Using WeChat to explore parents' perspectives on early years education in China
Parents are increasingly making use of social media to discuss issues related to education and parenting. This phenomenon is especially true of China where parents are adopting WeChat, the leading social media app, to access educational information and discuss their views and concerns. However, very few researchers have employed social media as a means to study parents’ views. As WeChat provides an unprecedented opportunity to gain insights into parents’ perspectives, the aim of this study was to investigate the ways in which its use revealed: i) parents’ views on, and aspirations for, their children’s early years education and ii) how they perceived their roles in fulfilling these educational aspirations. To achieve the aims, I employed an innovative combination of methodologies including a four‐month virtual ethnography of one WeChat parent group comprising over 400 participants and in‐depth audio call interviews with eight members of the group. Parents’ online activities and transcriptions of audio interviews were analysed with the help of WeChat’s search function and by drawing on concepts including concerted cultivation (Lareau, 2011) and Chinese parents’ ‘educational desire’ (Kipnis, 2011). The study found that ke wai ban (out‐of‐school classes) were one of the major ways for parents to be involved in their children’s early years education against a backdrop of China’s transitional era in which the country aimed to become a world innovation hub and economic powerhouse. Parents engaged in ke wai ban to enhance their children’s academic competitiveness and cultivate their suzhi (human quality). Parents’ educational aspirations were further reflected in their management of, and preparation for, a series of tests that would take place years into the future. The study contributes insights into the ways that parents conceptualised early years education not as a separate learning stage but as part of a long‐term educational project in which early academic learning was complementary to the cultivation of children’s neoliberal values. The study illustrates how parents realised the dilemma and tensions and how they negotiated and theorised their conflicting educational orientations, selecting certain aspects of education in Western countries to manufacture a version which could be used to justify their views and aspirations for Chinese early years education. Parents used this process to fulfil their responsibility to prepare for their children’s uncertain future in a time of change. Methodologically, this study demonstrates how social media, specifically WeChat, could be a venue for ethnographic study on education.