On a recent Thursday evening, Zhang Zehao, a seventh grader in Tianjin, China, braced himself for extra math assignments posted by his teacher on WeChat, a messaging app. At 7 p.m., his mother received a picture on her phone: a piece of paper with three handwritten geometry problems concerning parallel lines. He didn’t receive any other assignments that evening; after all, it was only the fourth day of the spring semester.
Since Tencent launched WeChat in 2011, the app has pervaded Chinese life. The company reported that it had 650 million monthly active users as of the end of last September. In a society that places paramount importance on academic success, WeChat has quickly become intertwined with education, tapping into a particularly Chinese cultural dynamic and in some cases exploiting it.
Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis of 30 million in southwestern China, has required all kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools to open official WeChat accounts before the end of June this year to streamline communication with parents and students.
For Zehao, the app is a forum for extra homework and a billboard for misbehavior at school, and the group chat puts everything under the scrutinizing eye of the entire class. “The intention was good, because teachers wanted to work closely with parents to improve the children’s academic performance,” says his mother, Chen Zongying, 43. “But it stresses you out.”
One night in January, when schoolchildren all over China were preparing for the final exams prior to winter break, Zehao’s math teacher called at 10 p.m.: she told him there were mistakes in the geometry drills he had just posted on WeChat. The teacher urged him to correct his drills and post a picture of the rewritten ones as soon as possible so she could review them before midnight. Math is not Zehao’s favorite subject, so he often turns in those assignments late on WeChat. In the meantime, his mother’s phone beeps as other students file their assignments and the teacher sends reminders. Chen says she sometimes has to silence her phone.
Experts agree that the messaging app is intensifying the round-the-clock pressure that already pervades China’s education system. “It infringes on students’ privacy and affects the development of their character,” says Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of 21st Century Education Research Institute. “We should be clear about the ways in which this technology platform can be used.”
Zehao is skeptical about how WeChat can help students learn better: the app has not only made filing assignments instant but has also made sharing and copying completed assignments instant. “The app is actually not that helpful,” he says. A spokeswoman for Tencent declined to comment.
For younger students, the use of WeChat is less cutthroat but still intrusive. On his first day of school this spring semester, Li Guibin, a third grader in Tianjin, had the afternoon off because it was the Lantern Festival. After he got home, his math teacher sent a reminder to his class group about the division drills students needed to finish that afternoon, but at least the drills were to be turned in the next morning, not via WeChat on the same day. “When he was in first grade, some parents had very old phones and were not familiar with WeChat,” says Guibin’s mother, Zhuang Yanfei, 30. “But they all bought new phones and learned to use it.”
Not every school goes to such extremes when incorporating WeChat into classrooms. Yan Xu, who teaches third-grade Chinese language and literature in Tianjin, says in addition to informing parents of school events, her school uses WeChat only to showcase excellent homework. “If we praise the good ones, other parents will encourage their kids to work hard too,” she says.
But nurturing young minds takes more than that. “WeChat is just the latest platform that intermediates interactions between teachers, parents, students,” says Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher who studies social media and the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “No intervention around the technology will make any difference if the pressure-cooker culture doesn’t change.”