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Nov 03, 2016

Over the past year, I have been trying to help providers of online education courses in both China and the U.S. form partnerships with each other. Originally, I asked my Chinese clients to consider using learning management systems (LMS) such as Instructure's Canvas or Blackboard’s CourseSites.

LMS platforms provide a virtual space in which teachers and students can interact. Teachers can set exams, facilitate discussion, review assignments, and assign grades. As most brands of LMS can also host a variety of apps, learners can use them to access digital textbooks, YouTube videos, classroom discussions, and even learning games.

However, upon hearing my suggestion, the client insisted we use WeChat. This struck me as strange: As an instant messaging app, WeChat has not been designed to offer the same features to students as LMS platforms.

For educators in the U.S. and across the developed world more generally, the term “online education” calls to mind brands like Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, or Schoology. All of these platforms allow instructors to collate their teaching content and replicate it for easy access within an LMS. The worldwide market for LMS platforms is expected to grow at an average of nearly 25 percent per year until 2021. 

Almost every American higher education institution uses some kind of LMS, but China has been comparatively slower to adopt them. Blackboard, with two offices in China, only serves around 300 customers — a very small number given the potential size of the Chinese market. An acquaintance at Canvas, meanwhile, tells me that the company has merely a single office serving a handful of customers in Hong Kong, and has no presence in mainland China. It should hardly be surprising, then, that during my trips to China, the term “LMS” is often met with confused looks.

Students defect in droves to Facebook or Instagram once online course requirements are met. If they are already avid users of WeChat, why try to force an alternative on them?

Nevertheless, investors are pouring billions of dollars into online education in China. According to a report by professional services firm Deloitte, private equity and venture capital investment in education grew from 6 billion yuan ($888 million) in 2014 to approximately 27 billion yuan in 2015.

As China’s most widely used instant messaging platform, WeChat has already been used by some star educators to create wildly successful business startups. One example is “Logical Thinking” by Luo Zhenyu, a former television news anchor whose charismatic talk shows pack a lot of content into an easily digestible format. Luo’s business also sells books and products he references during his WeChat sessions.

Others have started businesses selling webinars or one-on-one coaching sessions. Students can watch anything from scientists giving lessons on quantum physics to professors offering writing workshops for students applying to college. Mountaineers, hikers, and photographers also give lessons to amateur enthusiasts.

It is the success of “WeChat educators” that has made my clients rather resistant to the idea of purchasing a separate LMS. Yet as someone long accustomed to using them, the idea of co-opting WeChat as an educational tool baffled me.

For one, WeChat lacks commonly used tools such as course calendars, assignments, quizzes, and grade books. In addition, it does not feature the kind of scalability and reusability that instructional designers like me consider essential for the success of learning platforms. There are no clear paths for duplicating, customizing, and storing educational content effectively, which affects the consistency of course content from semester to semester.

Yet despite my skepticism, the WeChat bubble has not burst. Instead, it has made me reexamine my own assumptions about online teaching and learning, which have mostly applied to formal educational settings such as high schools or colleges. The sheer ubiquity of WeChat challenged my ideas of why grades should matter, and why we still bother with paper assignments.

Most importantly, I came to ask myself why certain educational experiences should be replicated online at all. Of course, replication creates incentives for teachers to sell their expertise multiple times over at minimal cost. On the other hand, it may harm some teachers’ interests, as they may find that schools will hire other teachers to facilitate courses that they have already created and uploaded online.

I have also become increasingly aware that WeChat has prospered where traditional forms of LMS have failed. An LMS aspires to promote social interaction that goes beyond what is merely required by the teacher or institution. For example, many teachers demand that students participate in discussions and blogs, but students defect in droves to Facebook or Instagram once online course requirements are met. If they are already avid users of WeChat, why try to force an alternative on them?

Instead of going toe-to-toe with social media websites, WeChat learning allows teachers to take education to where students already are. In doing so, it creates organic ways for people to communicate and collaborate. Groups that serve personal interests, professional organizations, and other communities make the platform conducive to learning anywhere, anytime.

Now, Chinese companies like Guokr — a leading knowledge-sharing website that specializes in popular science — are seeing WeChat as a gateway to creating offshoot systems like Zaihang and Fenda, where users pay industry experts to answer individual questions.

By using WeChat’s user authentication procedure, both products harness the platform’s vast customer base. Although these fragmented interactions are generally poorly orchestrated, participants are still eager to listen, contribute, and gather feedback. Some group members are eager to impress with their specialized knowledge. Others may have immediate questions they want to address.

Mobile technology has ushered in an age in which informal, personalized, lifelong learning has been liberated from the confines of the classroom. However, we are still feeling our way forward when it comes to accomplishing mobile learning effectively. While WeChat may not have the immediate built-in conveniences of existing LMS products, its market penetration is second to none. For LMS vendors in China, the solution may not lie in creating an independent platform, but rather in adapting their systems to something people already know.

(Header image: A photo illustration shows the logo of WeChat on a mobile device in Shanghai, March 12, 2014. Amanda Wang/AFP/VCG)