Whatsapp: ’Going Where the Conversation is’

Cobus van Wyngaard
University of South Africa, South Africa

Jakkie Strachan
University of South Africa, South Africa

Thomas Hülsmann
University of South Africa, South Africa


UNISA (University of South Africa), like other big correspondence institutions, tries to make better use of the interactive capabilities of digital technology. Like other distance teaching institutions UNISA found that students did not take to online discussions ‘like ducks too the water’ (Zemsky & Massey, 2004). On the other hand, we found that some students themselves had started to form WhatsApp groups for peer support. The initiative discussed in this paper was initially meant to support students rather than to do research. Nevertheless, our findings provide some valuable insights in using WhatsApp as compared to the UNISA online discussion forum. We can confidently conclude that students, for reasons of ownership, immediacy and costs, show a certain preference for WhatsApp. We found that WhatsApp was used not only for organizational purposes but, albeit to a limited extent, was also used to address content related questions. Most importantly we observed a considerable measure of peer support through WhatsApp. Nevertheless, there are some reasons not to regard WhatsApp as alternative to the threaded conference discussion forum available through the university’s LMS. There are limitations to WhatsApp as a platform for facilitated online discussions. However, even where institutions are able to overcome student reluctance to participate in online discussion forums, WhatsApp can contribute significantly to supporting students.

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