, Cisco responded immediately after the May 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan Province with relief aid. Within two months, the company extended its commitment by establishing a three-year partnership with the Sichuan Provincial People's Government to help develop 21st century education and healthcare models that improve the lives of the people of Sichuan and can be scaled globally.

The Connecting Sichuan program takes advantage of information and communication technology (ICT) to build scalable, replicable and sustainable models of 21st century education. Cisco is specifically targeting improvements in access and quality, two critical levers for positive and lasting change.

Two initiatives have made strong progress in the program's first year: an effort to bridge the urban/rural divide in educational opportunities and a project to create life-changing opportunities for children with disabilities.

"ICT brings a new wave for education, changing the way teachers teach, students learn and schools are managed as well as improving the overall quality and equity of education."

— Dr. Liu Cong, Director of Educational Management Information Center, Department of Education of Sichuan Provincial Government

"Thanks to the hard work and dedication of all our partners, significant change has occurred in the lives of young people and their teachers in the earthquake-affected areas," said Tae Yoo, senior vice president, Corporate Affairs at Cisco. "Cisco is pleased to be a part of this private-public partnership, which has supported teachers' professional development, enhanced the classroom environment with advanced ICT equipment and made a difference in the lives of children with disabilities."

Sichuan Province at a Glance

  • The capital, Chengdu, has a population of approx. 11 million.
  • The province is roughly the size of California, with three times the population.
  • Sichuan's geography is diverse and beautiful. It ranges from mountainous regions and plateaus in the west, where it is bordered by the Himalayas, to lowlands in the east. The Yangtze river flows through the Sichuan Basin.
  • It is one of the major agriculture production regions of China and is also rich in minerals.
  • Around the world, Sichuan cuisine is one of the best-known and best-loved Chinese cuisine traditions.
  • The province is relatively poor and includes a number of ethnic minorities.
  • Education environments can vary greatly between urban and rural settings.

Using Technology to Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide

Almost 700 million Chinese live in the countryside, where living conditions are often challenging; and many schools suffer from a shortage of teachers. Cisco and its partners are collaborating to help lessen the disparities between more advantaged urban and less advantaged rural schools.

The Connecting Sichuan initiatives are aligned with the priorities of the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Sichuan Department of Education.

"This initiative plays an important role in helping post-disaster reconstruction in Sichuan, rebuilding confidence in the recipient schools," says Liu Cong, director, Educational Management Information Center, Department of Education of Sichuan Provincial Government. "Further, it enhances the schools' ICT standards – through advanced facilities and equipment in the 21st century model.

"ICT brings a new wave for education, changing the way teachers teach, students learn and schools are managed as well as improving the overall quality and equity of education," he continues. "All of these are also education goals in China, namely, information technology bringing the modernization of education." See related blog, Cisco Networking Academy Trains Future IT Workers in Sichuan, China.

Connecting Sichuan's 21st century education solutions focus on these key areas:

  • Connected Classrooms: Equipment includes touch-sensitive electronic whiteboards or televisions for interactive learning, computers, multimedia, high-speed Internet access and a school-wide wireless local area network (WLAN). The network will enable streaming video and distance learning for schools and communities in rural areas.
  • Connected Schools: Teachers from prestigious urban schools are broadcast over the Internet and deliver interactive classes to schools in rural communities. This provides students in rural schools access to highly qualified teachers and teachers in the rural communities the opportunity to learn by partnering with and observing master teachers.
  • Connected Communities: An education metropolitan area network (MAN) and Data Center provide the ideal platform for teachers to share resources, experiences and insights. Teachers can create, upload and share curriculum with each other and exchange best practices and useful tips on how to use the classroom technology.
  • Cisco Networking Academy: This program is expanding Cisco's curriculum and training programs to 50 colleges and universities in Sichuan, equipping students with in-demand and high-paying 21st century networking skills and capabilities.

"After more than a year of teaching practice, I feel deeply that these modern teaching methods have brought about tremendous changes. This is mainly reflected in our ability to make boring content more rich and to change from a passive to an active learning environment," says Yuan chao'an, a comprehensive subject teacher in a Chengdu primary school. "I believe that with familiarity and understanding of the whiteboard, the children will be able to open their wings and soar into a brilliant future."

Collaboration Among Committed Partners

Cisco is collaborating with more than 45 partners – government and industry leaders throughout the province and the country – to design, test and deploy the Connecting Sichuan education solutions.

For example: ECCOM Network System Co. Ltd. has donated laptop computers. Sino-Bridge Consulting Group has donated cabling equipment as well as direct funds that have enabled teachers to purchase computers. Teachers Without Borders has extended and strengthened its ongoing work in Dujiangyan, Sichuan to support professional development in the area of emergency/safety education and video-enabled science inquiry.

Rural Models, Green Schools

Connecting Sichuan recognizes that educational development is a building block for economic development – and that for these programs to have a lasting impact, they must be adapted to reflect the realities of the communities they serve.

The village of Songpan, in a somewhat remote mountainous area in northwestern Sichuan, about 340 kilometers from Chengdu, has a significant minority community. Here, Connecting Sichuan is implementing an education model designed specially for rural towns and villages.

"We recognized that some of our standard 21st century classroom technology would be inappropriate there – in part because of the local teachers' level of experience but also because installing many computers and projectors in the village schools would overload their power system," explains Louis Choi, Connecting Sichuan education leader at Cisco. 

For example, LCD televisions with touch panels replace whiteboards and projectors. They provide interactive functionality similar to a whiteboard but use less than half the energy and also require a somewhat lower technical skill level.

Affordability is another consideration. Less expensive equipment will be easier to maintain and replace, and a standard LCD television can be repaired locally.

This high (and sunny) mountain village suffers from power outages but now has a "green school," where energy-efficient devices are used along with solar panels that not only provide power to classrooms but also help reduce the community's everyday energy costs.

Impressive Initial Results

Early evidence – in the form of improved education outcomes and test scores – of Connecting Sichuan's benefits to the students and schools is heartening. For example:

  • The percentage of ZunDao School students who scored well enough to join a regional high school has jumped from 3 to 31 percent.
  • Seven students have been accepted at national key schools, where they will benefit from the highest quality teachers and teaching resources – and consequently, a stronger likelihood of attending a good university.
  • Recently, in greater Chengdu area Gao Kao simulation exams, the passing rate for year 12 students from DuJiangYan High School reached the highest rate in many years – and one that is higher than the average for both DuJiangYan County and the Chengdu urban area.
  • Two DuJiangYan High School students received the top results in the county in Art.

"Such changes are mainly attributable to Cisco's innovative 21st century model," explains Yang xingquan, principal of ZunDao School. "It contributes to improvements in the quality of our teachers and the effectiveness both of our classrooms and school management. It has also improved the recognition and reputation of our school."

Opportunities for Children with Disabilities

Connecting Sichuan is also focused on expanding opportunities for children with disabilities, to help them experience a quality education and ultimately become self-sufficient.

The focal point for this work is a new integrated model school. Cisco has helped the DuJiangYan Youai School (the "Friendship School") open in its new permanent facility, creating a unique and integrated learning environment for many disabled students.

Of the school's 1,600 students, 117 – including many amputees – became disabled as a result of the May 12 earthquake. The school currently teaches years 1 through 7 (roughly ages 7 through 14), with plans to expand through year 9 over time.

The school is housed in a brand new building, donated by the China Disabled Person's Federation, that has been designed with ramps and elevators to be fully accessible to the disabled children – a first in China. The classrooms are also integrated, so the disabled students study alongside all their peers.

Cisco Employees Lend a Hand

This isn't to say the children don't still have challenges. Many of the disabled children's families live far from the school and have been unable to visit since the beginning of the school year. Further, these children arrived in the spring; and as winter approached, they needed warm clothes.

Local Cisco employees have taken it upon themselves to help out – donating personal time and funds as well as coming up with inventive fundraising efforts. They have taken children without nearby families on Sunday sightseeing outings and bought them warm clothing.

Physical and Emotional Needs

The Friendship School benefits from collaboration with a new organization that addresses the children's healthcare and emotional trauma.

The Stand TALL initiative was launched a week after the Sichuan earthquake by doctors from the Orthopedics and Traumatology Department of the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong. The non-profit group has been sending teams of medical staff to Chengdu on a regular basis to follow up on patients and has established outreach rehabilitation programs at the Friendship School and Beichuan Secondary School, two of the schools supported by Cisco.

"In our program, the disabled children have access to custom-made prosthetics, including electronic upper limbs; life-like, cosmetically appealing prostheses; and even specialized limbs designed for sports or activities such as bicycling," explains Dr. Sheung-wai Law, medical consultant. "We support patients throughout the process of rehabilitation and provide subsequent, ongoing medical and therapy support."

"One of the little girls who lost a leg can now walk without a wheelchair, thanks to Stand TALL's help," explains Choi. "She was one of the happiest children during our recent Sunday outing."

More Promising Futures

Connecting Sichuan demonstrates the power of The Human Network, bringing together the right people, partners, processes and technologies to create a network of 21st century connected schools where children can learn, explore their world and grow into their full potential. The goal is to create education models that are replicable and scalable beyond Sichuan.

By working with our partners we have been able to establish models of 21st century education in 18 schools and more than 400 classrooms, reaching 20,000+ students," says Kathleen Conroy, managing director, Connecting Sichuan at Cisco. "We feel very privileged to be able to work with the Sichuan government and to have a chance to help create more promising futures for students in the earthquake-affected areas."

Note: The Connecting Sichuan Fund is designed to direct supplemental funding to the unmet basic needs of individuals and communities in the hardest hit areas. Please visit the site for more information.

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer located in Santa Cruz, CA.

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