By Neal Ozano

The Chinese put up The Great Wall thousands of years ago, but now education professionals from Alberta are trying to help them tear down an even larger one.

With the help of professionals and experts from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Athabasca University, Agriteam Consulting Ltd., $11.8 million from the Canadian International Development Agency and matching funds from the Chinese government, the group will help identify the problems and provide the tools to tear down the walls holding back the educational system in western China.

"China has had a lot of success in developing the eastern and southern parts of their country," said Erin Palmer, Business Development Coordinator for Agriteam, the private consulting firm that bid for the contract. "Now, [China is] putting a lot of emphasis on the development of the west. This project is part of that strategy."

The project, "Strengthening Capacity in Basic Education in Western China," is intended to increase the quality and accessibility of education in the area, which often lacks electricity or even telephones, according to Ian Winchester, former U of C Dean of Education and director of the U of C’s contributions to the program.

"For some Chinese, a school could consist of a tree they meet under once or twice a week, with an official piece of paper the teacher gets," he said. "A school in Beijing might have 300 students and 70 teachers. [Elsewhere], they’ll have only 10 teachers."

The project will give the Chinese in western China the means to design material that is student-centered, gender-sensitive and relevant to the poor ethnic groups that live in the region.

"Westerners migrate east, because there’s no jobs in the west," said Dr. Cen Huang, Director of International Programs and Partnerships at the U of C. "It’s very dry, so you can’t grow anything. Some places are so poor, they share clothes."

Many miles stand between western Chinese and good educations. "The distances are so great that the Chinese are hoping for distance learning solutions," said Winchester.

Betty Mitchell, a specialist in distance learning and Director
of Strategic Development at Athabasca University which serves 25,000 students through the Internet, will look specifically at the communications systems available in the area. She will then devise a plan to help the western Chinese use them for education.

"This is a great opportunity to showcase Canada’s great strength in distance learning," she said.

But with 55 minority groups and languages in western China, which include Mandarin, Arabic, Mongolian, and "a host of languages you’ve never heard of" according to Winchester, things become infinitely more complex.

The U of C’s Faculty of Education isn’t unfamiliar with these educational projects since it is currently involved in similar programs in Kosovo and South Africa.

"This is almost a continuation of work the U of C is already doing abroad," said Winchester.

"The pieces of knowledge we get [from the field work] are like lego blocks–we’ll use them to craft something that will work for China," said Mitchell.

Education levels are currently very low.

"It’s very hard to find qualified teachers," said Huang. "Good teachers who travel to the teaching schools usually stay in the larger townships."

"The teachers who remain in the rural areas are barely ahead of their students," said Winchester.

The project will solve this problem by making resources available to teachers in their remote locations.

"We’ll see what the online capability is, and how we’ll make use of that," said Mitchell. "Or we’ll begin with [China’s satellite network] and hope the Internet spreads to more remote areas."

"We’ll provide the technical, but they’ll do everything [using what we give them]," said Winchester. "We’ll upgrade the teachers of the teachers."

In 2000, China elected to invest almost $50 billion US into the western provinces of China. This area comprises 56 per cent of China’s land area, and 23 per cent of the population, but generates only a quarter of eastern China’s gross domestic product.

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