Sharon Guan

Learning by Messaging: Social media apps and the classroom

On the first day of class, I asked my students, “How many of you have a smart phone?”

Everyone raised their hands.

“Great!” I said. “Take them out—if they aren’t already—because you will do a lot of messaging in this class. Go to and download the app to your phone.”

After the students created their accounts, I gave them my phone to scan the bar code for the class group I created within the app.

Within 15 minutes, all fifteen of them were in the Chinese 104-101 WeChat group. After the setup, I began explaining what WeChat is, and how I’ve used it in previous classes.

WeChat is a mobile messaging app developed by a Chinese company called Tencent Inc. According to DMR, as of Aug 22, 2015, there are 800 million active users. It’s user-ship has surpassed Twitter and continues to grow rapidly and globally. It is threatening the global social media market and has been referred to as the potential “Facebook killer”.

In my Chinese language class, I use WeChat to serve the following purposes:

Sharing Information

As the instructor, I send out announcements and reminders on WeChat. At the end of class, I take a picture of the whiteboard and send it to the group. Soon, students began enthusiastically volunteering to take on the “capturing the whiteboard” and share with class.

As a user of WeChat, I receive tons of information from friends’ posts and public subscriptions, and I often forward the ones that are relevant to Chinese culture and language learning to the class via the app.

Speaking Practicum

Practice is key for language learning. Using the voice messaging feature, students can record their own speaking as voice message to get instructor or classmate feedback. Last year, in my beginning Chinese class, we also used this feature for a group activity – conversation rally! I picked a topic and asked students to build a conversation around it. This activity requires both listening comprehension and speaking skills and it can take place in and outside of the classroom. When students work outside the classroom, they can replay the message again and again until they comprehend the meaning and delete their recording until they are satisfied with it. This is something that we can’t accomplish in the classroom.

Peer Support and Fun

The WeChat group allows students to send questions and provide answers to one another. They no longer need to email the instructor or post a question in the FAQ forum of the Learning Management System. It forms a support group and a fun community of Chinese-studying buddies.

Group Building

Since my class is small, I was able to create one class group and share the bar code by walking around the classroom. For a bigger class, WeChat can be used as a tool to form small groups. Millions of Chinese WeChat users have figured out ways to establish various friend circles on WeChat. There are Chinese Language Learning Group, Chicago North Suburb Garage Sale group, Single Nobles Group, Mom of Fifth-Graders Group, my college classmates group, high school classmates group… you name it. When a group of families decided to have a labor day outing, the first step is to create a WeChat group where all of the planning, reminders, and photo sharing occur. So why can’t WeChat or any messaging tool be a place for project or study groups in college classes?

Jose Bowen, the author of Teaching Naked, recently pointed out “technology is a tool, but psychology is the new pedagogy.” We are living in a tool-rich society where every student has a handheld device. What it takes is the right kind of mindset to venture into their world through that little phone in their hands. My nine-year-old daughter once told me “you are not a ‘normal’ Mom.” OK, I rap, moon walk, I “act out” the meanings of things when my kids don’t understand them…and I do the same for my students! Do my students think I am abnormal too?   I brought the question to class—“Am I a ‘not-normal’ teacher?” Students nodded yes. Seeing my draw-dropping reaction, one of my students responded, “What’s so good about being ‘normal’?”

I took that as a big compliment. If “not-normal” means I can break the barrier and mingle with those young minds to get them engaged in learning, I will do it—singing, dancing, acting, and messaging!

As I was writing this blog, I received a instruction sheet from my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher telling me how to subscribe to her text messaging group, and a note from my son’s soccer coach on downloading and using GroupMe as a means for communication. What a coincidence! The world around us is changing and so should our methods of teaching.

Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

2 thoughts on “Learning by Messaging: Social media apps and the classroom

  1. Hi Sharon,
    I like the idea of using the voice recording feature on messengers. If students know that their voice is going to be heard by everyone, they will put a lot more effort into getting the pronunciation right!

    I was going to try an activity similar to the one you mentioned using Facebook messenger. The problem is that some students may not want to “friend” other students–or their teacher–so I’m using another messenger called Line. I want to come up with some kind of game where students record verbal clues to something and post it to the group. Other students have to listen to and comprehend the verbal clues, which will lead them to other clues.

    I also think this is a great way to practice vocabulary. Students are assigned words. They have to look up the words, record the definitions, and then post the audio files to the group. Everybody else in the group has to listen to the definitions and match them to the correct words.

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