Over the past decade, research on the use of WhatsApp for learning and teaching focussed mainly on its added value when integrated with conventional classroom teaching. During the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic many schools and universities opted to use WhatsApp as a learning platform and substitute for face-to-face teaching. With more students having access to mobile phones rather than computers and university learning management systems, the use of WhatsApp became a near obvious choice.
The focus of this article is on the use of WhatsApp as a learning platform in the teaching of Afrikaans. The participants were a group of 62 students registered for an undergraduate module in Afrikaans at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). The purpose of the research was first to investigate these students’ experiences in using WhatsApp as a learning platform and second to investigate its potential value for the development of language skills. To this end, a mixed method approach in the form of a case study was used. Students’ experiences were measured quantitatively and qualitatively using an electronic questionnaire that consisted of twenty questions.
Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, the teaching of this module was limited to a weekly lecture and tutorial of 45 minutes each. Students were divided into two tutorial groups, each with their own tutor. When the lockdown started, seven weeks of the semester still remained. It was during these seven weeks that WhatsApp was used as a learning platform to continue the academic programme. The time allocation and tutorial group allocation remained unchanged. However, there was one important difference: students’ interaction with the learning content was no longer limited to one weekly lecture. They now received a Word document and a voice note from the lecturer, which they could access anywhere and anytime, and as many times as they preferred.
The tutorial group discussions continued at the allocated times and were facilitated by the tutors. These tutors could contact the lecturer at any time for assistance if needed. Over a period of seven weeks, the lecturer/researcher sent a Word document and a voice note to the tutors, who in turn sent it to the students in their respective groups. At the end of the semester, an electronic questionnaire was distributed to students.
The findings are interpreted against the background of existing research and within the framework of relevant learning theories and models such as the Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson and Archer 2000), Connectivism (Siemens 2005), and Networked Learning (Jackson and Temperley 2006).
What follows is a summary of the most important findings.
First, students’ general learning experiences were measured concerning access, convenience, fun and level of motivation when using WhatsApp as a learning platform.
Although everyone had access to a mobile phone and WhatsApp, 45% did not always have money to buy data and 18% had no access to Wi-Fi at home. These two factors impacted negatively on their learning experience, which would seem to concur with the research of Dwee and Sharif (2016), Sari (2018) and Alghamdy (2019). Despite these negative factors, the majority (69%) of students described their learning experience as fun, which supports similar research done by Bensalem (2018), as well as Alabsi and Alghamdi (2019). Most students (75%) believed the convenience of access to learning content at any time and in any place, and the availability of the tutors contributed to a positive learning experience. Furthermore, it was especially the convenience of having a record of group discussions to read and the lecturer’s voice notes to listen to in their own time and as many times as they liked that helped them to understand the lesson content.
Students are nevertheless not convinced that using WhatsApp as a learning platform is better than conventional face-to-face teaching. The majority (67%) indicated that WhatsApp is not better, while 31% was neutral and only 2% experienced it as better. Upon closer analysis of feedback, it was clear that the lack of personal contact was the underlying reason for this finding. Students seem to be divided about their increase in motivation while using WhatsApp as a learning platform. Half of the group indicated that the use of WhatsApp increased their motivation, 16% indicated that it did not increase their motivation, while 16% was undecided. These findings contrast with research done by Alghamdy (2019), indicating a dramatic increase in motivation levels as well as academic achievements when using WhatsApp for learning and teaching. It is however significant to note that students mention in their comments that their confidence to participate in text-based discussions increased, something that might impact positively on their levels of motivation.
The second group of findings relate to the use of the Word documents, voice notes and text-based discussions. Students received their weekly lecture in a Word document accompanied by a voice note with the lecturer’s explanation. Later that same week they would have online discussions about the lesson content in their respective tutorial groups. The majority (86%) experienced the use of the Word document as positive, while 11% was undecided and 3% experienced it as negative. They explained that it was the convenience of using the voice note with the Word document that added to a positive learning experience. Having the benefit of listening to the voice note multiple times added value to their learning experience.
The text messages that were used to interact with their peers and the tutor during tutorial discussions played an important role in their learning experience and they were particularly positive about the fact that it allowed them not only to work together, but also to learn together.
The online discussions also created a comfortable space for them where they could voice their opinions and read the opinions of their peers. This finding is supported by the research done by Amry (2014), Ling (2016), Kumar et al. (2016) and Sari (2018), indicating the benefit of WhatsApp to be used as a platform that would increase student participation. However, when there was an increase in the number of text messages, students became overwhelmed and experienced that as a disturbance leading to a negative learning experience. This concurs with the research of Dwee and Sharif (2016), Ling (2016) and Sari (2018).
The third group of findings relate to the potential value of WhatsApp for the development of language skills. In this regard, 67% of students indicated that their listening skills improved. It appears that the use of voice notes impacted on the development of their listening skills. Moreover, 46% indicated that their reading skills improved, while 48% indicated an improvement in their thinking skills. The use of WhatsApp therefore seems to have potential for the development of listening, reading and thinking skills. This is something that needs to be further investigated in future research. Fewer students indicated that their speaking skills (42%), writing skills (39%) and spelling abilities (41%) improved.
In conclusion, it is important to note that using WhatsApp in this way not only gave students an opportunity to interact with the lesson content, their peers and tutors, but also allowed them to create a community of inquiry, forging significant relationships that allowed them to learn from and with each other. Part of the experience was the opportunity to think about their own learning. The relationships that were formed allowed them to exchange opinions and work together on assignments and tasks.
Although it is not clear if forming these relationships facilitated students’ understanding of the learning content, there are indications that it increased their motivation to learn and their confidence to participate.
Keywords: Afrikaans; learning experience; learning platform; language skills; WhatsApp