Facebook was launched in 2004. WhatsApp was introduced in 2009. These have become two of the most used applications. WhatsApp has a total of 2 billion active users around the world and is giving many companies a run for their money with free voice/video calls and messages to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Facebook goes even further with 2.7 billion users; it has become a go-to place for anyone in the world with even a modicum of digital presence.
These social networking applications were envisioned as platforms that could bring people together; even those who are miles apart. However, they have evolved in unexpected ways that their creators themselves might not have envisioned, especially in the last five years. Social platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp are being heavily criticized for how they are now being used for purposes other than needed – be it the borderline unethical data extraction or the spread of hatred through propaganda that benefits only a handful.
The best examples of these malicious use-cases are the daily trending Twitter hashtags and hundreds of WhatsApp forwards that work in favour of a particular ideology. The power and monopoly that certain social networking sites have created have forced companies, political parties, and businesses to take it seriously as a part of their outreach campaigns.
Of clouds and silver linings: The need to reclaim social media for positive outcomes
That said, it isn’t as if social media cannot be used for driving more positive changes in society. It is giving rise to the ‘Gig Economy’ by enabling content creators to earn their livelihoods. It is democratizing the concepts of outreach and accessibility – traditionally confined to hallowed cloisters of a select few – and leading to newer concepts such as ‘Celebrity Influencers’. Small businesses can market their products and services through social platforms, for free or at a fraction of the costs associated with traditional marketing, to a much larger base of consumers.
The lockdown, especially, has driven us to embrace social networking apps more than before. Even with the physical limitations imposed to counter the outbreak, social media apps such as WhatsApp helped us celebrate occasions by connecting us with our near and dear ones through video calls. Enterprises adopted social networking platforms such as Google, Zoom, and Skype to support internal operations and ensure business continuity in a turbulent time.
One of the major usages of WhatsApp, especially in India, has been for online education. While many students, especially those studying in metropolitan and tier-1 regions, had access to a variety of tools such as Zoom, Facebook LIVE, YouTube, and edtech platforms, there were others with limited access to the internet and smartphones. WhatsApp came to their rescue by providing a platform for learners and educators to connect, discuss, and learn without risking their physical health.
In doing so, it brought a new ray of hope to many students and teachers who would otherwise be worried about education in these times – especially those in government and low-profit private schools where technology rarely knocks. WhatsApp works well for them because of its easy connectivity, low resource requirement, and cost-effectiveness. Moreover, as 80% of the Indian internet users already use WhatsApp, leveraging the application makes the most sense, whether financially or in terms of efficiency; it does not burden parents with buying a high-end smartphone, or teachers and students with learning how to use an application from scratch.
It has also strengthened the parent-teacher relationship in government schools with e-PTMs taking place on WhatsApp calls. Social media is facilitating a new and progressive conversation between the parents, teachers, and students collectively as the barrier of communication has been broken, allowing them to create their own local community. As for the parents, most of those who rarely involved themselves in their child’s education, are now actively participating in daily activities and learning sessions.
Luckily, this advantage is not just one way. By entering as a source of education, social networking platforms are changing the narrative around themselves. The biggest tools for distraction have become a source of education for many children.
Leading players in the EdTech space have been using WhatsApp to reach underserved students for their education. Leveraging an application like WhatsApp for education that already has a large user base allows for enhanced visibility, as a mall would for a store set up inside it. There is also a sense of security attached to a platform that is so well known, so users don’t feel hesitant or doubtful. Since you get a host of services at a single place, like in a mall, you don’t have to waste your phone’s space by downloading another application. And the best part, if you don’t know the premises, or in case of an application, how to use it, there will always be someone with the knowledge to help you find your way.
Social media can democratize education and increase the involvement of all parties required for the education of young Indians. It has already disrupted the entertainment, political, industrial, and professional world; now it can be used to its full potential for the betterment of our future – our children. This is one of the most practical methods to make digital education more accessible and affordable. No credible conversation about digital education in the post-pandemic landscape can avoid discussing social media. Both social media and digital education are here to stay, and innovations will continue to combine the two to drive superior outcomes in 2021 and beyond.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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