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DingTalk: Where the “Teacher” Really Is Always Watching You

The COVID-19 quarantine has spiked both virtual workplaces and classrooms in China, highlighting anger at the surveillance

Students and employees in China, like many across the globe, are adjusting to learning or working from home under quarantine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the app that the Chinese school system is using has angered many students.

DingTalk (in Chinese, Ding Ding) is a clock in/clock out virtual meeting program provided by Chinese retail giant Alibaba. The company recently added features such as homework assignments, online grading, and online test-taking to develop a virtual classroom for about 50 million students. But students have flooded DingTalk with one-star reviews in hopes of getting it booted from the App Store:

For many Chinese students, the app has stripped them of the already very limited freedoms they had during this unexpected time out of school. Some complained that the clock in/out function means they can’t sleep late, and have to follow the school’s schedule at home.

“Thanks to the app, the piles of homework finally came back to me again and I can see the loving faces of teachers everyday! I love it so much, my beautiful DingTalk!” wrote a student… sarcastically on the app’s IOS page.

Jane Li, “What is DingTalk, Alibaba’s Slack Equivalent that Quarantined Kids in China Hate?” at Quartz

DingTalk’s management responded by posting a video asking students to stop giving one-star reviews, pointing out that it is not DingTalk’s fault that students have homework to do

Of course students will be students and some online truants were even paying companies to attend online classes for them. That said, according to critics, DingTalk probably deserves its one-star rating.

All management all the time

This isn’t the first time DingTalk has received bad press. First launched in 2015, it is now used by 10 million companies for intraoffice communication—even when employees are not at work. Like Slack, which has its own set of critics, DingTalk has some added features that allow managers to keep tabs on their employees twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week. Some employees consider that “Orwellian” and invasive.

“I really feel DingTalk is like hell, especially when I finally have some time off and want to have a good sleep but am awakened by ‘Ding’ messages,” said one user. “DingTalk is a high-tech, modern day shackle used by management to treat employees as slaves,” commented another user. (Li, Quartz)

Slack, which doesn’t seem designed with user well-being in mind, has at least responded to user feedback by adding topic threads to its chat feature. But DingTalk, unusually for the software business, doesn’t seem to care what users think of its product. On the contrary, it calls its critics “lazy.” This is because DingTalk’s target client isn’t the user; it’s the manager. According to a tech critic, this priority is readily apparent in the app’s poor user interface:

The indifference to users of DingTalk is reflected in confusing UI/UX design. It has too many features, and users can easily get lost. Even key features such as Ding are a mess: to be recognized as have read a specific Ding message in-app, one needs to press “message” on the left bottom corner, and then “Ding” on the right top corner, and then open the message manually.

Weiqi Liu, “ To Work Smart, China Should Delete DingTalk” at TechNode

And employees are expected to smile about it

As the Chinese Slack alternative, DingTalk crosses the line from intrusive to creepy. Li and Liu listed some of them:

● Employees are automatically clocked in and clocked out when their phones reach their company’s WiFi. Employers can track tardiness to the minute and monitor lunch breaks.

● GPS tracking and automatic connection to a WiFi signal enables an employer to check if the employee really did have a doctor’s appointment.

● “Ding alerts” will alert a user through a notification (“ding”) and if an employee doesn’t answer the ding within a certain amount of time, it will text and call.

● Employees sign into the app using facial recognition in which they are required to smile to log in. The app then evaluates who had the best smile and posts it as a way to promote a positive work environment.

Does all this improve performance?

Do virtual classrooms and remote work interfaces actually lead to better learning, creativity, and productivity? An increasing number of studies cast doubt on that.

For example, in MIT Technology Review (December 19, 2019), Natalie Wexler explores whether students actually benefit from learning from devices. Her article looked at both in-class device use and home learning (“flipped” classrooms). Test scores and other performance measures show that students retain less when they read from a screen and are less motivated to participate when asked a question on a screen rather than by a person present with them. This finding was particularly pronounced in the younger grades.

In Reclaiming Conversation Sherry Turkle argues that the classroom is a dynamic interaction but a student in front of a screen is within a “cone of distraction.”

In the workplace, virtual meetings are helpful but virtual monitoring is not. Critics of Slack say that real-time communication does little to promote productivity and team work; that it tends to be addicting and disorganized. Employees intensely dislike the feature that reports whether they are online because remote workers feel pressured to be online all the time. This pressure leads to fragmented work that is constantly interrupted by notifications.

DingTalk bills itself as innovative but it appears, like the other systems, to be based on an antiquated notion of work:

Its logic is that employees’ output depends on their working hours and that the way to get them to put in more hours is watching them more closely… DingTalk doesn’t create bad managers. But it encourages their worst impulses by making over-monitoring available while ignoring the soft skills that build trust in the workplace.

Weiqi Liu, “ To Work Smart, China Should Delete DingTalk” at TechNode

DingTalk, and apps like it, are dehumanizing. Only machines can hum along, responding to every command at any hour of the day. Real human beings need rest and relaxation as well as the ability to work without distractions and to have real-life interactions. China’s students, like other students,may hate homework and attending class online but good education and child development gives children freedom, to varying degrees, to be children. Every human being, whether office worker or high school student, bucks against digital harnesses.


Also by Heather Zeiger:

Censorship? But coronavirus doesn’t care! Back when SARS was a threat, social media wasn’t the giant it is today. Censorship, secrecy, and detention are less effective tools of control now.

and

Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data. Liu Hu sums up the scene in a few words: “Outside of China, journalists are fired for writing false reports… Inside China, they are fired for telling the truth.”


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

DingTalk: Where the “Teacher” Really Is Always Watching You