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Unqualified teacher’s successful WhatsApp class proves all e-learning should lean on WhatsApp

Remote learning in Zimbabwe

As someone who worked in the education industry for a couple of years, I feel for today’s students. The enforced extended holidays were fun for a while, till they realised their futures were at stake. You could literally see the anxiety on some of these teenagers’ faces.

Schools reopened recently and ZIMSEC insists examinations will proceed regardless of the disturbances students faced. Now, take the Upper Six candidates for example, both years of their A-level were disturbed and yet, somehow, they must be ready to sit for exams. It’s heartbreaking.

All in all, over 5 million students were affected, missing school for extended periods due to the pandemic. This was not an easy problem to remedy.

Remote learning through the radio

The pandemic exposed just how unprepared Zimbabwe was for the digital revolution. I mean, we are still to see our TV infrastructure go digital, years into the project. So, absolutely no one was surprised that the solution to schools being physically closed – remote learning – was not really viable in Zimbabwe.

Of course, the government tells us that its remote learning initiatives were and continue to be successful. Never mind the loafing you saw when you walked the streets, the increased teenage pregnancies and marriages and so on.

We must believe that the lessons that were aired on national radio were a sufficient stand-in for the physical classroom. Ignore the fact that the most popular radio station reaches only about 2 million listeners annually.   

While we are at it, let us ignore the fact that learning through the radio does not make for a good experience. A learner cannot ask questions or ask the teacher to repeat a point. The learner has to grasp all of it the first time because they will not be able to access the radio lesson after it airs.

The teacher has an impossible task. Teaching a national class is impossible. Too many unknowns mean a generalized lesson has to do. What level where the students at, do they have the prerequisites for this lesson to succeed, how is their English and so on. Not mentioning not being able to see their faces to judge whether they understand what’s being said.

Remote learning through the internet

UNICEF joined the government to launch the Learning Passport. An online platform which hosts Radio Lessons, Syllabuses, Teacher Guides/resources, and Learning Modules (audio lessons, online books, videos, and interactive content). Access is free for all

It was only launched in March 2021 and hopes to bridge the gap between those who can afford paid e-Learning platforms and those who can’t. We know that private school students did not miss even a single lesson this whole time. The majority rest where the target for this platform.

There were other online learning platforms launched in the last two years. However, the challenge remained access to the internet. Only 31% of schools had access and even for them, paying for access every month was a hurdle.

For the individual students, the e-Learning bundles (around $2000 for 8gb) were out of reach. So, for all the noise that was made about this online platform and that, most Zimbabwean students did not benefit one bit.

Even the Learning Passport had a humble goal of reaching only 300,000 learners in 2021. In June, they had reached 25% of that goal – 70,000 users. All this when over 5 million students were affected.

Could we not utilise WhatsApp?

Let us get one fact right first, WhatsApp is not accessible to all Zimbabweans. There are many Zimbabweans, in the millions, who still have never used WhatsApp. The almost 90% mobile penetration rate does not mean 90% of Zimbos have mobile phones that are WhatsApp compatible.

However, the fact remains that WhatsApp is more accessible than the ‘internet-at-large’ in this country. After all, WhatsApp accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in Zimbabwe. This is helped by the WhatsApp bundles offered by all mobile network operators.

So, seeing as WhatsApp is more affordable and familiar to Zimbabweans, one would think e-learning through WhatsApp would achieve better results. Better than the other e-learning initiatives at least. One case study could offer a glimpse into that.

Remote learning by Dr Maxx through WhatsApp

The good doctor is a 28-year-old unqualified teacher in Mbare. He tutors A-level students and focuses on exam preparation. Dr Maxx was in the news when his class of 64 students achieved a 100% pass rate with 41 As between them.

The doctor is a doctor by name only, having not progressed past A-level himself because of lack of funds. Though not trained, Dr Maxx, real name Maxwell Chimedza, has proven to be quite the teacher since he started his WhatsApp learning academy in 2019.

“Honestly, I don’t know how to operate a computer. I’m a WhatsApp exam-refiner”

Dr Maxx admission

The famous quote above reveals a lot. He is so competent on WhatsApp he creates class timetables and adds audiovisual material for students then runs mock tests and grades them in his WhatsApp classroom.

Armed with a smartphone with 32GB of memory, our doctor polishes his students to a shine. All within just one app.

It happens to be the case for a lot of teachers and students and parents. They are comfortable with WhatsApp and only WhatsApp. The other e-learning solutions are both expensive and hard to navigate for them.

I believe the e-learning push should at least include WhatsApp as a distribution and interaction platform. It is already there and students and teachers are already familiar with it. It is also less expensive than the other options.

Schools reopened but we are not out of the woods yet. Some schools have already been closed due to breakouts of the virus and with the delta variant still hovering, we might be needing e-learning pretty soon. Seeing as this is an emergency, we need all the stakeholders to take WhatsApp seriously.


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9 thoughts on “Unqualified teacher’s successful WhatsApp class proves all e-learning should lean on WhatsApp

  1. We welcome your analysis on the failings of Online Learning. However your analysis is very much unbalanced, you highlighted only one success story through whatsapp, making the sample size negligible for anyone to seriously consider whatsapp as a platform for learning.

    We have countless failings of whatsapp as a mode of learning delivery.

    For a more balanced view please look also at the glaring disadvantages of using whatsapp.

    1. There is no realtime interaction especially when you are not doing a group video call (max 8 people in a video call)
    2. Still a teacher can not see students’ faces to gauge if they understand or not

    3. Students are using phones of various sizes with some phones making it difficult for students to fully immerse themselves in the learning

    4. Imagine a nude picture meant for someone else ends up in the whatsapp group for students

    We cannot advocate for whatsapp to be adopted wholesale without looking at many factors
    1. Did Dr Max teach all 64 students at one go, how small were his classes etc

    2. How easy was it to engage with the students and it is important to note that these were students willing to be taught and engaged with. Now imagine a whole class with some students who are not even interested, the chaos of that class on whatsapp

    The most important thing is Government and Organizations like UNICEF are not fully engaging Teachers, Learners and Parents on what makes a holistic approach to online learning.

    Critical questions have tobe asked:
    1. What tools should each teacher have eg laptop, tablet or phablet for effective teaching

    2. What tools should all students have for a uniform learning experience

    Ultimately blending all the available tools but in measured way may be the best Option but without addressing issues of connectivity, electricity, gadgets and best blended tools at Government level then we will continue to throw tools about thinking one is better than the other

    1. Thank you for this comment. Let me address your points, share my thinking.

      1. Sample size too small to seriously consider WhatsApp – I disagree. Though it’s only one success story, WhatsApp as a platform is much much more accessible than any other online platform in Zimbabwe. Just for that, we should be looking into how we can utilise it to achieve this noble remote learning goal. Rather than trying to popularise platforms that most have never used or even heard of.

      2. The glaring disadvantages of using WhatsApp –
      a. No real time interaction – we can simulate real time interaction by having learners respond using audio notes or video recordings, just like they would in person. Or some other way. Not to mention there is work going into increasing WhatsApp group call limit to 50 people.
      b. Teacher not able to gauge faces – will always be a problem for all remote solutions, even for live video calls, scrolling up and down to see all the faces is not realistic.
      c. Some students having smaller phones – this is not ideal but though not immersive, it is better than nothing. With services like Learning Passport, that same child probably would not have had access at all.
      d. Naughty pictures – this is a problem whenever there is internet access. I will grant that it is more likely to happen on WhatsApp, as students have been using WhatsApp for this. Here, efforts should be made to educate them on cybersecurity and the legal implications of this activity. I’ve seen the police addressing high school students on this. In the end it may still happen but we can’t discount WhatsApp because of this.

      3. Analysing Dr Maxx’s success – this is what I’m advocating for. We need to understand how and why he was effective. My article was not that analysis. This article was pointing out that this analysis is more important right now than continuing to put ALL effort into solutions like Learning Passport. There is something there in Dr Maxx’s success, let us seriously analyse it with a view to adopt this model.

      4. Government/Unicef not engaging teachers etc – I totally agree with you here.

      5. Critical questions on what tools teachers and students should have – the WhatsApp discussion comes from the point of working with what’s already there. We can always work to make sure more devices are accessible to all parties involved. WhatsApp comes in to say, ‘For now let’s utilise what we have whilst we improve our situation.’

      This is how I look at it.

  2. We just need affordable internet bundles for everyone. Whatsapp is not an effective tool for elearning. You are missing the main problem which is expensive data. If that is reduced then people will be able to afford learning apps. I don’t think favoring one app over the other with cheaper rates is a good approach. It creates uneven competition

    1. It is not the best tool. I agree. It also happens to be one of the best tools what we have right now. Let us utilise it. Let us not try to fix every other problem, of which there are many, before we can have successful e-learning solutions. That’s how I look at it.

  3. I don’t think WhatsApp will be suitable for online education as it is used more as means of communication. Although we can discuss our questions through WhatsApp with faculty and administration.

  4. I will continue to say this again and again. The WhatsApp bundle is killing innovation and progress in our country. It’s like having a library and only allowing people to access a certain small section. As VAST as the internet is with all its knowledge wealth we are still tied in a box called WhatsApp. Other countries are zero-rating e-learning platforms, the only thing we are zero-rating is banking applications. Internet should be affordable, scrap all bundles. Please don’t tell me about infrastructure costs, because there is someone who understands the need for the internet. His name is Elon Musk, he is able to transport satellites into space, these satellites have A.I, are able to dodge space debris at 1000s of miles per second, ground stations all around the world. This is costly infrastructure but he is able to deliver internet at a very affordable price taking into account his costs. I will repeat, bundles are killing innovation, all our breakthroughs now revolving around hacking Whatapp API, the epitome of thinking in the box. As long as we don’t give people affordable internet, we can forget about innovation, and the gap between us and other countries will continue to grow. If something was to happen to the Whatsapp platform, then what?

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