EduTech Surprise! SMS Beats WhatsApp for Teen Test Prep

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Secondary school students in Cameroon spend the entire last month of their final year in school preparing for their Baccalaureate. Passing it and scoring well marks a successful debut into adult and professional life, opening opportunities for employment and continued education.
That’s why a group of researchers sent exam practice quizzes to high-school students on their personal phones via SMS text messages or WhatsApp messages. These quizzes were sent to students several times per week, and each consisted of 3 practice questions on multiple subjects.
In their research paper Engaging High School Students in Cameroon with Exam Practice Quizzes via SMS and WhatsApp, they evaluated the intervention through a 3-week deployment with 546 students at 3 high schools, collecting quantitative system usage data and qualitative data from 9 focus groups conducted with 47 participants.
SMS Beat WhatsApp in Test Prep Quizzes
Their results were surprising. With all the hype around Internet messaging services like WhatsApp, the researchers were expecting WhatsApp to well outdo old-school SMS text messages. Yet, SMS beat WhastApp for mobile phone test prep!
Participants who received quizzes via WhatsApp submitted an average of 1.96 responses, while those that received quizzes via SMS submitted an average of 3.84 responses during the first-six quizzes or 3.54 responses during the last-six quizzes.
What could cause this statistically significant difference?
Mobile Phones Are Not Seen as Study Aids
The researchers found that parents served as crucial gatekeepers to students’ digital activities during the exam study period. Students, parents, and teachers did not widely view mobile phones as educational devices.
Since the study participants still resided in their parents’ homes, they were subject to parental control and de facto guardianship. Parents used methods such as monitoring, acting as a digital intermediary, and confiscating phones to exert control over students’ digital activities.
Smartphones Are Specifically Seen as Frivolous
Around 40% of participating students own or have access to a smartphone for personal messaging. This reflects both the increasing adoption of smart devices and in particular among the vanguard group of secondary students, whose families pay for their education and thus are likely to come from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds.
However, smartphones and WhatsApp may be disproportionately impacted by parental control.
Focus group participants reported that their parents didn’t let them use their smartphone. Parents did allow students to swap their SIM to a basic feature phone. Such a student would have been able to respond to SMS quizzes, but would not receive WhatsApp messages until their smartphone was returned to them.
Key Lesson Learned: Context is Everything
Reading their study, I am reminded of the importance of user context. In Cameroon, parents and students did not see smartphones as a study aid, therefore sending test preparation quizzes via WhastApp, a logical choice for many reasons, was not as successful as using SMS, despite the latter’s respective drawbacks.
The new flashy, shiny thing isn’t always the best thing.
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