For American teachers, social media is just the latest technological distraction keeping their students from paying attention in the classroom.
In China, the narrative has been subverted. WeChat, a social media platform with well over 600 million users, is so pervasive that teachers have begun using the service as a means of keeping students on task around the clock.
A report by MIT Technology Review described how Chinese students are bombarded with information and updates about new assignments and academic events late into the evening. Sometimes they are even expected to turn in work before the next day.
According to Zhang Zehao, a 7th grade student living in Tianjin, a north Chinese city of about 8 million, WeChat is used in his class as a way for the teacher to connect with students and parents while scrutinizing for misbehavior and assigning extra homework. Not only might he receive a math assignment at 7 p.m., but the interconnected nature of the WeChat system means that his mother is notified as well.
In January, when Zehao and other students were busy studying for final exams ahead of the Chinese New Year vacation, he got a call from his math teacher at 10 p.m. telling him to correct mistakes in his geometry assignment. If he could make the corrections and post them fast enough, she would be able to go over them before midnight.
Zhang’s mother, Chen Zongying, agrees with the underlying motivation to have teachers interact more closely with students, but she said that the app “stresses you out.”
Chinese experts go further and say that educators’ use of social media takes things too far:
“It infringes on students’ privacy and affects the development of their character,” Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Institute, told MIT Technology Review.
Zhang Zehao had a similar, though simpler take: “the app is not actually that helpful.”
WeChat is also used in Tianjin elementary schools, though more as a notification system, not a means of expanding workloads. The MIT Technology Review report noted a case in which all the parents in one elementary class upgraded their phones to be able to use the WeChat app.
Social media use by schools is becoming more popular, though by no means ubiquitous—for now. In Chongqing, a province-level city with 15 million people, schools from kindergarten to grade 12 are required to open official WeChat accounts by June for better contact with parents and students.
Some schools make a point of limiting WeChat use. Yan Xu, a third-grade teacher of Chinese language and literature in Tianjin, told MIT Technology Review that her school only uses the app to showcase excellent homework examples and inform parents about school events.
“If we praise the good ones,” she said, “other parents will encourage their kids to work hard too.”