The impact of WeChat in a Beijing-based learning environment
Since its release in 2011, WeChat has become a widespread social media platform across China, providing instant messaging with peer-to-peer texting, group messaging, voice and video calls, (Montag et al. 2018), evolving to recent days into a multipurpose application integrating payment options, newsfeed, city services, games, and various embedded programs. WeChat also became intertwined with education (Sun, 2016), as a taken for granted pedagogical medium, already well-established in Chinese learning environments before the Covid-19 pandemic started. However, from early 2020 to late 2022, Beijing has endured several offline-online shifts due to official restrictions, in which WeChat has become indispensable not only to interact with others but also, in the educational context discussed in this essay, to teach and tutorise groups of students.
The context in which WeChat is studied is a Beijing-based Foundation course in Art and Design (FAD), which prepares Chinese students of seventeen to twenty years old for their undergraduate course in the UK. Although many learning environments opted for working with learning platforms when online learning was enforced, this institution kept using WeChat as its primary tool. However, the platform seems to have a different impact on pedagogy when working offline and online as agency seems to be distributed differently. These observations will be discussed, underpinned by a model of entangled pedagogy to a more precise study of WeChat as infrastructure.
WeChat in an entangled pedagogy framework
When living in China, one could rightfully ask whether WeChat is primarily determined by society and then, once implemented in a learning environment, determines pedagogy. Sun (2016, p.14) recalls that “Chinese society places a paramount importance on academic success”, emphasising that sociocultural attitudes might have shaped WeChat as technology. Once the application entered the sphere of use, it started to take “multiple meanings for different people and groups of people” (Martin, 1999, p.406), thus chosen by schools to communicate directly with families and progressively deliver teaching content. As Sun continues (2016, p.14), “experts agree that the messaging app is intensifying the round-the-clock pressure in China’s education system”, which builds on how, once widely implemented, technology enhances a social practice that was already there, showing that “practice is reshaped in reference to technology but through the exercises of power within social contexts” (Oliver, 2011, p.379).
It could also be said that technology has agency and is not neutral; WeChat being unquestioned because “efficiency and productivity replace political and ethical questions about use” (ibid, p.374). For example, as a teacher in China, one could not just ignore the application or even replace it given the power it has acquired over the years. However, by refuting this binary approach, pedagogy and technology would be better seen entangled in a greater frame where all elements co-constitute each other as “there is no method without technology, no values without context, and so forth” (Fawns, 2022, p.723). A model of entangled pedagogy should not privilege any form of determinism, whether pedagogy-led on one side or technology-led on the other side (Fawns, 2022; Matthews, 2021), therefore calling for a complex negotiation between all interdependent actors, WeChat included, to be further discussed in the following paragraphs.
WeChat in the built and digital learning environments
The TPACK framework draws a similar meeting ground where technology, pedagogy and content are interconnected, underpinning a skilled and meaningful teaching with technology (Asamoah, 2019), but such balanced relationships were never totally met. In Beijing’s pre-pandemic learning environments, WeChat was primarily a communication technology while its other use in delivering teaching content, previewing or consolidating what was learned, was increasingly present but not dominant. Although most learning would happen in the classroom, the term ‘blended learning’ would already define a “before class, in class and after class reality” (Yang, 2017), given that teachers would use WeChat to make announcements before the class and give extended tasks afterwards. In the built environment, WeChat seems to be “one of a number of elements” (Fawns, 2022, p.724) to be put in relation in an assembly of elements with pedagogy, content, values and ethics; but still a technology closer to the instrumentalist side of the continuum.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic brought forward the function of delivering teaching content, as WeChat was already considered an indispensable social infrastructure, accessible, trusted and vital in people’s everyday life (Pierson, 2021). As such, it would be empowered by users entrusting it with a new role; mediating learning and redistributing agency by reducing the decision-making power of teachers (Hamilton and Friesen, 2013). The chat group would become a virtual classroom, by locating learning at home rather than at school, and a new set of entanglements had to be rearranged where the digital and the physical would relate differently to each other. It is possible that technology had driven pedagogy in the first months of lockdown as everyone was unprepared and pedagogical practice had to change drastically, but then a more balanced approach was found when learning applications made their appearance. However, that was not the case for the Foundation course discussed in this essay, as both institution and students made an implicit choice not to engage with other platforms, mainly for practical reasons, which led WeChat to closely be an end in itself, having “the potential to determine educational practices” (Matthews, 2021, p.212) and reverting the existing entanglement.
WeChat in online learning with undergraduate students
As we have seen, in the built environment’s entangled pedagogy, WeChat could be argued to be closer to an instrumentalist rather than an essentialist perspective in the continuum between both (Hamilton and Friesen, 2013), but when the shift to online learning takes place, the range in the continuum changed too. Fawns’ model of entangled pedagogy (2022) discusses that negotiations take place but does not mention the different degrees of complexity that such negotiations may present. For example, in the last three years of pandemic restrictions, the FAD course would experience times where learning was totally offline, then blended between online and offline class, but in more severe outbreaks, learning would be fully online, where both teachers and students were required to stay at home. In the context of a tutoring centre where tutoring is more important than teaching, WeChat was taken for granted as main medium between teachers and students, prevailing the qualitative approach of the chat.
As tutor of a small group of six students working online, I would use the application to send them the week’s schedule, share Tencent links for lectures, receive their updated work in a file before their weekly tutorial, call them for the tutorial, use the video or screenshared options, send my feedback after the call, mention directly a student to know where they are, not without mentioning that communicating with colleagues, administrators and supervisors would happen through the same medium as shown in Figure 1. In the shift from offline to online learning, teachers and students’ dependency to WeChat grew even more, and the complexity of the negotiation between human and nonhuman elements within the entangled pedagogy framework increased drastically, giving more agency to nonhuman agents. As stated by Hughes (2021, p.101), “a technological system can be both a cause and an effect; it can shape or be shaped by society. As they grow larger and more complex, systems tend to be more shaping of society and less shaped by it”.
WeChat as inappropriate learning technology
WeChat is a messaging app, and by acknowledging such uncontested function, one can logically deduce that a ‘group chat’ format is simply not designed for teaching and learning. While actual educational technologies possess technical forms of “measuring, monitoring and managing education systems, institutions, staff and students” (Williamson et al. 2022, p.2), WeChat does not have any of that. As other issues, the chat format can turn long texts sent by teachers obsolete as easily ignored by students; distractions are more than recurrent as the same app has games, subscriptions, and social feed; as well as the lines between private life and school life are blurred as all chats are mixed in the same place. Besides, instructional designers already alerted us that WeChat had “no clear paths for duplicating, customizing, and storing educational content effectively” (Fang, 2016), as one could lose documents in a conversation flow mixed with stickers. WeChat as technical choice for delivering content is that it shapes practice more than it allows a teacher to configure the technology.
When Adams (2006, p.393) discusses PowerPoint as a pedagogical tool, we could say the same for WeChat, that a teacher is “simultaneously aided, enmeshed, and constrained by particular design decisions embedded in this software”. But after discussing its inappropriateness, we could also say that the screenshare option when doing a group call benefited the tutorial or mentioning a student by writing the sign ‘@’ with their name would let WeChat highlight the message for them even though the group was silenced, recalling Latour (2021, p.106) that “when humans are displaced and deskilled, nonhumans have to be upgraded and reskilled”. However, these few options did not necessarily turn WeChat into a learning technology given its characteristics as messaging app and essence as social media.
This essay has discussed WeChat and its impact on pedagogy in the context of a Beijing-based Foundation course and, more specifically, in its offline and online learning environments during the Covid-19 pandemic. The model of an entangled pedagogy has been used to underpin that the relation between human and nonhuman elements is certainly negotiated, but although it may be mutually shaped in offline settings it seems less evident when working online. In both cases the entanglement exists but the terms and degree of complexity in which the negotiation takes place varies. At last, this study considers that although better learning programs will be designed or a return to the physical classroom might be imminent, WeChat will perdure in educational activities, influencing them and complexifying the entangled combinations of all the elements involved in both built and digital learning environments.