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WhatsApp University, seriously

Forty million students enrolled in the higher education system in India contribute to a small GER of 27. It means that almost 73 to 100 could have gone to colleges but did not, for want of financial resources and lack of interest in the current delivery systems. The median age of 27.6 is an additional challenge. Even if they were to attend colleges, is it feasible to almost double the brick-and-mortar units? Aspirational supply chain seeks better educated and skilled personnel. Hence, both upskilling and reskilling, are important. What then is the way out? Can Blended/Hybrid learning fill the breach?

By 2025, the online education market is expected to be over $350 billion. Cloud, mobile computing, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Virtual Reality, are then enablers. However, a debate on which of the three, face-to-face, online or blended learning is more effective and what the students prefer, has seen several research papers published in the last couple of years. A research study by Novai and Jordan estimates 78% like face-to-face learning, 28% like Blended Learning, while only 2% students like online learning. Blended learning too needs uninterrupted internet bandwidth and content that is engaging and effective. Besides it needs skill centres that build competency based skills.

Another research published in the annual conference on Science and Technology Research (ACOSTER) 2020, explored as to which learning media is the most effective if blended/online education was the preferred mode. Media covered were WhatsApp (WA), YouTube, ELearning, Edmodo, Zoom Cloud, and Google Classroom. WhatsApp (WA) was preferred by a whopping 82% of students, while YouTube was preferred by 1%, ELearning by none, Edmodo by 2%, Zoom Cloud by 8% and Google Classroom by 7%. One may wonder why WhatsApp? Firstly, it is a chat application and supports free voice and video calls, so teachers and students can stay in touch, even outside regular study times. Teachers can also send timely reminders or notifications about exams, homework, assignments, due dates, and so on, so students remain engaged with the subject.

Most of the available research cites that, if face-to-face education cannot be ensured for all, the best alternative is blended learning on ‘WhatsApp’ media. Whatever be the mode, four things stand out. Combining flexibility, facilitating student learning processes, stimulating interaction, that encourages an effective learning climate.

Can we in our universities and institutions make blended learning on WhatsApp as a default method in reaching out to the unreached? Around the world, ‘WhatsApp’ has approximately 2 billion active monthly users, much more than other popular apps like Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Downloaded over five billion times on Android and iOS, it is available in 180 out of 195 countries and 60 languages. Over 100 billion messages are sent via WhatsApp every single day. The best of course is, it is free to download and use. It enables seamless, anytime communication between students and teachers and is ideal in low bandwidth areas and doesn’t need the support of communication tools like Zoom or Google Meet.

Traditional classroom learning is often one-way and reactive, whereas ‘WhatsApp’ is dynamic and proactive. Students not only listen to, but also watch and learn sitting at home. They can also access several resources and materials in real-time for better learning. They can complete assessments at home under supervision of a parent or guardian, and even discuss them via a class on a community ‘WhatsApp’. Research has it, that this results in knowledge up-gradation, deeper community-based learning and better retention.

Further, teacher training/re-training for foundational literacy, numeracy, etc., can be effectively done on WhatsApp. Techers can share their knowledge, best practices, experiences, and learnings so they become better educators.

At a time when ChatGPT like chatbots are all over us, less intrusive alternatives must be looked at. A ‘WhatsApp EdTech chatbot’ can enable educational institutions to introduce automation into many processes such as marketing, administration, alumni liaison, registration/enrolment of staff, etc. It saves time and effort for staff and allows students to access information they need.

How does one build ‘WhatsApp EdTech chatbot’? With a no-code chatbot builder like ‘Gupshup’ that simplifies EdTech chatbot creation and deployment. Any institution, college or a university can build it for natural, compelling, and omni-channel conversational experiences. In fact, our faculty must be encouraged to build it. ‘WhatsApp’ is not Netflix and Pizza. It can be the true equaliser in a not so equal society.

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