WhatsApp for Electronic Feedback and Assessment
WhatsApp is a free, cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP service owned by Facebook. It allows the sending of text messages and voice calls, as well as video calls, images and other media, documents, and user location.
Alongside social media, mobile instant messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook messenger have rapidly transformed the way people communicate. Much like social media, instant messaging platforms are used to connect, collaborate, socialize, and coordinate. They can be used to share images, videos, documents, and audio files, to make calls, and to send texts to individuals or groups of up to 200 people at once. The point of difference from social media is that messages sent via instant messaging services can only be sent to those who are in your contact list; they are not public feeds as per social media.
This entry focuses on how one such instant messaging service – WhatsApp – is used to support learning in higher education. WhatsApp has emerged as one of the most popular instant messaging services for smartphones. It is used by more than one billion people in over 180 countries and is the most popular mobile instant messaging app used in the Middle East region. WhatsApp is used widely across many fields including in the dissemination of political campaign messages, by health professionals to share information about patients, and by the media as a forum to keep updated on the experiences and interests of their readership.
The potential of using WhatsApp to enhance learning is gaining momentum. While research is still in its infancy, the emerging body of literature points to the positive ways this app can be used to provide student feedback and to enhance reflection and learning. Key to these benefits is its easy accessibility, and its low cost (it does not incur any SMS or additional charges to use). This makes it ideal for millennial students who are already high users of online communication tools, plus also for educational use where budgetary constraints can impact on opportunities for educators and students to trial and implement new ways of using technology.
A key idea informing the discussion presented in this entry is that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement; this impact however can be either positive or negative. The type of feedback and the way it is given can influence learning differently. Superficial feedback or feedback for feedback’s sake has no measurable benefit to learning outcomes. In addition, feedback that is highly critical can cause students to disengage. In their analysis of more than 7000 studies on the implications of feedback on learning and achievement, Hattie and Timperley (2007) conclude that effective feedback is that which is timely (immediate and not delayed); instructional (aims to deepen understanding of the content, is specific, prompts deeper enquiry and self-adjustments); and supportive (relevant and encouraging, helps them to understand themselves as a learner.)
This entry presents some of the most recent research that has been undertaken of the use of WhatsApp in higher education in relation to student feedback, reflection, and learning. Much of this research has been undertaken in developing countries such as Africa and the Middle East where use of WhatsApp is very popular. This entry focuses on why this application is being used in the ways it is and the educational value that is emerging for tertiary learners. The aim is to support practitioners, academics, and graduate students in their understanding of this new direction in educational technology, so as to make informed decisions on its usefulness and applicability to their current practice and research.
Key Reason for Use of WhatsApp
The rise in use of WhatsApp in education has been organic (as opposed to a planned strategy) and stems from its ease of use and its familiarity to educators and students who already make extensive use of this application in their personal life. For example, of the 200 university students participating in Appiah’s (2016) study, 46% used WhatsApp 10 or more times per day; 26% used it 7–9 times a day; and 13%, use it 1–3 times a day. Other studies have found similar results (Jain et al. 2016). Similarly, Appiah et al. (2016) found that of the 180 university educators participating in their study, 46% use WhatsApp more than 10 times daily, 26% use it 7 times daily, 14% others use it maximum of 3 times daily, and 12% used it 4–6 times every day.
Familiarity with an online application eases the physical and mental effort needed to use it, and this positively influences attitudes and openness as an e-learning platform. Building on their familiarity, educators and students have begun using WhatsApp as an alternative to using university email or online learning management systems (LMS) for online communication, collaboration, and access to learning materials. LMSs are routinely made available in higher education for educators to make announcements, to share ideas and resources, and to implement online discussions with students. Research (Wilcox et al. 2016) however shows disconnect between design and usability. LMS are most effectively used on laptops; however students often use smartphones to access a LMS. As a result, the interface, navigation, and features of the LMS for smartphone use is very limited; often it cannot even be viewed on smartphones. Notifications are not received if your question has been answered or if new files have been uploaded, and multiple log-ins may also be required with each follow-up visit to a LMS. This creates a tedious usability issue for the students and instructors (Wilcox et al. 2016) and effects the ability and inclination of students to use this platform to access content, connect with their educator, and connect with peers.
WhatsApp provides the same built-in functions to an LMS yet offers considerable enhanced ease in accessing them. It can be easily retrieved via a smartphone and does not require multiple log-ins with each use. This combination is much more conducive to educators and students continuing their communication beyond the classroom and can supplement or replace technologies beyond those provided by the university to support their social interactions and participation in their learning.
How WhatsApp Is Used and Benefits
Research (Raiman et al. 2017; Doolan and Gilbert 2017) shows that students and educators use WhatsApp as a back-channel for connecting with each other and accessing learning materials outside the classroom, student-to-student, and/or student-educator. A key benefit of value to students and to educators is that the informal shared discussions contribute to fostering an inclusive learning community that builds confidence, reflection, and responsive feedback. On the other hand, educators can experience the expectation that they are available 24/7 to be an imposition on their time and personal life and exacerbating an already demanding teaching role. The following section provides an overview of the key advantages and disadvantages identified in recent literature for using WhatsApp in higher education.
Student to Student
Research shows that students use WhatsApp to help other students by sharing content, experiences, and/or insights with each other. They regularly use WhatsApp for sharing materials such as images and sketches of work undertaken (Appiah 2016; Raiman et al. 2017). Students find value in using WhatsApp for real-time discussions occurring at key learning times such as when putting together their evidence for the final assessment (Jain et al. 2016; Doolan and Gilbert 2017). In comparisons to a LMS, students participating in Doolan and Gilbert’s study (Doolan and Gilbert 2017) valued the app as, “a far quicker and more responsive way of communication”; it enables “increased productivity and friendships as everyone could speak with everyone in the group,” and it’s “simplicity and because we all use it already.” The specific and targeted advice occurring in WhatsApp group chats between students importantly facilitate relevant and encouraging advice and feedback that prompts deeper inquiry and self-adjustment (Hattie and Timperley 2007).
Students experienced WhatsApp participation created a more inclusive learning group that contributed to breaking down barriers commonly experienced in the classroom. For example, students in Jain et al. (2016) study considered the sharing of ideas informally online, strengthened the bond between them, and helped develop their confidence as learners. This study showed that students felt encouraged by their peers to share and articulate further ideas. WhatsApp chats circumvent the time restraints of classrooms that may limit opportunities for students to speak and what some students consider to be an uncomfortable or confrontational environment for “taking the floor” and openly reflecting on the content.
Similarly, other research found WhatsApp participation alleviated difficulties caused by overtalkative students taking over classroom discussion, use of WhatsApp allowed others to be heard (Doolan and Gilbert 2017). Ongoing opportunities to articulate, clarify, and reflect on the curriculum content with their peers and to receive feedback increased their control and independence as learners (Bere and Rambe 2016) and enhanced the academic performance of students (Doolan and Gilbert 2017). Explanation by one student from Naidoo and Kopung’s (2016) study is representative of this thinking,“…the WhatsApp instant messaging made me realize the worth of my classmates. Contributions they made significantly contributed to my knowledge of mathematics. I learnt a lot of mathematical concepts and problem-solving strategies from my classmates….”
Educator to Student
The value of the frequent student-educator communication that takes place using WhatsApp is another important benefit emerging in the research. The use of WhatsApp facilitates forming learning communities of students and educators engaging in academic dialogue, with a focus on information sharing, clarification, and further application of knowledge (Jain et al. 2016; Raiman et al. 2017). Of significance is that the communication via WhatsApp is sought out and initiated by students and by educators, suggesting its usefulness for both stakeholder groups. Approximately 50% of students use WhatsApp for teacher availability (Appiah 2016). Similarly, it is used by educators to build a sense of community to develop a deeper acquaintance with students 60%, sense of belonging to the group 38%, and quality of expression among student 46% (Appiah et al. 2016).
The app is used in student-educator communication to ask and reply to questions and concerns, to contribute to group chats (with all students enrolled in the subjects as well as in subgroups of students), and to upload resources to each other (Appiah 2016). Through group chats, students also have the opportunity to witness faculty interacting with other students and learn from such interactions. Students also valued the opportunity to read and re-read feedback by educators “I can always refer back to the previous messages so that I won’t forgot the old information when I do revisions” (Jain et al. 2016).
The faculty member’s availability and helpfulness and quality and frequency of feedback had a significant impact on student experience (Jain et al. 2016). Targeted talk and focused explanation that addressed the queries of individual needs, corrected or reinforced knowledge, and promoted reflection by both educator and students had a positive effect on students’ sense of connection to the subject and to the educator (Jain et al. 2016). Group chat also facilitates the opportunity for educators to communicate sporadic learning opportunities to students for students to apply their learning, for example, its use by tutors with medical students, “There’s an ABPI that needs doing on [Ward name] if you want to join” (Raiman et al. 2017). Students also reported being more engaged when in class as a result of instant messaging: “Messaging made the session far more stimulating. We were able to focus on specific problems we had in the session. This made the whole learning experience far more useful and specific to us” (Raiman et al. 2017).
The research indicates that the use of WhatsApp by educators and students is conducive to providing quality feedback that is immediate, targeted, relevant and encouraging, and constructive. This is facilitated by the real-time and anytime discussion students could participate in with their peers and educators. Such feedback provided students the opportunity and encouragement to correct mistakes immediately and prompted deeper enquiry and self-adjustment (Hattie and Timperley 2007).
While the advantages of using WhatsApp instant messaging have been discussed above, WhatsApp instant messaging can pose educational challenges. Given that a single-text message is restrained to 139 characters, the short message length and succinctness of language required can pose limitations. The limited keyboard can also hinder questions or discussion of particular curriculum content, for example, using content such as mathematical symbols which are not part of the allocated keyboard (Naidoo and Kopung 2016). This can lead to limitations when ask or respond to question or completely avoiding some questions because it would be difficult to write them on WhatsApp instant messaging.
While some research indicates that students and educators view group messages as positive, and comparable to the social messages they receive from their other WhatsApp contacts (Raimen et al. 2017), intrusion on personal time and unwanted extracurricular work can contribute to reluctance to use WhatsApp for educational purposes (Susilo 2014). Message flooding, highly time-consuming, group maintenance, expectation for high availability of teachers, students’ usage of inappropriate language, and overexposure to students’ personal life are challenges to educators’ commitment to using it to promote feedback and reflection (Appiah 2016). Good feedback is that which is well-timed and does not distract from learning (Hattie and Timperley 2007). While this is often considered from the students’ perspective, it is also important to consider “timing” from the perspective of the educator. The use of WhatsApp group chat can exacerbate the time required of educators to fulfill an already demanding role. This may result in less availability or reduced feedback to manage this aspect of feedback.
This entry sheds light on the various benefits of using WhatsApp Group as a platform for academic discussion to take place. Three features – easy accessibility, minimal cost, and multimodality features – are important to the effectiveness of its use to provide feedback, support reflection, and promote learning. As the literature indicates, when used well, it creates an organic and iterative learning environment for students. Educators and students become important stakeholders in the process and provide valuable feedback that can be used to refine and improve performance outcomes for everyone (Hattie and Timperley 2007). Several challenges of using WhatsApp include interference with private lives, additional work for educators and improper language use by students. These are important considerations and if not managed well can hinder the benefits of using WhatsApp to promote student learning.
It is hoped that this outline will promote further research among other researchers interested in examining the use of WhatsApp or other instant messaging platforms for teaching and learning purposes. It is also hoped that this entry promotes reflection for practicing teachers and student teachers on the usefulness of WhatsApp for their educational environment. Not all feedback is equal, and not all students and classroom environments are equal. Consideration can be given to the advantages and disadvantages of local use of this app for student learning in the short-term and long-term.
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