HONG KONG: 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. 5 after coming in at fourth as recently as yesterday morning. 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 programmes 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 programmes for teachers and minimise 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.
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. — Bloomberg
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