context: China Youth Daily published a special report on how distance learning courses offered by Chengdu No.7 High School have provided students in Yunnan Quanlu No.1 Middle School higher chances of success in gaokao exams. The article provoked wide debate in the media on the role of education as ‘the great equalizer’ in upward social mobility and the impact of skills-based technological change on the equality of opportunity.

While the story of ‘life changed by a small screen’ is promising, the role of live streaming video in bridging the rural-urban digital divide should not be exaggerated, argues Li Jinguo 李进国 China Association for SOS Children’s Village president. Live streaming connects the two ends of the country’s educational hierarchy: one of its top-ranked high schools and an unknown rural middle school in one of its poorest counties. According to Li, the yield of live streaming on coursework tutoring and knowledge transfer is very limited. What really matters, he insists, is peer pressure: that is, watching how urban elites study and live motivates rural students to strive for better grades and a better life.

The success of distance-learning depends largely on the capacity of its audience, argues Tang Min 汤敏 state councillor. Tang notes that most rural schools are ill-equipped to provide the necessary amount of offline teacher-student interaction and face-to-face tutoring, which have negative effects on student learning outcomes. Rolling out such programs also requires subsidies and policy support from the government, adds Tang.

There is a stronger correlation between rising undergraduate enrollment rates in Quanlu and the policy of college admission quotas for rural candidates initiated in 2012, says Xiong Bingqi 熊丙奇 21st Century Education Research Institute. The poverty alleviation campaign has further boosted education spending in rural areas, he adds. More needs to be done to fundamentally solve the lack of equality in educational opportunities between rural and urban regions than just distance learning, Xiong argues, highlighting investing in training rural teachers and empowering grassroots schools.