People use social networking tools such as WeChat for communication, entertainment and information, but many don't realise that they can actually have classes via an app. Du Hongjun, a product manager for an IT company at the time, organised a playwriting course on WeChat in August, conducted by two influential screenwriters, Chen Qiuping and Yu Fei. About 120 people participated and they were divided into four classes. The training ended last month and a new session is ongoing.
"It breaks the limit of space. You can listen to the audio chat logs and you don't have to rent a place for classes," says the 32-year-old Du from Beijing, who established the public account Bianjubang (group of screenwriters) in April as a platform for playwrights to connect with one another. He founded Beijing Xiaobangzhichun Culture Media Company to operate the WeChat account.
He says there are more than 20,000 screenwriters in China. The number of TV series produced every year is about 400 or 500, but only 300 will be broadcast, and fewer than 150 are profitable.
"The market has potential but the competition is fierce, and young playwrights need training. We tried to organise training classes but it's not easy to coordinate the schedules of the teachers and the students. Some students are not even in Beijing," says Du, who studied screenwriting in university.
He was in the IT industry previously, so he thought: Why not combine playwriting with IT?
Many students are in their 20s and 30s, and have a foundation in playwriting. Some are screenwriters or work in related fields. Participants can sign up on the Bianjubang's account and have a two-hour class every week. The four-week course costs 1,000 yuan ($163).
After the class assistant or monitor announces the beginning of the session, the teacher will take over the WeChat group with audio and photos. Nobody can interrupt until the teacher says it's time for questions.
Students send their homework and questions to the assistant, who will forward them to the teacher.
"I like the teaching pattern more than that of a face-to-face class, because I can listen to the audio repeatedly when I don't understand something. Also, we can interact with the teacher during question time," says Liu Yuelu, 22, an agent for directors in Beijing. She studied drama, film and television writing in college. She prefers learning from an experienced screenwriter because courses at her university are too theoretical.
"Most young screenwriters don't know many people in the same occupation. Such gatherings will help them make friends, and they can keep in touch via the WeChat group after the training has ended," Du says.
He claims that Bianjubang is the first to offer training classes on WeChat, and he's still exploring the model. He says such a teaching pattern can be used for other subjects as well, to teach the basic courses.
However, he admits that a face-to-face class allows for more interaction, and teachers may find it awkward to teach without seeing the students.
Yu, one of the two teachers, couldn't agree more.
"When I stand on the platform in a class to teach, I feel satisfied to see so many eyes staring at me. But when I teach via WeChat, it's like I'm talking to myself because there is no response. You have to adapt to such a big difference," says Yu, who has written many popular Chinese TV series such as The Eternal Wave.
"As nobody is watching me, I can sit or even lie down when I'm teaching," he says, jokingly.
Still, he believes that online learning is a boon for students, who can have classes at home. Those who don't live in Beijing don't have to pay for transportation and accommodation fees.