Adults learning together in WhatsApp Groups: Insights from the discipline of adult education.

Taruvinga Magwiroto

In an earlier article, I introduced a way of theorising the emergent informal digital communities made up of multiple actors integrating into WhtasApp groups for purposes of participation, learning and innovating. In this instalment, I want to talk about some of the problems and issues faced by WhtasApp groups, particularly if conceived as development-oriented digital communities of practice.

Group composition: the first obvious problem pertains to the extent to which the group/network can mobilise informational or other resources required for it to function well. To a large extent, WhatsApp groups depend on the combined “community resources” to answer problems, find information and find opportunities. This places a big influence on network composition. Who is in the group, who is not, and in what way and to what extent are they linked to official sources of knowledge and power. Does the group possess the combined agency to advocate/influence/voice some of the concerns raised on the group platform? Does the group have access to the world-wide-web, and does it possess people who can intelligently and authoritatively interpret and synthesise disciplinary knowledge into accessible language?

Becoming a community: trust and mutuality. Whilst people integrate into groups based on common interests and pursuits, it is also true that people have different reasons for belonging into groups. The difference that people bring could be viewed as a potential strength, in the sense of “strength of weak ties” (Klerx, 2012). These differences mean that there is more potential for innovation and linkages between different actors who may have complementary strengths. However, the differences may also be a weakness, in the sense that people may speak different languages, literally and figuratively. And more importantly, different motivations for participation may make for sharp differences, with subsequent conflict. Before the group can become productive, there has to exist a big degree of respect, mutuality and cooperation.

Who participates and who doesn’t: As in many aspects of life, participation (engagement) is influenced by many factors, particularly the presence of soft skills to interact confidently with comparative strangers. This is particularly problematic when the group has an ethos of ignoring certain voices at the expense of others; is unduly competitive and does not cultivate the right ethos from the onset.

Validation of shared information: this is particularly problematic in informal digital communities. What knowledge is valid, and why? The ease with which knowledge can be produced and disseminated has lent urgency to the need for fact checking and evaluating the authenticity of information. In my experience working with WhatsApp groups, I have seen this as one of the most challenging issues. People have to become critical/sophisticated consumers of information. However, it is fair to say that evaluating the validity of information in a discipline for which you have not been trained is almost impossible. Unsurprisingly, the major culprits are the entrepreneurs who tend to push authoritative-sounding messages of persuasion calculated to sell their products.

Some solutions learnt from literature and practice

Wherever possible, the group should be composed carefully. This means whoever forms the group should ensure that the group has enthusiastic, knowledgeable and engaged members. The primary qualification for membership should be genuine interest. My test for interest is usually to share the group’s link. The interested person will join via the link, the disinterested will ignore the link. Paradoxically, I have observed that “qualified” people or agricultural professionals have not enthusiastically embraced these groups. Where they are in, a good number are inactive. For some, these groups are somewhat too chaotic for their liking. In one group, one professional told me that they were quiet because there were “too many experts” in there. If not well facilitated, groups can become fractious and competitive, which is the antithesis of adult education. Or they can be dominated by people with “official knowledge”, thereby sacrificing other forms of knowledge and knowers.

Lessons from adult education

Adult learners’ experience is an important resource for learning (Knowles, 1984). If the focus of farming-oriented WhatsApp group is adult learning, then learners’ experience is an important resource. Members should swap experiences, what works and what does not, and why. But we must not forget that some experiences are not good (and may actually impede learning). Such experiences have to be unlearnt before new learning happens. This all means that somewhere within the group, someone must play the role of validator, or facilitator, adult educator, moderator or intermediator.

They are adults by definition: Rogers (1997). They have earned respect and success in different fields of endeavour. They are parents and breadwinners and workers and bosses, therefore they have earned respect in life, and so they should be accorded. That should be the first rule in adult learning situations: respect, even in disagreement.

The primary role of adults is production or work. They also have competing interests, therefore it is not only unrealistic to expect them to be online 24/7, it is also wrong. Adults are volunteers in learning situations and they vote by “exiting” if the group no longer fulfills their needs. Finally, many adults have long-standing anxiety of anything resembling formal school! That is why I believe WhatsApp groups are better off staying informal. Adults learn better in an unhurried environment, where they can choose to keep quiet without having to account to anyone, and come and go as they wish.

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