Born into a farmer's family in Luocheng, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Liang Yanfang, 16, a Mulao ethnic minority girl, had no idea what a computer looked like two years ago.
With her parents working away from their village in the Guangzhou, she lived with her grandma, often feeling disconnected from the outside world.
But her life took a turn when she entered the four-story Deshan Middle School, probably the most luxurious building in Longan township, where dilapidated brick or thatched houses are common.
"For the first time in my life I saw a real computer," said Liang.
Every week, Liang goes to the computer classroom twice, to learn how to use software like Word and Excel, and Internet search engines like Baidu.
"Computers have opened my eyes and helped my study. And now I have a dream to go to college in a large city," said Liang with a timid smile.
Liang is just one of millions of beneficiaries of the educational programme called "Partners in Learning," (PiL) launched by Microsoft China in co-operation with China's Ministry of Education on November 20, 2003.
Under the agreement, which began in 2003 and ends in 2008, Microsoft will contribute over US$10 million in investment, donations and other forms of support to help furnish computer education and computer-aided teaching programmes in primary, junior middle and teachers' schools, especially those in rural and remote areas.
Building 100 computer classrooms and developing a training system for IT teachers are two main components of the programme, said Zuo Jingyun, director of education in charge of PiL in Microsoft China.
"We believe the combination of IT and education is a crucial factor in eliminating the digital gap between urban and rural areas, and promoting educational development as a whole," Zuo said.
Those children who come from the poor mountainous regions like Liang have the opportunity to learn IT courses and boost their academic study based on the same advanced facilities as urban children.
"For our children from the mountainous regions, computers bring the outside world closer," said Wei Wenxin, principal of Deshan Middle School.
Microsoft China invested over 200,000 yuan (US$24,660) in opening the school's computer classroom in 2004. It includes 30 desktop computers, with the latest version of Microsoft Windows software, alongside a server, a projector, a laptop and a video camera.
Computer-aided Chinese Teaching
Two years earlier, the school had one classroom with some outdated computers.
"Computer classrooms have really changed my teaching style," said Zhang Shoujian, Liang's Chinese language teacher. He is only one of some 10 teachers in Deshan who engage themselves in combining computers with their teaching.
Zhang is the pioneer. He was the first to try out Chinese language instruction with the aid of a computer and one of the first teachers to receive IT training under the programme.
Zhang now uses PowerPoint to design his Chinese writing course, and moves the class whenever possible from the regular classroom to the computer room so that he can teach them with PowerPoint slides. He also demonstrates to them how to do research on the Internet for their essays.
The new-style teaching is mesmerizing students. Liang said she is eager to attend a Chinese writing course in a computer room.
"We are glad to have a class in the computer room and unhappy if we can not," said Liang.
In the past, Zhang had to push students to finish written compositions.
But now they enjoy Chinese writing courses in the computer room, especially when they cross-evaluate each other's compositions voluntarily on the blog they set up on MSN Spaces named "Internet Garden," said Zhang.
"Teaching becomes enriched and flexible, and thus arouses students' interest, especially in courses like Chinese writing, biology and maths," Wei Wenxin said.
Despite the successes, the school still finds it difficult to apply the computer-aided teaching in all important courses at the school.
The reason is simple: There are not enough computers in a school with some 1,400 students and 80 teachers.
Teachers often compete with each other to use the computer classroom with access to the Internet. They have to book it several days early, but sometimes even booking cannot guarantee the room.
Most students are not as lucky as Liang. She was recruited last August into the school's only IT training group that has 27 students. These students were recruited because of excellent academic records.
"My classmates envy me because I can use a computer twice a week as a member of the IT training group," said Liang, adding that other students may use it only once every two weeks.
Wei said the school needed some more computer classrooms to satisfy the needs of students and teachers.
Zuo Jingyun admits the programme cannot meet the needs of all children in rural and remote areas.
"We would like to work together with other concerned organizations to address this problem, so that more students and teachers are able to realize their potential," Zuo said.
With two years left before the deadline of the joint programme, Zuo said that more needs to be done.
"We should strengthen and expand the programme so that it can become sustainable in the future.
"We believe that the successful methods and experience harvested in this programme can be widely used as a long term reference in China's educational field, even when the PiL programme ends in 2008," Zuo said.
(China Daily April 11, 2006)