On 6 April 2021, the UNESCO Paris Headquarters declared that the “One College Student Per Village” programme from the People’s Republic of China implemented by the Open University of China (OUC) will be awarded the 2020 UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education (abbreviated as the UNESCO prize for the use of information and communication technologies in education).

This is the highest prize for the use of information and communication technologies in education and it marks the second time that an institution from China has received the prize since 2008. What makes the “One College Student Per Village” programme stand out from nearly 200 projects around the world?

An increasing number of learners from rural and remote areas are benefiting from quality learning experiences

“I don’t need to quit my job or spend too much money. As long as I have Internet access, it is possible to learn specialised courses. Open education has provided a platform opportunity for people like us who want further education. Lifelong learning is no longer a dream,” Akeranmu Aihemaiti, an outstanding OUC student who graduated from the 2020 class of Turpan Radio and TV University (RTVU) of Xinjiang Open University, said when recalling his learning experiences. What impressed him most was the cloud classroom. “Learning is available anytime and anywhere via my mobile phone. I can check notices on courses and hold online discussions with teachers and students. There are also online Q&A sessions.”

AI applications ensure the continuity of quality learning, which is the theme of the 2020 edition of the UNESCO prize for the use of digital technologies. The "One College Student Per Village" programme has achieved synchronised class teaching in different places, pre-recorded class resource sharing, and enhanced interaction between multiple terminals via its cloud classroom. It represents an online-offline integrated smart teaching environment in which “Learning is available for all anytime and anywhere.” This can mitigate the shortage of teachers and other problems in remote areas.

As Mr Robert Parua, an education programme specialist from the UNESCO Beijing Office, commented, the "One College Student Per Village" programme works through a smart learning platform using voice and semantic analysis, automatic feedback, automated essay scoring, and big data analysis, which allows an increasing number of learners from rural and remote areas to benefit from quality learning experiences.

Long Siqing, who completed her junior college and undergraduate schooling at the OUC, experienced for herself the integrated effect of new technologies and education. “Our class is becoming more intelligent, the learning experience is becoming more humanised, and study is becoming more efficient. I was particularly impressed by the virtual insect classification experiment. That was my first experience of this type of course. I felt like I saw all kinds of insects in nature. It was so interesting.” Now, Long Siqing, as Party branch secretary of Guchong Village, Zhijiang Dong Autonomous County, Huaihua City, Hunan Province, is leading the local people in transforming their home from a poverty-stricken village with inconvenient transportation, a backward economy, and difficult conditions into a model village for new rural construction. The annual output value of the citrus fruits grown in the village has reached nearly RMB 80 million, and the citrus has been praised as a “Top 10 National Agricultural Products Brand.”

As Jing Degang, secretary of the Party Committee and president of OUC, noted, the OUC has developed VR learning resources to improve the students’ learning experience by integrating AI technologies like big data analysis and machine learning into the learning process. For example, the virtual insect classification experiment immerses students in a simulated field experiment where they identify pests and prune fruit trees as if they were in an orchard. These immersive learning scenes are conducive to deepening the students’ understanding of knowledge points and enhancing their learning experience.

“Allowing an impoverished man like me to fight my way successfully”

From a member of a poverty-stricken household to one shaking off poverty to a leader in achieving prosperity, Yang Changtai from Dongyue Village, Wenshu Township, Guangshan County, Xinyang City, Henan Province has completed these “three steps” in just three years thanks to his study in the OUC’s junior college programme in facility agriculture and equipment.

In 2012, Yang Changtai returned home to start a business growing plants and flowers. However, because he lacked both technology and expertise, he not only lost all his savings but also owed tens of thousands of RMB. His family was designated as a poverty-stricken household. “It was really embarrassing to be impoverished as a young man.” Yang Changtai made up his mind to shake off the mantle of poverty. With the support and help of village officials, resident village officials, and experts of planting technology, Yang Changtai got an income of RMB 150,000 from the sales of seedlings and flowers by the end of 2014. He not only paid off all his debts but also earned RMB 60,000 of profit, allowing him to successfully lift himself out of poverty.

Yang has experienced the importance of knowledge in the entrepreneurship. “No development can be sustained without knowledge or education.” Motivated by his brother, he began studying at Guangshan RTVU. Using what he learned, he started a family farm, built five greenhouses for strawberries, and has been involved in the business of seedlings and flowers, green paddy rice, tea, and aquaculture. By the eve of Spring Festival 2020, the sales of his family farm had reached more than RMB 800,000, and over 50 poverty-stricken households had become wealthy along with him. “Studying at the RTVU has enabled an impoverished man like me to fight my way through life successfully,” said Yang Changtai.

Initiated in 2004, the "One College Student Per Village" programme has enrolled around 830,000 learners of whom around 530,000have graduated, and has cultivated a myriad of practical talents and leaders in achieving prosperity like Yang Changtai. These leaders are able to remain in the countryside and use what they have learned to successfully help rural areas throughout China.

Zhang Zhupeng, a researcher from the National Institute of Education Sciences said that the "One College Student Per Village" programme has better met the diversified learning needs of local farmers, provided farmers with opportunities to receive higher education, and played a significant role in making education beneficial and accessible to all. It has supported the development of modern agriculture and science and technology, promoted the implementation of rural poverty reduction and the strategy of national rural revitalisation, and stepped up the improvement of the people’s livelihood in rural areas.

Playing a prominent role in solving the difficult problem of “who will build rural areas”

The key of rural revitalisation lies with the people, and the key to talent cultivation lies in education. Zhu Qizhen, director of the Institute of Problems Facing Agricultural Workers, China Agricultural University, pointed out that the "One College Student Per Village" programme has played a prominent role in solving the difficult problem of “who will build rural areas.” As he commented, “One way is to attract more professionals to develop modern agriculture and construct modern rural areas using policy. The other is to train professionals, and the most effective way to train professionals is education. The OUC’s modern educational approaches have been well-received.”

From the wholesale of fruits to Internet Plus marketing, from blind planting to customisation, and from traditional agriculture to smart farms …Ma Jianfa, a senior agronomist in Zhejiang Province, has found a solid path for a new type of professional farmers supported by the "One College Student Per Village" programme over the last 20 plus years.

In 2008, Ma Jianfa started in the junior college programme in the OUC for the first time. While studying the facility cultivation technology and information technology application course, he realised that, “The extensive hard-working methods in the fields and traditional wholesale models no longer meet the demands of today’s social development.” Therefore, he immediately decided to sell the rather faraway 70 mu (about 4.67 hectares) of farmland he had contracted, rented 15 mu (1 hectare) of farmland bordering Shanghai, and had a grape-picking orchard built. The farm has gained popularity thanks to e-commerce, sharing on WeChat moments, and live streamings. Thanks to Internet Plus, he has sent agricultural products to tens of thousands of households and attracted tourists from around China. The orchard receives more than 50,000 tourists a year, and more than 30 varieties of fruits, including peaches, dragon fruit, mulberries, and cherries, have been added to the grape-picking orchard.

“The five years I spent in the OUC were essential to the two turning points in my life. It not only provides us with opportunities for further learning but also enables us to keep improving ourselves,” Today, the villagers call Ma Jianfa “branch secretary of the grape village” and “associate professor” in the fields as secretary of the CPC Sanxing Village Committee, Guangchen Township, Pinghu City, Zhejiang Province. He takes care of the village in the same way as his orchard. As he said, “As long as my heart is dedicated to serving the land and the villagers, sowing, hoeing, fertilising, and pruning in a down-to-earth way, I will always be able to find a way to develop Sanxing Village. The village will prosper and nurture a fruitful autumn for its residents.”

Reprinted from Guangming Daily by the OUC News Network