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Tencent, Alibaba office apps find fans in virus-affected schools

Tencent and Alibaba have in past years steadily built out their office apps as part of an overall effort to keep users locked into their respective online spheres -- but they’ve always been deemed as a sort of sideline to their main retail and media empires.

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Last Updated: Feb 12, 2020, 10.15 AM IST
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Parents are concerned about the technical limitations and efficiency of such an approach to teaching.
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By Zheping Huang and Kari Lindberg

In coronavirus-hit China, demand for virtual office tools from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. is surging as the world’s largest work-from-home experiment gets into full swing.

But there’s one surprising source of new users -- the country’s teachers and students. With schools shut or delaying reopening to curb the spread of the virus, educators are increasingly turning to workplace technology, adapting it for instruction purposes.

Tencent and Alibaba have in past years steadily built out their office apps as part of an overall effort to keep users locked into their respective online spheres -- but they’ve always been deemed as a sort of sideline to their main retail and media empires. Now, they’ve sprung to the vanguard thanks to the outbreak. Alibaba’s DingTalk is the most downloaded free app in China’s iOS App Store, followed by Tencent Conference. WeChat Work, which is also from Tencent, ranks No. 4. Their new-found popularity offers China’s twin internet giants a chance to stake out an unclaimed multibillion-dollar arena.

DingTalk has been particularly swift in spotting the emerging need in the education sector. Last week, it rolled out a slew of new features for classroom settings, including live-streaming lessons that can have as many as 302 participants and an online testing and grading system. At least 50 million students from elementary to high school across China had signed up for DingTalk’s online teaching programs conducted in tandem with local education authorities as of Feb. 10, Alibaba said in a statement.

In response to the epidemic, Tencent has introduced a variety of initiatives to facilitate online education programs for teachers and minimize disruption to students’ learning, a spokesperson for the company said. In one recent update, WeChat Work made it easier for teachers to live stream in group chats.

Work, Work, Work
A key appeal of DingTalk, Tencent Conference and WeChat is that they are powered by reliable cloud services as well as free, said Ye Le, a Shanghai-based analyst with China Securities. “That’s why they have gained traction during this special period of time,” he said, but added that using such software for education is different from typical corporate situations. “Teaching online is more than just showing PowerPoint slides like in business meetings,” he said.

But it’s students themselves who seem to be the most unimpressed with the likes of DingTalk and Tencent Conference, mercilessly review-bombing them on the App Store -- and not always for technological reasons. “It has doubled my happiness in the holiday, now that I can see my teacher’s resting face,” wrote one student who uses DingTalk. That user gave the app a rating of one star out of five.

The use of technology and the internet for teaching isn’t new in China. Online education has been booming in recent years, with revenue estimated to have reached around $36 billion in 2018, and is expected to more than double in 2022, according to iResearch. That’s given rise to intense competition between established players such as tuition provider New Oriental as well as tech startups like NetEase Youdao and VIPKid, luring students with interactive teachings in courses from coding to English and maths.

What’s different this time is the urgency and scale of the education crisis brought about by the epidemic, and the fact that more schools are depending on free software that was originally designed with the corporate world in mind.

China’s education ministry has pushed back the start of the spring semester in the wake of the virus epidemic, with major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen banning any school activities until at least Feb. 17. With no idea of when exactly school will resume, teachers and parents are concerned about how best to instruct students in the prolonged winter break. The timing is especially critical for high school students who will face the all-important college entrance exam, or gaokao, in June.

Since last week, Fannie Jiao, an English teacher at a secondary school in Shanghai, has been tutoring four ninth-graders on their homework every other day using Tencent Conference. She’s currently using assignments that she originally planned for her brick-and-mortar classroom before the virus outbreak. Her school has told her to get ready to teach all of her three dozen students via the video app once the semester begins. “Face-to-face teaching is always better, but we have to get used to this,” said 28-year-old Jiao. To check on her students, Jiao said she randomly turns on their mics on the Tencent app and asks them questions.

Parents are concerned about the technical limitations and efficiency of such an approach to teaching. Liu Yan from Zhengzhou in central China’s Henan province says her 12-year-old sixth-grader daughter’s school uses DingTalk as well as another platform, ClassIn, that she said allows teachers to constantly monitor student behavior via video. She prefers that app. When using DingTalk “Children can do whatever they want. They can sleep, or not pay attention. Children need to be supervised. How else will they learn?” she said.

--With assistance from Matt Turner.

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