Facilitating Professional Mobile Learning
Communities with Instant Messaging
This is the pre-publication version of the paper: Pimmer, C., Brühlmann, F., Odetola, T. D., Dipeolu, O., Oluwasola,
D. O., & Ajuwon, A. J. (2019). Facilitating Professional Mobile Learning Communities with Instant Messaging
Computers & Education, 128, 102–112.
Although Mobile Instant Messaging (MIM) is a massive communication phenomenon and its
educational use can be seen as a genuine form of mobile learning, it has been studied to a limited
extent to date. The present study examined the use of MIM to engage young professionals in mobile
learning communities during their school-to-work transition. This transition is one of the most central
but also challenging developmental phases marked by the experience of knowledge gaps and a lack
To assess knowledge and socio-professional learning effects associated with the use of MIM, this
study adopted a quasi-experimental, survey-based approach with an intervention and control
condition (n=114) in the setting of an international research project. In the intervention condition,
newly graduated nurses from Nigeria participated in WhatsApp groups in which moderators shared
knowledge and stimulated professional discussions over a period of 6 months. Data were collected
via online surveys and knowledge tests.
The findings show that participants in the moderated WhatsApp groups had significantly higher
knowledge and exhibited fewer feelings of professional isolation compared with the control group,
which was not subject of any treatment. The effects were even more pronounced when controlling
for active contributions (writing vs reading messages), which also amounted to significantly higher
levels of professional identification. In addition, across intervention and control groups, the self-
reported general active use of WhatsApp (outside of the intervention) was positively associated with
the measures of professional social capital maintained with school connections, professional identity,
(lower) professional isolation, job satisfaction, and the perceived transfer of school knowledge to
Whereas knowledge and socio-professional effects can be triggered through moderated WhatsApp
interventions yet the general (and thus informal) use of WhatsApp is associated with socio-
professional connectedness. The findings are of particular relevance in the developing context under
investigation, which is marked by a lack of alternative support structures.
Keywords: mobile learning; instant messaging; school-to-work transition; nursing education;
1.1 School-to-work transitions: Participatory and knowledge challenges
The school-to-work transition is, viewed from educational and professional development
perspectives, a pivotal phase (Rudd, 1997). The experience that learners make during this period
impacts their work skills and future career success (Koen, Klehe & Van Vianen, 2012). This transition
is not an isolated and narrow phase between the completion of schooling and the beginning of the
first job. Instead, the phase is boundary crossing in nature, as it starts already during school and
includes the processes of adjustment and habituation in the initial phase of work. This paper focuses
on the second aspect, i.e., on the immersion into the professional world upon graduation.
In health professional education, the domain of the present study, considerable attention has been
paid to the period of professional immersion in which graduates start a new job. The experience
made during this phase is a determinant of professional success and retention in the job (Christmas,
2008; Clark & Springer, 2012; Rush, Adamack, Gordon, Lilly & Janke, 2013). Although the phase of
professional immersion can offer a broad range of learning opportunities (Clark & Springer, 2012;
Meleis, 2010), graduates are often struggling with high levels of stress and low job satisfaction,
particularly in the first six to nine months in the new job (Rush et al., 2013). They also experience
professional isolation, i.e., feeling distant from their teams (Evans, Boxer & Sanber, 2008). In
addition, the initial work experience after graduation is marked by the experience of gaps in
knowledge, especially challenges in the transfer and application of prior knowledge, which Clark and
Springer (2012) coined as “not knowing.”
1.2 WhatsApp to support learning and professional development
The underlying rationale of the present study was to examine the support that can be provided to
learners and young professionals by means of Mobile Instant Messaging (MIM) groups during this
critical phase of transitioning from studentship into the world of work. Despite the fact that MIM is a
massive phenomenon that has transformed global communication practice, relatively little is known
about its role in education and learning. The burgeoning use of MIM manifests, for example, in
WhatsApp user statistics. The platform is the third most popular social media platform after
Facebook and YouTube (Statista, 2017). More than one billion active daily users share 55 billion
messages on a daily basis (WhatsApp Blog, 2017).
However, whereas the educational role of social network sites, such as Facebook, has been examined
widely, MIM has only started recently to be the subject of more systematic research efforts.
Emerging findings have been summarised in a recent systematic review, which conceives its central
affordances as “temporal [anytime and anywhere], user-friendly, minimal cost, and multi-modality
features”(Tang & Hew, 2017, p. 85). The authors also observed six specific purposes for the use of
MIM in education, which included “journaling, dialogic, transmissive, constructionist with peer
feedback, helpline, and assessment.” (Tang & Hew, 2017, p. 85). The analysis of the literature points
to the potential of MIM to enable a social and emotional presence across a range of different
education and learning contexts. For example, a study found that students use it as a tool to provide
practical, social and emotional support to peers (Timmis, 2012). MIM allows for a form of intimacy
which is not achieved through social network sites, such as Facebook, which are more focused on
self-presentation and self-disclosure (Karapanos, Teixeira & Gouveia, 2016). Intimacy, trust and
closeness are enacted through a particular form of social presence labelled as “dwelling”, which is
marked by “profoundly small, continuous traces of narrative, of tellings and tidbits, noticings and
thoughts, shared images and lingering pauses (O'Hara, Massimi, Harper, Rubens & Morris, 2014).
Interactants are dropping in and out, maintaining their digital presence across lengthy periods of
time (Timmis, 2012).
Although it can be assumed that the development of closeness, togetherness and the provision of
practical and educational support is central in phases of school-to-work transitions in which
graduates are challenged by entering new professional and developmental terrain, no studies on the
use of MIM in this particular context could be identified. However, studies on placements are
indicative of the potential of MIM in the school-to-work transition because also placement learning is
marked by feelings of isolation and the experience of knowledge gaps (Eick, Williamson & Heath,
2012; Levett-Jones, Lathlean, Higgins & McMillan, 2009). The potential of MIM in these settings has
been explored, for example, through a small-scale study in the UK which reported the use of
WhatsApp as a platform to support problem-based learning. The authors concluded that the tool
enhanced the coordination of the groups and enabled the development of an extended social
presence among the participants (Raiman, Antbring & Mahmood, 2017).
Even the informal and non-facilitated use of social media (including MIM) by students during
placements was found to correlate with their personal and group resilience. This association was
explained with the technology’s capability to allow for the maintenance of social relationships which
serve as a resource for feedback and emotional support in stressful placement situations (Sigalit,
Sivia & Michal, 2017). Similarly, another study found that students informal use during placements
was associated with reduced feelings of isolation from professional communities (Pimmer et al.,
In contrast to studies that point to the capability of MIM in supporting an emotional and social
presence in learning settings, the literature that confirms cognitive and knowledge outcomes is even
more scarce and inconclusive. In the systematic review of Tang and Hew (2017, p. 85), five studies
showed positive outcomes whereas two studies found no or even adverse knowledge effects (Tang &
Hew, 2017, p. 85). This ambiguity was, for example, reflected in a study in a context similar to the
present investigation, in which a training course for health professionals was offered via a moderated
WhatsApp group. Although the majority of respondents found the training useful, the knowledge
gains measured between the pre- and post-test were not significant (Jayarajan, Lee & Mwaikambo,
2017). This raises the question regarding how MIM can be used to achieve knowledge-related
outcomes. In their review, Tang and Hew (2017) suggest that the form of MIM-based engagement
could be a key determinant. This argument is supported by the study of Lai (2016): While Lai did not
find differences in knowledge gains between a WhatsApp-based learning group and a control group
he observed significant associations between the quantity of engagement and learning outcomes in
the intervention group. Using qualitative content analysis, Lai explains these differences also with the
mode and quality of engagement, as some participants made only a few low-quality contributions
which were not taken up by their peers (Lai, 2016).
To conclude, despite the increasing proliferation and the educational potential ascribed to the use of
MIM platforms, findings from existing research are rather inconclusive. Whereas a number of studies
point to the potential of facilitated as well as informal use of MIM to enable a social and emotional
presence in learning settings, very little knowledge is available regarding the ways and modes of
engagement through which knowledge outcomes can be obtained. In addition, the majority of the
evidence presented to date is qualitative in nature.
The gap identified is particularly relevant regarding the learners’ school-to-work trajectories, which
present a highly critical developmental phase. In addressing these gaps, this study does not only seek
to contribute to the general field of mobile learning in which the use of instant messaging has been
examined to a limited extent, but also to the domain of mobile learning in nursing education.
Findings from a recent systematic literature review of this emerging domain underscore the need to
further investigate the aspects of peer interaction, synchronous sharing and contextual mobile
learning (Chang, Lai & Hwang, 2018). All these are aspects which are part of the present intervention.
2 Material and Methods
2.1 Objectives and research questions
To address the gaps identified, three main research questions were formulated. The first question is
centred on the potential effects which can be triggered through the systematic use of MIM in the
school-to-work transition: Can the facilitated use of MIM enhance (a) the retention and transfer of
knowledge, and, (b) socio-professional connectedness - in comparison with a control group (RQ1)?
The dimension of socio-professional connectedness was evaluated through the measures of
professional social capital maintained with school connections, the development of a professional
identity, feelings of isolation from a professional community, job satisfaction and the tendency to
look for a new job in a more urban area. While knowledge and socio-professional connectedness are
arguably of value in any professional sector, they are particularly relevant in the domain of global
health which is marked by rural health workers who tend to work in professional isolation with
limited access to knowledge resources. In these settings, many professionals tend to leave the
country or the job, and thus also the retention of a rural health workforce is a key issue (WHO,
2010), which we have thus included in the measurement.
A second research question was aimed at determining the potential implications of different modes
of engagement, i.e., the active vs passive use of the MIM platform (as expressed by the extent to
which participants were writing vs reading messages) on the abovementioned measures. The
question formulated was to determine whether, and, if so, to what extent, higher levels of active
engagement (i.e., writing contributions) would impact the socio-professional and knowledge
measures specified below.
Moreover, drawing on some insights from recent studies (Pimmer et al., 2018; Sigalit et al., 2017) a
third question addressed possible connections regarding the general use of WhatsApp (outside of the
participation in the moderated WhatsApp intervention) with socio-professional and knowledge
measures in the school-to-work transition. The question was formulated as: Is the general, informal
use of WhatsApp associated with the socio-professional measures of professional social capital,
professional identity, professional isolation, job satisfaction and the inclination to search for a new
job and knowledge transfer?
2.2 Intervention and study approach
The study population consisted of recent graduates from five training institutions for nurses in
Nigeria. The five schools were situated in Oyo state, in South-Western Nigeria, having very similar
characteristics: All were accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council of Nigeria (NMCN).
(www.nmcn.gov.ng/portal). The schools use the same curriculum and attract students who are
predominantly young persons from comparable socio-economic backgrounds. The students were
recruited during onsite visits by members of the research team at the individual schools shortly
before their graduation, a process in which also written ethical consent was obtained (see the
section below “Ethical consent”). The telephone numbers of participants were collected and this
information was used to create the WhatsApp groups for the intervention cohort and to contact the
participants of the control group to participate in the online survey.
To determine potential effects associated with the systematic and moderated use of instant
messaging, this study adopted a quasi-experimental post-test approach. The randomisation at the
school level was carried out to leverage pre-existing social ties in the digital spaces (Boyd & Ellison,
2007; Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007). Accordingly, out of the five pre-selected schools,
participants from three institutions (n = 77) were randomly assigned to the intervention condition
and the graduates from each school were invited to take part in one moderated WhatsApp group.
The participants of the remaining two schools (n = 37) were assigned to the control condition, which
was not subject of any treatment.
Before the start of the intervention, the project team developed a moderation script to aid the
moderators in the facilitation and moderation of the WhatsApp groups. The content consisted of
various topics which were selected based on the relevance they would have for nurses upon
graduation. It included general professional topics such as career planning or safety in workplace. In
addition, the topics also focused on practical clinical knowledge, such as the management of
communicable diseases, pain assessment, bed making or the use of catheterisation. The clinical
content was not new. Instead, it was a repetition of central topics which had been part of the school
curriculum and which were viewed to be particularly relevant during the nurses’ immersion into the
practice settings upon graduation. The selection of the topics and the development of the content
were informed by students’ suggestions during the recruitment process and by the advice of
experienced nurse professionals, who formed part of the project team. Three moderators were
recruited for the groups, all of which were experienced nurse practitioners. Before the start of the
intervention, the moderators were trained in a four-hour onsite workshop organised by the research
team. The topics taught included the nature and purpose of the WhatApp group, ground rules for
participation, the usage of the moderation script and key principles of an activating moderation.
The intervention took place for six months, from December to May 2017. Using the script as a guide,
the moderators posted new content at the beginning of each of the 24 weeks. In addition to the pre-
defined content, the moderators contributed in situ to the emerging discussions in the groups. Each
topic was concluded with a quiz at the end of the week. The winner, i.e. the first respondent who
provided the correct answer, was rewarded with a small amount of airtime. This was justified,
especially because the participants did not receive any other compensation for the costs created
through their participation in the study.
A total number of 114 participants (M_age = 22.82, SD = 2.31, range = 20 − 30; 14.0% male, 1 person
did not specify) were included in the analysis. No significant differences between the two conditions
were observed in terms of gender (Χ=1
2= 1.38,= .95) and age (=77.983 =−1.738,= .086).
Most participants were working in a rural area (n=60), township (n=10), and only few in peri-urban
(n=4) or rural areas (n=3, n=37 did not specify). Also with regard to the general use of WhatsApp
(outside of the intervention), no significant differences could be found between the intervention and
the control group, neither concerning the writing nor reading. This underscores the comparability of
the two groups.
2.4 Data collection and measures
The data were collected through an online questionnaire using the platform survey monkey. A link to
the questionnaire was posted in each WhatsApp group. The participants in the control condition
were invited via the contact information that they had provided during recruitment. To maximise
participation, each participant who completed the questionnaire was provided with an airtime credit
of N500 (about US$1.2).
The survey included three main categories that related (1) to the participants’ background (age,
location etc.), (2) socio-professional connectedness, and (3) knowledge measurements including the
perceived knowledge transfer from school to practice settings, and the actual knowledge score which
was determined through a test. All off the measures presented below were assessed via 5-point
Likert scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), unless otherwise noted.
Knowledge score: The participants’ clinical knowledge was assessed with 14 multiple-choice
questions. The questions addressed topics that were discussed before in the WhatsApp groups. The
following question is one example: “The first line drugs for treatment of tuberculosis consists of all of
the following except (a) Isoniazid; (b) Capreomycin (c) Rifampicin (d) Ethambutol.” The calculation of
the knowledge score was based on Haque, Rahman, Itsuko, Mutahara and Sakisaka (2014), i.e., all
correct answers were awarded with one point, wrong or missing answers received zero points. The
maximum knowledge score that participants could achieve were 14 points.
Knowledge transfer: To measure the extent to which the learners perceived to be able to apply
knowledge from their schools in their day-to-day practice, we used a shortened version of Xiao’s
(1996) scale on training transfer. The original scale was adapted to cover the transfer of the training
knowledge into the workplace in the context under investigation. The four items focused on the
frequency and ease of the transfer of knowledge gained from the previous training at the nursing
school in the current job, as well as on the extent to which this knowledge helped to tackle daily
work tasks. The four items showed acceptable internal consistency (Cronbach’s alpha = .74).
Professional social capital maintained with school connections: Social capital is a powerful measure
which is linked, inter alia, to peoples’ career success (Adler & Kwon, 2002) or, in the field of nursing,
it is viewed as an enabling factor for lifelong learning (Gopee, 2002). Recently, research on social
capital has been reflective of the dynamics of the digital area (Williams, 2006), showing its
connection to online engagement. For example, the use of Facebook has been associated with
students’ ability to maintain connections with members of a previously inhabited community, such as
with former friends and colleagues from school (Ellison et al., 2007). Research from contexts similar
to the present study has shown that mobile social media spaces can be serve as relevant resource for
professionals to maintain connections with their former school colleagues to solve work problems
and to discuss professional questions (Pimmer et al., 2014). Accordingly, a shortened version of
William’s (2006) validated social capital scale was used to determine the level of professional social
capital that the learners would maintain with their former school connections (similarly to Ellison et
al. (2007). The scale consisted of six items and showed good internal consistency (α =.87).
Isolation from the professional community was used to measure the learners’ perceived separation
from the professional community. It was assumed that the use of MIM, and especially its connective
properties, would help learners in reaching out to and staying connected with friends and colleagues
from their profession. To determine the level of isolation that learners perceived to have from their
professional communities, a shortened version of the revised UCLA Loneliness Scale was used. The
UCLA scale is a measure to assess people’s isolation and loneliness (Russel, Peplau & Cutrona, 1980).
The adapted measurement that we used originally consisted of five items. However, it showed poor
internal consistency with Cronbach’s alpha = .59. Internal consistency was slightly improved by
excluding the item, “I am unhappy about being so cut off from other nurses”, from further analysis (α
Professional identity: The formation of a professional identity is a complex process congruent to the
development of a personal identity. Broadly speaking, it describes the ways in which a person feels
that s/he is becoming part of a professional community (Cruess, Cruess, Boudreau, Snell & Steinert,
2015). The rationale to use the construct of professional identity was to determine whether, and, if
so to what extent the qualities of MIM to foster togetherness (Karapanos et al., 2016) would also
impact the users’ ability to connect with and to develop a sense of belonging to a professional
community. The professional identity scale of Adams, Hean, Sturgis and Clark (2006) was shortened
and contextualised (3 items), showing acceptable internal consistency (α = .77).
Job satisfaction: Although job satisfaction is a complex phenomenon, which is influenced by various
personal and contextual factors (Spector, 1997), the study also sought to explore the potential
linkage between the connectedness afforded through MIM and the participants’ satisfaction with
their current work. In line with previous studies which confirmed the validity of single-item measures
(Scarpello & Campbell, 1983; Wanous, Reichers & Hudy, 1997), the following question was used:
“Overall, how satisfied are you with your job?”
WhatsApp use: The learners’ use of WhatsApp followed the differentiation used by Cho (2014).
Instead of measuring the intensity of use (as expressed in time, frequency of access etc.), we
differentiated active and passive contribution patterns. In other words, the participants were asked
to indicate the extent to which they contributed with written messages, and the extent to which they
were reading messages on WhatsApp. Moreover, we discriminated the nurses’ participation in the
moderated WhatsApp group and their general use of WhatsApp outside of the intervention. The
cover the first aspect, the following questions were used: “I have written many messages in the
WhatsApp group “Nurses Connect [the name of the group]; I have frequently read messages of
others in the WhatsApp group “Nurses Connect”. The informal, day-to-day use of WhatsApp was
addressed with the following questions: “In general, I write many messages on WhatsApp”; “In
general, I frequently read messages of others on WhatsApp.”
Finally, to determine the participants’ inclination to search for jobs in more urban areas (as rural
retention is a predominant concern in global health work (WHO, 2010)), we applied the single-item
measure: “I intend to get a new job in a more urban area as soon as I can find one”.
2.5 Ethical consent
The Review Board of the University of Ibadan/University College Hospital approved the protocol of
the study. In addition, the research team obtained permission from the administrators of each school
before visiting the sites. In each school, the research team met with the students in a classroom and
informed them about the study. They emphasised the voluntary nature of participation and
highlighted that the data will be kept and presented in a confidential manner so that no linkages
could be made to individual participants. After this process, written informed consent was obtained.
In the first analytical step, to address RQ1, we compared the intervention group with the control
group, i.e., the cohort that did not participate in the moderated WhatsApp spaces (See Table 1).
Because most of the measures employed 5-point Likert scales and were not normally distributed,
robust Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were used for all significance tests (= .05).
In regard to the socio-professional measures, the feelings of professional isolation were significantly
lower in the intervention group (Mdn = 1.75) compared with the control group (Mdn = 2.00), Z =
1.726, p = 0.042, r = .16. The intervention group also achieved better results concerning the
knowledge score, which was significantly higher in the intervention group (Mdn = 11) compared with
the control group (Mdn = 10) Z = -2.182 , p = 0.015, r = .20).
No significant differences were found between the groups regarding the perceived knowledge
transfer and the socio-professional indicators of job satisfaction, inclination to search a new job in a
more urban area, professional social capital maintained with school connections, and professional
identity. Although the medians of the last two measures were higher in the intervention group than
in the control group, the results were not significant.
Table 1: Comparison between control and intervention cohort, and active intervention cohort
n M SD Mdn
n M SD Mdn
n M SD Mdn
Prof social capital 37 4.26 0.591 4.17
77 4.29 0.574 4.33
42 4.46 0.356 4.50
Prof identity 37 4.38 0.551 4.00
77 4.46 0.530 4.33
42 4.56 0.573 4.67
Prof isolation 37 1.99 0.628 2.00
81 0.519 1.75
42 1.71 0.544 1.75
Knowledge transfer 27 4.22 0.424 4.25
59 4.18 0.591 4.25
33 4.18 0.584 4.25
Job satisfaction 28 3.61 0.629 4.00
58 3.19 1.115 4.00
32 3.28 1.170 4.00
Rural job retention 28 4.00 0.770 4.00
59 4.08 1.134 4.00
33 4.24 1.091 5.00
General WA use
(write) 37 3.81 1.101 4.00
77 3.88 0.959 4.00
42 4.29 0.636 4
General WA use
(read) 37 4.16 0.898 4.00
77 4.17 0.768 4.00
42 4.40 0.497 4
Knowledge score 37 9.89 1.505 10
7 1.743 11
1 1.656 11
In the next step, to address RQ2, the intervention cohort was controlled for active participation. That
is, only respondents who agreed or strongly agreed with having made many written contributions in
the facilitated WhatsApp group were included. (See columns Intervention (active) in Table 1). This
reduced the number of the intervention group to n = 42, who were compared with the 37
participants in the control group. (For some measures, the sample size differs because of missing
The analysis shows that the effects regarding lower levels of professional isolation in the WhatsApp
condition were even more pronounced, z = 2.279, p = 0.011, r=.25. In addition, the active part of the
intervention group (Mdn = 4.67) had also significantly higher levels of professional identity than the
control group (Mdn = 4.0), Z = -1.748, p = 0.04, r = .20. Moreover, the active contributors in the
intervention group exhibited a significantly higher inclination to search for a new job in a more urban
area (Mdn = 5.00 vs a Mdn = 4.00 in the control group; Z = -1.779, p = 0.038, r = .23). Again, the
medians of the measures of professional social capital and professional identity were higher in the
intervention group than in the control group, but the results did not reach the level of significance (p
= 0.075). And, no differences were found between the groups regarding job satisfaction and the
perceived knowledge transfer. The latter is again in contrast to the knowledge score which was
assessed through a test. There, the advancement of the intervention group was even more
pronounced (Z = -2.643, p = 0.004, r = .30).
In the third step, to address RQ3, we measured whether, and if so, to what extent, the general use of
WhatsApp across intervention and control groups would correlate with the socio-professional and
knowledge measures. Results with Kendall rank correlation show that nearly all the socio-
professional measures including job satisfaction and the intention to find a new job as well as
knowledge transfer were associated with the general and active use of WhatsApp (i.e. writing
messages). The most significant associations were found for professional social capital ( = .23, p <
.01), professional isolation ( = .22, p < .01) and professional identity ( = .23, p < .01). Similarly, the
general reading behaviour on WhatsApp (passive use), was correlated with the socio-professional
indicators of professional social capital, professional identity and professional isolation, albeit less
strongly than the active WhatsApp use. However, no correlations could be found between the
general reading behaviour on WhatsApp and knowledge transfer, job satisfaction and the intention
to find a new job in a more urban area. Unsurprisingly, the general WhatsApp use did not correlate
with the knowledge score.
Table 2: Kendall rank correlations of all measures
Measure 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1. Prof social capital -
2. Prof identity 0.28** -
3. Prof isolation -0.39*** -0.36*** -
4. Knowledge transfer 0.17* 0.3*** -0.2* -
5. Job satisfaction -0.06 0.07 -0.09 0.13 -
6. New job 0.21* 0.22* -0.19* 0.29** -0.06 -
7. General WA use (write) 0.23** 0.23** -0.22** 0.23* 0.2* 0.2* -
8. General WA use (read) 0.18* 0.21* -0.22** 0.14 0.12 0.17 0.34*** -
9. Knowledge score 0.11 0.06 -0.07 0.06 0.10 0.06 0.11 0.10
In essence, the facilitated use of MIM during learners’ school-to-work transition can enhance
knowledge and decrease professional isolation in comparison with a control group (RQ1). When
controlling for the active participation, the differences regarding knowledge and professional
connectedness were more pronounced, and broader, i.e., including also the development of a
professional identity. No differences could be found regarding the measure of professional social
capital maintained with school connections. One interpretation of this can be found in the answers
to RQ3, i.e., the strong associations between the general WhatsApp use and the socio-professional
measures (RQ3). More precisely in the finding that the general use of WhatsApp outside of the
intervention accounted strongly for the high levels of connectedness with former school friends, and
thus the the intervention could do little to accentuate ties further.
These results add to the emerging field of MIM research, a widespread but under-investigated
phenomenon (Tang & Hew, 2017, p. 85). The finding that socio-professional connectedness could be
improved through the use of WhatsApp extends insights from qualitative studies that attribute
heightened levels of social and emotional presence in the educational use of MIM platforms (Henry
et al., 2015; Timmis, 2012).
Importantly, the results also shed light on the modes of MIM use that impact potential outcomes,
and they might help to understand better the inconclusive findings of prior studies highlighted, for
example, in Tang and Hew’s (2017, p. 85) review. The present study suggests that, in addition to the
intensity of participation (Lai, 2016), it is the mode, i.e., the level of active (vs passive) engagement
which appears to impact the socio-professional and knowledge indicators measured in this study.
While we took the differentiation between writing and reading from Cho (2014), the underlying idea
can be already traced back to Watt’s (1967) study on opinion change. He demonstrated that, over
time, the active-participation condition (writing an argument) showed clear superiority over passive
participation (reading an argument), and also resulted in greater involvement in and superior recall
of the topic. In the domain of technology-enhanced learning, this discrimination has been taken up
rarely. One exception is the study of Rovai and Barnum (2007) who found that, in contrast to passive
engagement (the number of accesses to the discussion boards), only active engagement, i.e., the
number of messages posted by students per week, was a significant predictor of perceived learning.
However, no actual learning gains were assessed and no other validated measures were used in this
study. Remarkably, this differentiation is also neglected by many of the current social and mobile
media studies, including some of the most erudite works (Ellison et al., 2007, p. e. g. ; Valenzuela,
Park & Kee, 2009), which measure the intensity of social media use, e.g. expressed in terms of
frequency, the number of connections, or time spent in the digital space. In contrast, the findings of
this study reiterate the need to discriminate the different modes of engagement, and, more
precisely, they point to the value of active modes of engagement in mobile social media spaces.
The fact that the general, and thus informal, use of MIM alone can be associated with socio-
professional measures and knowledge transfer is another finding that requires contextualisation and
discussion. It underscores the relevance of MIM as part of students’ (inter)personal learning
environments (Pimmer et al., 2018; Timmis, 2012). Observations of this kind are still rare in the
extant literature, especially in the field of nursing, where, for example, a recent international study
on nursing students’ personal learning environments did not even consider the use of MIM
(Patterson et al., 2017). To some the association between informal MIM use and socio-professional
connectedness reflects findings of Sigalit et al. (2017), who found correlations between learners’
informal use of a range of social media platforms and resilience. They conceive the emotional and
social peer support, which can be provided through social media platforms during stressful events of
placements, as a relevant source for personal and group resilience (Sigalit et al., 2017), which might
be also applicable to the present investigation. More directly, this study corroborates the findings
from Pimmer et al.’s survey study (2018), who also identified linkages between informal WhatsApp
during placements and students’ maintained professional social capital, the development of their
professional identities, their placement satisfaction and reduced feelings of isolation from
The finding that socio-professional connectedness is linked to and can be enhanced by MIM use is of
particular relevance from a more practical perspective, as many health professionals, especially in
rural and remote areas, are affected by professional isolation (WHO, 2010). As the phenomenon of
professional isolation is not limited to health but concerns many other domains, such as teacher
training (Dussault, Deaudelin, Royer & Loiselle, 1999), the study’s findings are likely to be of more
general interest. For example, in one study teachers indicated that they engaged in informal online
communities to avoid the feeling of professional isolation. However, the expectation that
strengthened professional networks would alleviate the problem of retention of a rural workforce
(WHO, 2010), could not be confirmed by this study. The intervention-based WhatsApp activities did
not appear to exert effects on job satisfaction and rural retention. Moreover, the general (active) use
of WhatsApp correlated even positively with the intention to search a new job in an urban area, and
in the same way, with professional social capital, professional identity and (lower) levels of
professional isolation. This implies that, despite enhanced job satisfaction, strengthened professional
networks are associated with a higher tendency of professionals to search for a new job. This
seemingly contradictory pattern might be explained by Granovetter’s sociological network theory on
the Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter (1973, 1983) posits that weak ties facilitate the circulation of
information including new ideas across larger networks. He observed that weak ties, i.e. connections
among acquaintances and colleagues, like the former school friends involved in the present study,
result in enhanced opportunities for (job) mobility, because such information is much more likely to
be spread among distant these ties (Granovetter, 1983).
Although this study corroborates and extends prior work, a number of limitations in the study design
need to be taken into account and addressed by future research. Firstly, the study was randomised at
school but not at student level. While this approach was viewed relevant so as to leverage pre-
existing social ties (Boyd & Ellison, 2007; Ellison et al., 2007), it is linked to the typical limitations of a
quasi-experimental design in which results are less robust compared with the randomisation of
individual subjects. Accordingly, future research might involve student cohorts large enough so that
the randomisation can be carried out within (and not between) schools; and more generally, involve
larger student numbers. Another limitation is that the use of MIM was measured through self-
reported measures, which is prone to bias (Junco, 2013). We thus encourage future research to
measure the actual use of MIM. Although this could be done quite simply for writing (based on a
quantitative content analysis), the tracking of learners’ reading behaviour requires the use of more
complex technical measures or apps. Finally, the comparison was made between a MIM intervention
group and a group which was not subjected to any treatment. While the findings suggest significant
effects of the intervention, they say nothing about the suitability of MIM in comparison with other
digital and mobile social media tools. Although prior work points to the capabilities of MIM to afford
intimate conversations more than other social media channels (Karapanos et al., 2016), the question
of media comparison was outside of the scope of this research and should be addressed in future
The study examined the educational use of MIM, a massive but under-investigated phenomenon, to
support learners in their school-to-work transitions. These transitions are one of the most critical
developmental phases, marked by knowledge gaps and low levels of professional connectedness.
The findings add to the extant literature by showing the effects of moderated WhatsApp use on
knowledge and professional immersion, confirming and extending a number of prior, mostly
qualitative studies. Another central insight is the association between the general, informal use of
WhatsApp, outside of the intervention activities, and socio-professional and knowledge measures.
These connections underpin the relevance that MIM has achieved as part of learners and
professionals (inter)personal learning environments. Another contribution that this study makes is
the identification of active participation (writing contributions), as a key influencing factor across
moderated and informal MIM use.
We appreciate the contributions of Mr. Samson Akande, the Project Officer and Mr. Oladipupo
Olaleye who created the WhatsApp group chats. We are grateful to the principals and staff of the
Schools of Nursing for their permission and to all the moderators and students who participated in
The Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d programme), which is a
joint funding initiative by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swiss
National Science Foundation (SNSF), provided funding for this research (r4d-grant IZ01Z0_160910).
Measures and questions
Transfer of knowledge
(5-point Likert from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree)
I frequently apply theory/ knowledge gained from my training at my nursing school or
department of nursing in my current job.
It is easy to transfer the theory/ knowledge gained from my training at my nursing school or
department of nursing in my current job
The theory/knowledge gained from my training at my nursing school or department of
nursing helps me to improve my work in my current position.
The theory/knowledge gained from my training at my nursing school or department of
nursing is relevant to tackling daily work tasks in my current job.
Professional social capital maintained with former school colleagues
(5-point Likert from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree)
I feel connected with friends from my nursing school whom I trust.
There are friends from my nursing school I could turn to for advice about making important
I turn to friends from my nursing school to discuss professional or job-related problems.
Interacting with many friends and colleagues from my nursing school makes me feel like part
of a larger community.
I frequently discuss questions related to my work with friends and colleagues from my
I frequently discuss questions related to the profession of nursing with friends and colleagues
from my nursing school.
I feel distant from other nurses
I feel isolated from other nurses.
It is easy for me to get in touch with other nurses.
I am unhappy about being so cut off from other nurses.*
I feel part of a group of nurses.
* This item was excluded from further analysis to improve internal consistency.
I am pleased to belong to the nursing profession.
Being a member of the nursing profession is important to me.
I feel that I am a valuable member of the professional community of nurses
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