WhatsApp at Tertiary Education Institutions in Nigeria: The Dichotomy of Academic Disruption or Academic Performance Enhancer?

Author:Igbafe, Eucharia Chinwe
Position:Special Edition on Nigeria - Report


Social networking sites are modern interactive communication channels through which people connect to one another, share ideas, experiences, pictures, messages and information of interest. Boyd and Ellison (2007, p.23) define social networking sites as: "Web based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system". Onomo (2012) acknowledged this ability of the media by remarking that social networking sites has become "a widespread tool for communication and exchange of ideas, helping individuals and organizations with just causes to reach a phenomenally vast audience that could hitherto not be reached by traditional media." Thus, since inception, social networking sites like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, 2go, My Space, Skype etc. have mesmerized millions of users, many of whom have been made to use these sites as parts of their daily activities. Currently, there is a plethora of social networks with various features meant to suit the different interests of their followers. Some are accessed via computer alone while others can be used with mobile phones.

Similarly, one study reported that over 27% of young adults used a social networking site every day in 2009 (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010). Moreover, the use of WhatsApp the focus of this study, has been noted to have both positive and negative effects on students regarding the development of identities and the self. WhatsApp has been identified as a new social platform that has the ability to affect students' academic reading and writing practices because of the increase in new digital literacies found in digital media and its influence on literary practices.

New literature found in digital spaces allows for engagement in the interactive, multimodal genres and accordingly participation in dynamic, multidimensional communication. The new possibilities "reshape how we understand, teach, and test language and literacy in the classroom" (Lotherington and Jenson, 2011, p.228).

Given the growing and diverse use of WhatsApp, a social media with accessible, cheap and fast functions across ages, it has become important to explore how it can positively enhance the academic performance of students in tertiary education institutions. The negative perception of the WhatsApp function seems to have limited many institutions, lecturers, and students from benefiting from its growing contribution to education. Hence, few institutions offer students with support services to build their capacity to use WhatsApp as a mode to improve academic achievement. The realistic evidence is required to understand students' use of WhatsApp and its impact on academic performance.

WhatsApp network is not only used for social interaction, but also it is used as an instructional and educational material or as a platform (Roblyer et al., 2010). The mode of social influence is internalization (or group norm) representing an individual's decision based on similarity of values--e.g. with certain communities or groups of interest. Users employ the social networking website mostly to keep in touch with friends and maintain relationships with geographically distant peers.

Despite the presence of several communication tools such as public messages, comments, posts, and private messages, 'keeping in touch' was found to be performed by 'spying' on peers and gathering information about them from their profiles.

A new study (Wheeler, 2011) has found that rapid growth of social networks impacts all levels of the population, but the impact on students is the most dramatic. Various studies on WhatsApp usage claim that youngsters and undergraduate students use the platform mostly to stay in touch with people they already know in an offline context, instead of initiating new connections (Lampe, Ellison & Steinfield, 2006; Pempek et al., 2009). Madge et al. (2009) argue that although students use Whatsapp to keep in touch with existing friends, they specifically join WhatsApp groups and Facebook's university sites to enhance their social integration. Kalpidou et al. (2011) reviewed WhatsApp in the context of social adjustment among students and found that students in their first year on campus have a high emotional connection to WhatsApp. These students spent more time on WhatsApp and Facebook and also reported having fewer friends, compared to students in second year or higher.

Brief Origin of WhatsApp

Recent technological advances in the world led to the development and launching of WhatsApp in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koom (Barhoumi, 2015) to facilitate good connection, communication and interaction within educational (teaching and learning) and non-educational (family and friends) contexts. WhatsApp is a mobile messaging application permitting users to receive and send messages, make voice calls and upload videos with iPhones, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia (Hindu, 2011; Barhoumi, 2015). With over 350 million monthly active users, the popularity, demands, and usability of WhatsApp have increased (Church & de Oliveira, 2013; Cohavi, 2013; Bouhnik & Deshen, 2014; WhatsApp, 2016 Inc.). WhatsApp's ability to provide free and cheap connection and collaboration has continued to grow in application and benefits as key connection, communication, and interaction strategy (Fogg, 2010; Bouhnik & Deshen, 2014). Although few researchers focus on the detailed usage of WhatsApp as a mobile, educational tool that promotes learning through connection, communication and collaboration as well as cooperation (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007; Barhoumi & Rossi, 2013).

Consequently, WhatsApp has continued to drive connection, communication, and interaction as well as knowledge acquisition and sharing (Doering, Lewis, Veletsianos, & Nichols-Besel, 2008; Nelson, Christopher & Mims, 2009; Sweeny, 2010; Cifuentes & Lents, 2011; Smit, 2012). In general, knowledge acquisition and sharing using WhatsApp starts with observing and meeting the following key elements:

* Purchasing an Android powered Smartphone, iPhones, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and Nokia;

* Saving contacts for possible connection and communication with their informed consent;

* Purchasing of data bundles;

* Installing or downloading of free WhatsApp;

* Sending WhatsApp messages to contact or invite them to connect with you through WhatsApp; and

* Sending free text messages, making voice calls and uploading videos with individuals or groups in the contacts (Aal, Parmar, Patel, & Sen, 2014; Calvo, Arbiol & Iglesias, 2014; Singh, Prasanth, & Subramani, 2015).

From the literature, there is evidence that WhatsApp performs important functions through different types of services it provides to its users, among the functions which are texting messages, making voice calls and video uploads (Bere, 2013; Chipunza, 2013; Plana et al., 2013; WhatsApp, 2016 Inc.).

Rationale for Study

The rationale for this study is based on the observation of an increasing number of students using social media in tertiary institutions in Nigeria for both social and academic purposes and its impact on their academic performance. It is important to note that the students identified self-perceived needs for help based on their accurate assessment of the sources of academic disruption. The desire to help students to handle the perceived dangers of addiction to WhatsApp, their vulnerability to being distracted resulting in poor performance and the lack of skills to navigate WhatsApp challenges motivated this study. The aim is, therefore, to draw the attention of tertiary education institutions, lecturers, students, family as well as readers in order to raise awareness on students on experiences. Another reason is to add to the growing body of knowledge on WhatsApp as an educational tool and to advocate that institutions and lecturers tap into the functional benefits of WhatsApp as a strategy to enhance students' academic performance. Therefore, the yearning to build the students' ability to self-manage and use WhatsApp as a cheap educational tool with the support of institution and lecturers prompted this study. The departure point of this study is to identify the major impact of WhatsApp on students' academic performance to determine strategies to enable successful navigation to enhance performance.

Research Questions

The following research questions guided this study:

  1. What are the major perception of students using WhatsApp in relation to academic performance at tertiary education institutions?

  2. How does WhatsApp improve the academic performance of students at tertiary education institutions?

  3. How can WhatsApp be transformed from being an academic disruptor to become a sustainable academic performance enhancer at tertiary education institutions?

    The Use of WhatsApp Among Students

    WhatsApp functions are not restricted to non-educational activities such as socialising with family and friends. Several studies such as Motiwalla (2007), Cheung, Hew and Ng (2008) as well as Lauricella and Kay (2013) found that social media is, for the most part, a vital means of communication among modern day tertiary education students. In South Africa, Shambare and Mvula (2011) recorded the unbelievable use of social media for various academic purposes. Johnson (2007), Kennedy, Krause, Judd, Churchward and Gray (2008) as well as Smith, Salaway, and Caruso (2009) reported that the use of text messaging among students and instructors is on the increase. Preston and Colleagues (2010) reported that about seventy percent of students are benefiting from the application of social media to education compared to physical classroom lectures or online programs (Katz, 2002; Beldarrain, 2006; Inan, Flores & Grant, 2010).

    According to Barhoumi (2015), WhatsApp is convenient for the formation of viable social groups where members could remain at various geographical locations and share unlimited ideas through texting...

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