On the one hand, technologies such as video conferencing software and online learning applications enabled school-going children to make a smooth transition to online learning during lockdowns. Thanks to these technologies, children could continue with their education, attending classes and participating in other learning opportunities from home, without much disruption. Meanwhile, parents could maintain contact with their children’s schools and teachers and acquire real-time feedback on the academic performance of their kids to better support their online learning.
The same technologies, however, also entailed new parental duties and challenges during the lockdowns. Children had virtually unlimited access to digital devices and more autonomy in using them, often without the direct supervision of parents with work commitments. Many parents lamented to us that their children’s technology use was getting “out of control”. Typically, they engaged in recreational activities such as chatting with friends, playing mobile games, and watching videos all day long, even during online classes. In view of the potentially detrimental impact of excessive technology use on their children’s education and health, some parents we interviewed chose to quit their full-time jobs or to install cameras or other surveillance devices at home to monitor their children closely.
Getting ahead and staying ahead
Chinese parents’ zeal to be involved in their children’s academic development is unsurprising, given the country’s notoriously competitive gaokao (高考) exam for entry into university. And technology has served to intensify parental responsibility for their children’s educational endeavors. In our research with Chinese families over the past five years, we have observed an increasing use of mobile applications for education and communication purposes among parents of all socioeconomic brackets. For them, parent-teacher conferencing and class management apps such as DingTalk (钉钉), Yiqixue (一起学), and Banji youhua dashi (班级优化大师) have become indispensable for ensuring that their children keep up with their studies.
These educational platforms provide a wide range of education-related functions, including curriculum schedules, homework management tools, notifications, online courses, parent-teacher communication channels, and shared drives for uploading learning resources and assignments. They are widely employed by most primary and secondary school teachers as well as parents in urban China. The intensive use of these applications facilitates efficient, real-time teacher-parent interaction through which teachers provide feedback on children’s academic performance at school and disseminate daily instructions for parents to assist children in their studies. Parents, in turn, have to respond to these requests, while keeping on top of their children’s educational progress and outcomes.
Given such a climate, it is unlikely that an online tuition ban would quash the thirst for academic hothousing. Furthermore, not only may the crackdown fail to relieve the parental burdens of time and investment, it may instead trigger greater panic and competitiveness, and eventually force parents (usually mothers) to sacrifice their careers to personally tutor their children or to seek illegal underground tuition services. Some schools have responded to the new policy by launching new programs requiring students to stay behind after school for compulsory self-study and “interest-oriented” classes. Even primary school students have to stay behind until 6pm before their parents can pick them up. Understandably, parents have not fully welcomed such initiatives.