In 2020, the world went into lockdown. Learning in school became learning from the couch. Rather than listening to teachers in-person behind a desk, high school students had to find a computer to stream their lectures and lessons.

What happens to educational inequality in a digital-first, remote-learning environment?

Ruomeng Cui

Whereas students are traditionally bound by their brick-and-mortar schools and the limitations of funding in those areas, what happens when the walls are removed and students have access to the teachers, knowledge, and peers from other areas?

Ruomeng Cui and co-researchers, Zhanzhi Zheng from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Shenyang Jiang from Tongji University, decided to find out. In their 2022 paper, currently under review, Cui and her colleagues looked at the performance of high school students in developing and developed regions of China.

We thought that remote learning might reduce the inequality gap in education because when students are learning off-line, they’re restricted by their local resources.

“It’s quite obvious that developing regions don’t have good resources, experienced teachers, or competitive peers—they often have inferior educational resources in comparison to developed regions,” explains Cui, associate professor of information systems and operations management. “We thought the accessibility of remote learning could help reduce this knowledge gap and help students in developing regions improve their learning outcomes.”

Analyzing Education in Developed and Developing Areas

The idea for the paper, “Remote Learning and Educational Inequality,” published earlier this year, stemmed from another of Cui’s papers, which looked at the academic productivity of women as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“We wanted to study whether the switch to remote learning impacts educational inequality. Does it make it better or worse?” says Cui. “We are the first ones to offer empirical evidence on such a granular level about a large-scale data set.”

The group analyzed the Chinese college entrance exam from 2018 through 2020, which students take during the last few weeks of high school; the test score is a requirement for undergraduate admission in China. It’s common for high schools to announce the number of students who scored 600 or higher (out of 750 total points).

Using 1,458 high school exam results from 20 provinces, the group found that in 2020, when remote learning became the norm, “the number of students scoring above 600 points in developing regions increased by 22.22 percent,” in comparison to developed regions.

Remote learning significantly improved learning outcomes of students in developing regions. We should think about encouraging the adoption of remote learning in education.

Ruomeng Cui

However, Cui and her co-researchers wanted to go a step further. Because the entrance exams are summaries of student data, they surveyed 1,198 students to drill down and ensure that these results came from remote learning rather than other factors.

Respondents were asked to rate aspects of their remote-learning experience, such as access to digital devices, their proficiency in using software, how reliable their internet was, how they interacted with peers and teachers, and their access to online educational resources.

The researchers found that students in developing regions were able to better connect with peers and teachers, and the students believed that “their learning efficiency was greater” because of the remote learning.

Education inequality is not only a problem in China. It’s everywhere. It’s across the world. Having access to better educational resources online can be applied anywhere.

Ruomeng Cui

However, the one caveat to their findings: Remote learning is beneficial, but students need devices and the infrastructure to support online learning, which is often lacking in developing regions or underserved areas.

“We need to support, build, and develop the digital technology capability that enables the effectiveness of remote learning,” says Cui.

Goizueta faculty apply their expertise and knowledge to solving problems that society—and the world—face. Learn more about faculty research at Goizueta.

Alexandra Shimalla
Alexandra Shimalla is a Communications Specialist for Emory University's Goizueta Business School.