WhatsApp? A positively interdependent e-network of practice developed while students compiled their e-portfolios in distance education

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Technology that allows users to form relationships with one another develops into online learning environments when used to form e-networks of practice and a shared knowledge base. Yet little research has been conducted regarding the e-networks of practice developing in student-initiated WhatsApp groups. In this paper I report on an e-network of practice that developed in a WhatsApp group while students in distance education learned from one another to compile their e-portfolios.

An e-portfolio is not a digital document, it is a collection of web pages compiled to demonstrate knowledge, skills and techniques for assessment purposes. Dedicated e-portfolio platforms allow students to use images, videos, hyperlinks, documents and text to display their learning, growth and development. Based on the positive impact of e-portfolios on student success, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) added e-portfolios in June 2016 as the eleventh high-impact practice.

High-impact practices are techniques used in higher education to provide opportunities for active student involvement, deeper learning and significant participation during the learning process. The University of South Africa (Unisa) gave a few modules characterised by small student numbers in 2014 permission to integrate e-portfolios to replace final examinations. Since I was the primary lecturer of Instructional Techniques and Multimedia in Adult Education (INTMAEU) between August 2014 and May 2015 it was my responsibility to integrate e-portfolios in the curriculum of the 2015 class. During my involvement with the 2014 class I identified a few problems that could prevent my e-portfolio practice from developing into a high-impact practice.

The students lacked technological knowledge and skills, they lacked cooperative learning skills and their self-regulating skills were inadequate. These three problems could have prevented the 2015 class from compiling and submitting e-portfolios; therefore I developed a learning-oriented framework for the integration of e-portfolios. Learning-oriented approaches for assessment are based on three principles, namely that learning tasks instead of assessment tasks be developed, that students be involved as peer and self-assessors and that prompt feedback be provided to allow students to improve current and future learning. To develop self-regulating skills I provided guidelines for the completion of each e-portfolio page. To facilitate the development of cooperative learning skills I required that the students use my social networking site, Arend, to ask questions related to the use of Mahara and the completion of learning tasks. Instead of providing all the answers, I structured the learning process cooperatively and asked: “Who can assist?” or “Do you agree?” to develop individual and group accountability.

Arend reduced my work load since I was not overwhelmed by with similar e-mails requiring similar responses. Instead, I could use my time effectively to structure a cooperative learning process and to facilitate the development of self-regulating skills. Since I doubted the cooperative learning skills of students registering for this module, one of the learning tasks required that the students had to establish cooperative base groups in Arend. Cooperative base groups are heterogeneous regarding performance, motivation and task orientation, therefore I could use the class list to divide the class into groups of six or seven students. These groups were given the three tasks for cooperative base groups, namely (a) to ensure that all members know how to complete a task, (b) to ensure that all members participate and submit their assignments and (c) to support members when they experience non-academic problems. However, some of students used the opportunity to share contact details and formed student-initiated WhatsApp groups.

It came to my attention that students were influencing one another negatively in these groups, but I was not invited to these groups. When I left Unisa at the end of July 2015 after completion of my post-doctoral fellowship, one of the WhatsApp groups invited me to join as their mentor. The role of a mentor of adult learners is not to provide all the information, but rather to shine a light on the road ahead, to identify dangers and to facilitate learning. Therefore I decided that the structure of the learning process in the WhatsApp group should also be cooperative and to facilitate the development of self-regulating skills. As in Arend, I got involved only when the students could not solve a problem. Being a member of the WhatsApp group provided an opportunity to study the e-network of practice that developed in the WhatsApp group. In this paper, the focus is on the e-network of practice that developed in the group.

Twenty-three students (30% of the 2015 class) joined the WhatsApp group during the year. Two distinctive phases could be identified, namely 6 June to 27 September 2015 and 6 to 28 November 2015. During the first phase the students completed their learning tasks and during the second phase they compiled their e-portfolios. I was under the impression that the students were following the guidelines in the study guide and were not experiencing any problems using Mahara since they did not ask for any assistance with Mahara during the first phase. Therefore I left the WhatsApp group on 27 September after they had submitted the last learning task. They had not followed the guidelines and re-invited me on 6 November 2015 as they were struggling with Mahara. During the second phase I also structured the learning process cooperatively. In this paper I focus on the e-network of practice that developed during the second phase while the students were learning from one another to use Mahara to compile their e-portfolios.

The purpose of the research was to investigate the e-network of practice that developed in the WhatsApp group while the students were compiling their e-portfolios to make recommendations for improving distance education. The research was guided by two questions:

  • How interdependent was the e-network of practice that developed in the WhatsApp group?
  • What is the role of the mentor in a WhatsApp group?

This research was conducted within the framework of a simultaneously nested mixed-methods research design. This design allowed me to collect both quantitative and qualitative data to understand the problem under investigation. For the nethnography I collected qualitative data to investigate the development of the five elements of cooperative learning, namely positive interdependence, individual and group accountability, promotive interaction, interpersonal and small-group skills and group processing. For the nested social network analysis I collected quantitative data regarding the relations between the members of the WhatsApp group to further investigate one of the elements of cooperative learning, namely positive interdependence.

I found (a) that a positive interdependent e-network of practice developed in the WhatsApp group while the students were learning from one another to compile their e-portfolios and (b) that it was seldom necessary to facilitate cooperative learning. The students spontaneously took up the tasks of a cooperative base group and supported one another until the final hours of the submission date in submitting e-portfolios. As expected, it was necessary to facilitate the development of self-regulating skills before, during and after the completion of learning tasks.

Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made for the improving distance education. Firstly, it is recommended that learning be cooperatively structured in distance education. It was not necessary to reduce the pace, content, contexts or challenges to improve student success, but rather to develop challenging learning tasks to create a need for cooperative learning. Secondly, it is recommended that the development of self-regulating skills be facilitated during distance education. Some of the students were unable to set their own goals, could not identify effective strategies to reach their goals and might have failed if I had not facilitated self-regulating before, during and after the learning tasks were submitted. Lastly, it is recommended that effective technologies be integrated to facilitate the development of self-regulation and cooperative learning skills.

In conclusion: it was found that the learning-oriented framework for the integration of e-portfolios contributed to student success in distance education. The success rate of the 2015 class was 23,4% better than the success rate of the 2014 class. When compared with the rest of the class, the WhatsApp group performed 35,2% better. None of them dropped out and all of them passed. It can be concluded that WhatsApp groups provide a key to student success in distance education if the mentor is present to structure a cooperative learning process and to facilitate the development of self-regulating skills.

However, more research needs to be conducted regarding technologies that can be used to facilitate a cooperative learning process and self-regulation in large groups, since this module is characterised by small student numbers. It was difficult to follow conversations in this active WhatsApp-group and I wasted time scrolling up and down the wall when students referred to previous conversations. It was also difficult to follow discussions, since students replied to various posts on the same wall. In a follow-up paper I will report on the facilitation of cooperative learning and the development of self-regulating skills in Arend.

Keywords: cooperative base groups; cooperative learning; distance education; e-network of practice; e-portfolios; mixed-methods research; nethnography; networked learning; self-regulators; social network analysis (SNA)

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: WhatsApp? Die ontwikkeling van ’n positief-interafhanklike e-praktyknetwerk tydens die samestelling van e-portefeuljes in afstandhoëronderwys

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