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Migrant workers have been the main contributor to Beijing's explosive growth over the past decade. People leave their rural homes to join the labor market in China’s capital. Most take low-paying jobs and have little access to resources like medical care and schooling. And many children of migrant workers also move to Beijing with their parents.

Ju Fei is one such child. He is a 10-year old student at the Little Swan Migrant’s school in the Changping District. Ju Fei is small for his age. He has a tentative smile, a contagious laugh and a strong need to keep moving with his soccer ball. Children like Ju Fei, whose parents are from the countryside, don't have a permanent residency permit (hukou) for Beijing and are only permitted to live there as temporary workers - even if their parents have lived there for years. Without a Beijing hukou, it is almost impossible for children to attend the educationally superior public schools. Therefore, Ju Fei goes to one of the schools for migrant children funded by private donors like SAP.

Containers as classrooms instead of bricks and mortar

Ju Fei and his classmates learn the basics in reading, writing, math and English. Their rudimentary classroom stands in stark contrast to the chrome and glass buildings of tech giants like Google, Lenovo, Intel and Microsoft that have research centers clustered in China’s so-called ‘silicon valley’ just minutes away. Ju Fei’s classroom is a container. Land for development is in high demand. The metropolis is growing fast. So these schools can be shut down by authorities at any time to make room for development. Container classrooms can be moved; bricks and mortar cannot.

Education for the 21st century in China is online

Just south of the Little Swan Migrant’s School, China’s elite Universities are training the 'best and the brightest'. The Peking University, Tsinghua University and Renmin are located merely 20 kilometers away and yet - they are light years away from the Little Swan School. Chances are slim that Ju Fei and his classmates will go to any one of these Universities.

At these Universities, and the NGOs they partner with, economists are thinking about the future of China and how to deal with educational and economic disparity. And they are coming up with innovative answers. One such innovator is economist, Dr. Min Tang. He is driving a vision to bring high-quality education to all classrooms in the country through the internet. Imagine: one large screen that provides the best training possible to an entire classroom. Rural students typically don’t have individual computers. The quality of teachers at rural and migrant schools is often low. So with this solution, the local teacher can show high-quality instructional internet videos to the entire class and then guide students through offline exercises.

Chinese entrepreneurs need to be nurtured

China is placing a lot of hope and money in internet learning. NGOs, like YouChange, are at the forefront of developing online learning models that work. Now, more than 60% of high school graduates attend a University (up from 20% in the 1980s).* Many worry however that the Chinese economy will not provide the majority of them with well-paying and highly-skilled jobs. Therefore, the future belongs to entrepreneurs, according to Dr. Min Tang and the YouChange team leading the Startup Cafe. People who have a business idea and who know how to launch and manage a profitable business will be the ones to propel the Chinese economy forward. How are they going to learn those entrepreneurial skills? Through online learning, of course. The Startup Cafe’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is designed to help Chinese students understand how to start a business so they can create those
highly-skilled jobs.

Let’s ‘fast forward’ to the China of the future and the vision of the leaders at YouChange: children like Ju Fei will be receiving a high-quality education regardless of where they live – with the help of the internet. As a result, they will have better opportunities for higher education and – just maybe – they will launch a business that improves their neighborhood or changes the world.

As a participant in the SAP Social Sabbatical Program in Beijing, it was a privilege for me to have the chance to learn about educational and entrepreneurship opportunities in China while contributing to the work of the Startup Cafe at YouChange, China Social Entrepreneur Foundation.

*Source: The New York Times “The China Boom”. Nov. 5, 2010.