With the increasing options for communication technology on campus, faculty at Ashesi have continued to explore different ways through which the different tools could be used to facilitate learning inside, and outside, the four walls of a classroom. This semester, lecturer at Ashesi, Kobina Graham, decided to experiment with Whatsapp, the popular instant messaging mobile application, to find out just how better he could engage his African Philosophical Thought class through their mobile phones.
The idea was to give the entire class – including the professor - another useful way in which to engage with each other, the material being studied, and help students understand the different ways in which they could use their technology.
“In previous classes, my colleagues and I have achieved similar results with Twitter,” Kobina says. “I however decided to try Whatsapp this semester because of the usefulness of its group conversation function, which allows small teams of people in different places to hold closed conversations together in real time over their phones.”
“Whatsapp is already a popular application amongst students at Ashesi, so I knew it would not be a hard sell. Unlike Twitter, conversations are not so public (a concern expressed by students during one of the earlier Twitter experiments). In addition to this, it allows you to back up conversations to email, which is handy both for recovery purposes (in case of lost data) and for switching between working on my phone and my computer.”
For the African Philosophical Thought class, Kobina introduces a new topic during their regular class session every week, and gives students until Sunday that same week to complete a minimum of three readings. At the end of all of these readings, students take their most pressing questions and share it with their colleagues on the class’ Whatsapp group.
“Everyone has to contribute one question, no one is allowed to duplicate anyone else's question and the whole thing is part of class participation, which is graded. On Monday, we hold a physical discussion class, during which we discuss the questions as a group, answering them by use of our notes and experiences.”
But in starting off the experiment, the class had to agree to lay down some ground rules down. Kobina’s first rule was simple: no “txtspeak.”
“As cool a class as I try to make it, I would rather not read a series of academic messages delivered in the casual language in which students sms each other.”
Another rule? Anyone who does not have a smartphone can send questions through another student. As ubiquitous as Whatsapp has become, the class had to nonetheless consider that not all students could access the application. Students decided to create a second group for discussion of class administration (including where to find textbooks in the library, deadlines and such) and they forbade each other from spamming either group (with advertisements for example).
So how has this worked since the semester begun? For Kobina, the Whatsapp experiment has been remarkable. “Sunday evening (without prompting), my phone starts beeping with questions: ‘The problem of evil is interesting. If God is omnipotent, why does evil exist? He can destroy evil, so why doesn't he?’ Students are positively influenced by the questions being shared in the group, and the quality of our conversations keeps going up.”
“The best use of the group so far was when a discussion class clashed with a national holiday, and students agreed to take part in a class discussion on the Whatsapp group. Our usual classes go on for an hour and a half, but the session went on for three full hours, as students argued points and contributed to a discussion on Yoruba concepts on Human Nature.”
“As an educator, it has been a pleasure seeing students taking to the experiment. At this rate, it is very possible that I will integrate this into any future syllabi I design for small classes I teach.”