While many teachers have embraced social websites (twitter, facebook, Google+) to engage students outside of the classroom and expand opportunities for learning, the vast majority of teachers have had little to no exposure to the social website with the most users in the world: Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging website. Given the growing number of Chinese students in western universities and high schools, knowledge of Weibo (pronounced “way-bwuh”) is essential – if you work with Chinese students, Weibo is without a doubt the best way to extend learning outside of class.
The below is not a guide to using Weibo (setting up an account, posting, following people, etc). Others have already written excellent guides (such as Bill Bishop’s “Inside Sina Weibo” presentation), and I have no desire to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I’d like to make some suggestions on how to use the website based upon my own experiences using Weibo with my own students.
What is Weibo?
Weibo is most commonly described as “Chinese twitter”, and is the most popular micro-blogging platform in China. Weibo has more than twice the number of active users than twitter does, and many argue that Weibo offers better/richer features. Like twitter, Weibo lets users write 140 character messages, which can be shared, forwarded, or commented upon. Weibo also allows sharing of pictures, movies, and audio – generally in ways superior to those offered by twitter. We will look at some of these below and think about how to make the most of them.
Why use Weibo?
Because of China’s aggressive blocking of foreign social websites (twitter, facebook, Google+), only Chinese social websites can be accessed reliably in China. This means that most Chinese students do not maintain accounts on foreign websites, or, if they do, cannot count on having reliable access to them. This gives the Chinese social sites an amazing amount of traction among Chinese people.
When Chinese students go to the US, UK, Australia, or other western countries to study, they may open facebook/G+/twitter accounts to network with “foreign” friends, but it is likely that they will continue to maintain their Chinese social accounts as a way to keep in touch with friends back at home.
Weibo is the site that you Chinese students are most likely to look at in their spare time. By posting content to Weibo, you are able to engage students in a familiar, less formal setting that may make them more receptive to learning.
I find Weibo preferable to twitter because it does a great job of allowing conversations – comments on your posts appear directly underneath the post:
Second, having a Weibo will make you seem impossibly cool and “with it”. Since Weibo is still a Chinese language-only website, non-Chinese on the site are still relatively rare. My experience has been that students will be curious to follow you and see what you might post. Simple, even silly topics can generate discussion:
Most interestingly (and possibly most importantly), students can use Weibo to ask indirect questions. In several cases, when students were unsure of assignments they would write tweets in Chinese describing their problem or concerns and including my Weibo handle (@lukesclass). The students who did this generally were shy or lacked confidence in their English abilities. Writing a note in Chinese and “at-ing” me fell within their comfort level, and I was happy to reply (after I spent some time with a dictionary to make sure I understood the message).
What are the drawbacks to Weibo?
First, and most important, the website is entirely in Chinese. An English version of Weibo has been claimed to be in the works since early 2012, but until then, anyone who cannot read Chinese will need to have patience and be willing to use some decidedly inelegant solutions, like in-browser pop-up dictionaries; I use the Zhongwen Chrome extension.
Like the rest of the Chinese intranet, Weibo is actively censored. While posts in English are not as actively censored as those in Chinese, it can be onerous to worry about the content of what is being posted…or wonder if the websites you have linked to may be blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”, meaning that people in China cannot access the sites without using software to get around the government’s internet filters. (You can check if individual websites are accessible via GreatFirewallOfChina.org.) That being said, students can see the benefits of using English online when Chinese-language posts are censored but English-language posts on the same topic are not.
The screengrab above is an example of this. In July, 2012 dozens died after Beijing and the surrounding area flooded. Fangshan, the city in which my school is located, was especially hard hit. I used Weibo to get information from students about how they were faring. Some students responded with photos of the flooding; these posts were eventually censored, but English-language replies are still on Weibo.
Finally, there is no weibo equivalent to the #edchat twitter hashtag, so posting English-language content can sometime seem like a solitary endeavor. However, weibo does have the #daily english# tag. If you type #english in your Weibo window, the #daily english# hashtag will pop up as an option:
Using this tag in your posts can help to draw new eyes to your posts and connect with other English-language posters. Alternatively, you could start appending your own hashtags to posts and see if any catch on.
I hope the above has convinced you of the usefulness of using Weibo to engage your Chinese students. Being active on Sina Weibo can let you engage with your students in a safe, comfortable environment, possibly giving them the courage to ask questions that they might not be willing to ask in class.