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WhatsApp: The Dark Horse of ICT Tools?

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I am, like many teachers exploring and experimenting with various ICT tools, especially at the start of the school year. WhatsApp Messenger wasn't in the the list but it is turning out to be a very effective tool that indirectly improves teaching and learning. Credit goes to my students who introduced me its potential benefits.

If you aren't aware of WhatsApp, here's a snippet of the description given by the developers on their front page.

WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. WhatsApp Messenger is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia and yes, those phones can all message each other! Because WhatsApp Messenger uses the same internet data plan that you use for email and web browsing, there is no cost to message and stay in touch with your friends.
In addition to basic messaging WhatsApp users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages.

The most useful feature I've found so far is the ability to include up to 30 members in a group chat. This means the ability to send a message instantly to everyone anytime, anywhere. Administration is a key part of effective teaching and learning though it is something we'd all like removed. Informing students of changes in schedules, reminders of deadlines and sharing of useful resources requires communication that is either done in class or through emails. The problem is that the information usually isn't timely for either (if I even remember to do so) and whether it has been read and received is questionable for the latter. WhatsApp is a social space that allows for both synchronous and asynchronous communication to take place simultaneously.

While I do not have the expertise to give an insightful comment, it is probably the interface that makes it a powerful communication tool that helps the teacher run a classroom well so that attention that be devoted to teaching and learning. Within a week of using WhatsApp, it has already helped me in several ways:

The first is in making announcements. Several times in a week, I get information that needs to be relayed to my class. Given that I only meet them twice a week, the information is usually late by the time it is announced in class. Some of the information - changes in schedules and venues - is required on that very day. When I received an email in the evening detailing the time and place for a compulsory CPR and First Aid course, I could filter out the relevant information for the class and relay it over WhatsApp with full assurance everyone got the message. What I didn't expect was for the quick replies from those who were going to miss the course and their reasons. By next morning at the start of school, I already knew who would be present and who wouldn't as well as account for their absence. The students have already been using Whatsapp for announcements pertaining to their subjects or other school activities. A benefit is that by being part of the group, I am kept up to date on what's happening with them lately. It's much easier to start a conversation to find out how they are doing or coping. 

This responsiveness was most evident when a tree snake visited the class one morning. A student stumbled upon the snake which lead to some commotion. Because the WhatsApp group is primarily a social space for the class, that event was quickly shared in there. I was able to respond quickly typing out instructions to keep away whilst I made my way to the classroom. No one was hurt but the snake, sadly, was disposed off by the school attendant.

Lastly we are currently in the midst of selecting the class committee. Because of WhatsApp, I was able to devote the full hour to discuss with the class about the various methods of selection - nomination, election, sortition - and its relationship with education and democracy. The class eventually came up with a system using all three and I'll be using WhatsApp and Google Forms to keep the class updated of the various stages for them to participate accordingly.

The last application serves as a good example how ICT tools empower the teacher to make effective use of classroom time - for dialogue and discussion in my case. There have been some inconveniences that come with the group chat. The class periodically gets engaged in a chat on random matters and the next hour is filled with a flurry of messages. I learned to switch off the notifications which brought respite. Nonetheless, this is a happy problem as these seemingly random chats are important to build and establish a social space where everyone is keen to be a part of. It becomes a communal space that teaching, learning and administration can leverage on.

If you use WhatsApp in education or have suggestions, ideas and comments, please share and help expand the use of this relatively under utilized tool in teaching and learning.

Democracy • Education • ICT

Information & Communications Technology