On a recent winter day in Beijing, Ren Li crawls into bed at 3am, worn out after a long day of taking care of her three-month-old daughter. Despite her exhaustion, she is up promptly at 7 in the morning. But the first thing the doctor, 38, reaches for isn’t a cup of coffee – instead, she grabs her phone and opens an app she can’t stop using.

As soon as Ren logs in, she quickly scrolls down vocabulary lists, reads a chapter of the British detective novel Sherlock Holmes, and then answers questions based on the reading. Without a stop, Ren reaches a highlight of her day: a checkpoint that features the number of words she has read that day as well as her accumulative record.

More importantly for Ren, the checkpoint also offers her a chance to show her achievements to her 200 real and virtual friends when it posts her progress on her social media page.

“For me, reaching that checkpoint is a must,” she says. “I wanted to show my friends how persistent I am and how hard I’ve been studying. Whenever my friends gave me a thumbs-up, that would make my day.”

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Mint Reading, an English-learning app developed by Chengdu Chaoyouai Education Technology, is looking at different ways to motivate students at a time when many people seek validation through “likes” and “shares”. This social aspect is also seen in the company’s Baicizhan app, which enables its 50 million users to challenge each other to vocabulary tests.

Chengdu Chaoyouai Education Technology is hardly alone. In a country where tens of millions of people want to advance their careers yet struggle to continue their learning, educational apps have increasingly leveraged social networking to create peer pressure and keep users going.

The Chinese e-learning market is expected to reach US$86 billion by 2022, up from roughly US$32 billion last year, according to a report published in January by market intelligence firm iResearch. But getting a slice of that multibillion-dollar market is not easy, as many of those who can afford online courses often feel too busy to take one.

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“Mixing social networking with lessons is the way to go,” Zhao Nan, a partner at the international venture capital firm Vertex Ventures in Beijing, says. “Otherwise, it is just too difficult for adult learners to keep to their promise.”

Eric Chang, 22, a student at a business school in Guangzhou, knows this well. The undergraduate who dreams about studying in the United States is driven to improve his English. Even so, he has often given up on language apps after just weeks of use – until he downloaded Mint Reading in late 2016. He has used it everyday since.

“The design of checkpoints has helped me carry on,” Chang explains. “It allows users like me to see how far we have already gone. Once you have marked your progress every day for a long time, you really cannot afford to stop because it is just too painful to see a day missing.”

Mint Reading charges users US$23 for every 100-day study, which involves reading four English-language books.

The company has also benefited from the social media aspect, getting free advertising every time someone shares their progress online.

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“I had come across the ads of Mint Reading before but never bothered to check. But after seeing its name constantly popping up on my friends’ WeChat, I could not wait to find out what it was all about,” says Lisa Huang, 25, a banker in Liuzhou City. One click and Huang has become a user, too.

Since she started in December, five friends of hers have followed suit.

Chengdu Chaoyouai Education Technology declined to say how many registered users it has, but one doesn’t have to search far to find a Mint Reading user on Chinese social media.

Some users say they were on a waiting list for days before grabbing a seat in the digital classroom, which is capped at 500 students.

Hujiang EdTech, a Shanghai company with more than US$157 million in venture capital financing, has also jumped on the trend, creating a full set of social networking elements. In Happy Words, the company’s flagship e-learning app, flashcard exercises are scored and the top 50 students appear on the homepage. Users can challenge each other in online contests or team up with like-minded learners.

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There are also language learning apps that have been designed specifically for Chinese culture. Shanbay taps into the importance the country places on collective values, encouraging users to team up and then rates each team by the contribution of members.

“Basically, social networking has become an essential part of almost every educational app in China,” Mi Yiqian, an iResearch analyst, says.

But what has kept Chinese engaged in learning sometimes can also work against them. Some users say the social networking element is so addictive that they find themselves spending more time socialising than studying.

For others, the social media aspect carries the same annoyances as other sites.

“I actually posted an apology on my WeChat page as soon as I completed my 100-day programme,” says Shi Xingyu, 23, a Mint Reading user. “It was not nice to send my friends the same notification day after day,” Shi explains. “In a way, I consider it harassment.”

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Staying away from social networking hardly seems an option.

Although Mint Reading, like many other self-improvement apps in China, allows users to turn off the checkpoint function, Shi was reluctant to do so. After all, having her learning progress marked online every day motivates her to learn more.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Shi says.