Using WhatsApp to teach people how to use the internet

November 8, 2016 | Connected Society | South Asia | India | Alex Smith

Globally over 4 billion people remain unconnected to the internet, nearly all of whom (90%) are in the developing world. While a lack of coverage remains an issue, particularly for those living in rural areas, the majority of the unconnected are already covered by a mobile broadband network. If this is the case, what explains the reasons that so many people are offline? Research done by several Mobile for Development teams on the barriers to internet adoption have concluded that beyond coverage there are several key issues: awareness of the mobile internet, the affordability of devices and services, the availability of relevant content and the low levels of digital literacy that exist in many counties.

In order to address the latter, the Connected Society team have developed the Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT), to help support the operators, NGOs and governments wanting to address this issue. We developed it through a user-centric design process, in collaboration with Telenor India, Idea Cellular and Digital Empowerment Foundation that included multiple rounds of focus group discussions, community visits, and a 2-day pilot training workshop with our target audience in Maharashtra State, India. A key finding from this process was that today messaging applications are by far the most common gateway into the mobile internet for new users. Unlike many applications, communication is something that nearly everyone, regardless of age, gender or interests, can quickly grasp the value of. Moreover, the simplicity and robustness of these services means that they can be put to a range of innovative and important uses. For example, many users in developing economies are now using them to help run their business. As part of the preliminary research last year, we saw how jewellery artisans Gujarat used messaging apps to source designs, communicate with clients (existing and prospective) and to invoice and chase debts.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of the 3.4 billion people using the mobile internet across the world today are using a messaging application. WhatsApp is the best known of these services and was the first messaging app to cross 1 billion users, which it did in February of this year. The rapid rise of the app, launched in 2009, was confirmed by Facebook’s US $19.3 billion acquisition in 2014. It is far from being the only success story though, and there are a number of messaging apps that dominate in a particular market, such as We Chat in China, Line in Japan and Viber in several countries in Eastern Europe.

Our research taught us that rather than starting from first principles, it would make sense to develop a toolkit that would provide users with a practical introduction to the internet focussed on the most popular services, which in India includes WhatsApp. Our approach to training focuses on teaching users by doing rather than presenting some of the foundational – yet abstract – concepts (e.g. explaining what a computer network is). Moreover, given that some organisations (including mobile operators) often only have a limited amount of time to convey this information, we were eager to show how this could be done in 2-3 minutes.

The result of this are our ‘Bitesize’ modules to teaching the mobile internet. Our 1-page guide to teaching WhatsApp can be found here. In the coming weeks we will collaborate with Idea Cellular once more, sending an amended version of our Bitesize modules, including visual ‘How To’ posters, through an SMS marketing blast to recent subscribers. Our intention with this campaign is to help on-board these users to the mobile internet in a fun and accessible way.

We know this approach isn’t going to solve the digital literacy issue on its own. While we have been able to introduce concepts like safety and cost and have attempted to steer users away from seeing the internet as a particular service (e.g. Facebook or WhatsApp) , our toolkit should be seen as a starting point. However, we do believe that this kind of introduction can help set new users on the path to digital literacy by teaching them key practical skills such as how to navigate within apps or the function of the most commonly used icons (e.g. the ‘search’ icon). Most importantly, we have seen how this can help demystify the internet for users and spark the enthusiasm needed for users to go away and learn on their own.

If you would like to use the MISTT, would like to learn more about it or have any questions, please get in touch.

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