Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, primary and middle schools in China have been relying on online communication tools like DingTalk to resume classes. Students, however, are not happy about this.

Government measures have left most factories idle, shops and restaurants closed, and forced schools across the country to remain shut. DingTalk, an online collaboration tool owned by Alibaba, was one of the platforms to step in to and facilitate classes as schools go online during the outbreak. In late January, the app launched new online education features such as grading homework, live-streaming classes, and video replays.

Recently, teachers in Japan also started using DingTalk as the government urges schools to remain closed until the end of March.

Chinese students are not enthusiastic about taking online classes at home, to say the least. Many took to social media to vent and to app stores to leave one-star reviews for the platform.

Dingtalk is trying to fight back with the only weapons that work in a meme war:  A deluge of memes and catchy, yet cringe-worthy, apology music videos have flooded social media.

Love to hate

On the first day back to school, DingTalk saw over 50 million students and 600,000 teachers in China using its live-streaming feature to hold online classes. 

One star reviews about DingTalk in iOS store in China. (Image credit: TechNode)

As more schools embraced DingTalk’s new online class feature, the number of downloads soared. Despite being the number one business app in China app stores, DingTalk has gained a bad reputation for enabling companies to micro-manage, monitor, and exploit its employees. Prior to launching online learning tools, DingTalk’s app rating was already unenviable. The app’s rating dropped to close to one star across popular app stores in China and the negative reviews piled up.

According to data from mobile data and analytics company App Annie, Dingtalk received over 15,000 one-star reviews on Feb. 11, and just a little over 2,000 five-star ratings.

Propelled by a rumor that apps rated below one star would get removed, Chinese students organizing a campaign to lower DingTalk’s rating.

In an attempt to appease their anger, Dingtalk uploaded an apology video on Chinese streaming site Bilibili. The video featured memes and cartoons singing a catchy tune with lyrics begging for better reviews like “I know guys, you were not expecting such a productive holiday” and “Please don’t give me any more one-star ratings. I was chosen for this job and there is not much I can do about it.” The video has been viewed nearly 17 million times.

In response to DingTalk’s pleas, a widely circulated joke, students wrote in the review section they were willing to give DingTalk five stars, but in five “installments.”

On Feb. 17, App Annie’s data shows that five-star reviews started to flood in too, balancing the one stars. Some appeared to be written by older users lashing out at the youth: “Students don’t like online classes will turn into adults who don’t want to work. But the reality is they will need to earn money for their family. Students need to study for their future’s sake,” wrote user ddtfyuvf in a review on the iOS app store.

(Image credit: TechNode)

The company has tried to convey sympathy. “It’s in kids’ nature to love to play. If I were in their shoes and had to take online lessons every day, I would probably give a one-star review too”, said Chen Hang, CEO of Dingtalk. DingTalk coders changed the lyrics and live performed another diss track made by Chinese netizens with at the online press conference earlier on Wednesday. 

Students have complaints about DingTalk besides being a vector for homework. A user said on Weibo that her teacher has been giving extra assignments to students, thinking that they are all slacking off at home. Other users complained about technical difficulties, such as stuttering videos during lectures, hampering their learning, while pointing out that some students in remote areas do not have access to the internet at home.

Companies, not users

Parents seem to have fewer problems with DingTalk. “It’s an effective teaching tool,” a teacher writes in one DingTalk app review, “although it stutters from time to time when I use my tablet. It’s been working fine after switching to my smartphone.” A parent wrote: “It’s actually useful. Our child likes to watch live streams and the teacher knows how to keep the class interesting and upbeat. Also, it allows parents to interact with the school and teachers. It brings everyone closer.”. 

The videos seem to have won support from some users. As of Feb. 27, DingTalk had rebounded to 2.6 stars. 

Forced to stay at home, students have more time now to spend on social media, and DingTalk is an easy target. But DingTalk’s clap backs at criticisms and deflection with lighthearted humor is a clever move to deflect criticism. 

In the end, one-star reviews aren’t much of a threat. Maybe they’ll hurt the company’s reputation, but just a small dent. Users will very likely stick with DingTalk whether they like it or not, because companies, schools, and other organizations require them to use it. After all, DingTalk’s primary market is still companies, not users.

Nicole Jao is a reporter based in Beijing. She’s passionate about emerging trends, news, and stories of human interest within the world of technology. Connect with her on Twitter or via email: nicole.jao.iting@gmail.com. More by Nicole Jao

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