With over 500 million whatsapp users, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous, whatsapp is a part of the fabric of the school, whether you as a teacher are using it or not! It is the single biggest social messaging platform and offers key affordances in the classroom. It is cross-platform, allowing users with different phones to message each other effortlessly.
On Whatsapp you can set up groups and subscribe users (up to 30) to each group. When you send a message to the group all members are included. It is for the mobile phone what a listserv is for email! Attachments such as pictures, audio or video can be added, and messages can be sent using phone data or over wi-fi. Within a school environment where students and teachers are hooked up to the school wi-fi, this effectively means communication can be instantaneous and free to users, an important consideration. Conversations can also extend beyond school hours, and this is a huge advantage.
It seems to me that whatsapp use in the classroom started with students forming groups based on interest or need. It was a useful way to find out what homework had been set, and pages could be photographed and sent to the group. My sons use it for this purpose, and I know that as a family it is a fantastic application for spreading information quickly to everyone. My son tells me that the other day in his Maths class, many of the boys had not brought their books for whatever reason. The relevant page was photographed and sent to the class whatsapp group. It is now fairly routine for a student to photograph the homework on the board and whatsapp it to the rest of the class! It is usually best to ask your students to set up a whatsapp group for the class, and to add you to it. This gives students a sense of ownership of the group. You can then use the group to answer student queries, and to send out information such as a reminder to bring a particular book to class. It allows for those sudden unavoidable changes in plan too, including things you forgot to mention in class. You do need to remember though that whatsapp can never be an official channel for communication. Not all students have smartphones, some may run out of data, some may lose battery, and you cannot penalize any student for failing to receive a message! This is important to note – I have heard of teachers using it as if it were an official channel and seriously disadvantaging students because of this! My advice would be to keep the class whatsapp as a student run channel, which you can use, but always as a reminder, never as the primary information channel.
Students feel free to use the channel for chat, and this more sociable reaction to classroom announcements is an invaluable tool in promoting your digital presence in the class. It’s a good platform for happy birthdays and well-wishing messages when someone is ill. I encourage students to broadcast a summary of any class for those who are absent.
I find it especially useful for extra-mural activities where do not always see your students in class during the course of any given day, and unexpected changes are de rigueur! Whatsapp is clearly very useful as a classroom management tool, but can it be used pedagogically too?
One feature of whatsapp is the ability to send a recorded audio message. If everyone in your class is signed up on a whatsapp group, you can use it as a feedback mechanism in group or even individual work. Ask students to record a quick reflective feedback on any task and message it to the group. This can then be used as material for a follow-up lesson, or allow you, as a teacher, to gain insights into students’ understanding of the task. These messages can be retrieved from the whatsapp media folder if necessary, but they are essentially ephemeral in nature.
You can also use audio or video messages, or links to these as byte-sized flipped learning content as preparation ahead of a class, or as a wrap-up to a class. I like to store this content on Moodle or other platforms, and use whatsapp simply as a reminder of the link. You can encourage students to discuss the material over whatsapp, but I feel that that serves to take over the channel too much. Part of what makes whatsapp successful is that it is an unofficial channel and is student-driven. Official class chat can be housed on a Facebook group or twitter hashtag.
Essentially I see whatsapp as a tool of inaction. It’s not so much what you do with whatsapp – it’s more about what you allow students to use it for, to support that and chip in when you can!