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Using WhatsApp to enhance online learning

As schools and universities in 165 countries remain closed, affecting more than 1.52 billion children, youth and nearly 60.2 million teachers, it is imperative to look at how digital technologies can be used to ensure that school or university teaching and learning processes go ahead in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for populations in developing countries with unreliable internet and power supply.

The issue of access to the internet and digital platforms is particularly pertinent in Africa, where less than a third of the population has access to broadband connectivity.

But the reality is that universities should be actively preparing digital platforms for students to engage both during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards due to the fact that the pandemic aftermath may lead to massive budget cuts and redundancies. It is inevitable that when universities reopen, things will be different, hence digital applications will be the way to go.

The majority of university students, who are mainly youth or ‘Generation Y’, are tech-savvy, self-expressive and open to new ways of doing things, including the use of social network applications. According to research from the United States, a majority of students spend a greater part of their time in a day on social media platforms, either for entertainment or news updates. Using social media for academic purposes is less common, but I would argue that there is potential for universities to exploit here.

In Africa, young people are targeted by marketing from telecommunication companies seeking to attract new customers and retain existing ones amid fierce competition among mobile operators. In Tanzania, a particularly popular offering is Airtel Tanzania’s special internet bundle ‘UNI offer’, specifically targeting university students. For only TZS1,000 (US$0.43) a student receives 1 Gigabyte, 1,000 SMSes and 110 minutes call time, valid for three days.

There are opportunities here for special arrangements to be made between universities and technology firms to provide, for instance, discounted monthly internet data to allow students access to materials online.

Universities can take a leaf from Mount Kenya University where collaboration with a mobile telecom company, Telkom, saw the issue of 5,000 4G sim cards loaded with 1GB data and aimed at university students. This is a good move, although the persistent issue of slow connectivity still needs to be addressed.

Under-utilised platforms

Another digital platform that I consider under-utilised and which can provide new impetus for digital education in Africa is WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a primarily a communication application but shares a number of features with social media applications.

Created in 2009 in California, WhatsApp has become popular with 1.5 billion users in 180 countries, which makes it the most used chat application, together with Facebook messenger. It allows smartphone users to quickly exchange texts and audio and video messages for free, and make calls.

In the prevailing situation WhatsApp is cost-effective and easy to use, giving it competitive advantage over the other social network platforms. WhatsApp is also considered a safe application due to the inclusion of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) protocol. Since 2014 E2EE has been used to prevent data disclosure being transmitted over a network.

Furthermore, WhatsApp users can check if messages have been received properly and read by the receiver when two blue marks appear next to the sent information.

On the downside, however, WhatsApp groups limit the number of users, which may prevent the formation of groups of learners exceeding 256.

Integrating social media and LMS

While a learning management system (LMS) is a common software application used to track online training activities, my experience of teaching online courses has taught me that it is important to integrate social media platforms, including chat applications like WhatsApp, and the LMS.

An integrated system allows for a longer-term learning impact and higher student engagement. For example, it will allow content in jpeg and pdf formats to be shared. Large video files of 20 megabytes can be split into smaller multiple videos and shared to a WhatsApp group.

The instructor can also use WhatsApp for one-on-one text exchanges to address individual students’ expectations and needs. Furthermore, course content discussions and lecture updates, assignment instructions and submission deadlines, as well as changes in mid-semester continuous assessment tests, can be communicated via WhatsApp.

In most cases students can contact their course instructor via WhatsApp regardless of time differences, physical distance or office working hours and this can reduce delays in feedback. Using WhatsApp can enrich the learning experience and make it relatively easy for lecturers to make contact with learners at their own convenience.

Education systems need to evolve constantly to cope with the rapid advancement of digital technologies. Universities cannot simply return to the business-as-usual, chalk-and-talk mode of teaching and learning. If universities will not learn today from the unforeseen impacts of COVID-19 on education, then I reckon they never will. Universities must use the crisis as a wake-up call to remind themselves of the need for a contingency plan or Plan B.

One take-away for those who still refuse to adapt to the rapid technological advancements and who will soon find themselves to be anachronistic: take a minute or two and remember what happened to the telecommunication industry when traditional fixed phone lines were rapidly replaced with mobile phones and then with smartphones – along with cameras, email facilities, messaging and numerous social media applications on the menu.

Simon Ngalomba is a lecturer in the department of educational foundations, management and lifelong learning in the School of Education at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at: simonngalomba@yahoo.com.

COMMENT

Steve Foerster on the University World News Facebook page: Very insightful advice from Dr Ngalomba! Not long after our Lagos study centre opened, we discovered that our students there had spontaneously set up a WhatsApp group as a means of offering support to one another. So we turned it into an official support channel for them. There's no reason to direct them to some other system that's new to them when they already use WhatsApp and will actually read messages we send to them there.



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