Suggested Citation: Mohlabane, Katlego and Alisa Zomer. 2020. “Teaching on WhatsApp: Leadership and Storytelling for Grassroots Community Organizers”, Grassroot (South Africa) and MIT Governance Lab (United States).

This is a work in progress and we want to hear from you. Please be in touch if you use the guide and give us your recommendations (; Course materials and research results from the pilot are also available online. Below we include some excerpts from the guide:


This guide provides instructions on how to design and deliver an interactive training course through an app-based messaging platform. Drawing from Grassroot’s pilot teaching leadership and storytelling through WhatsApp, we share tips on pedagogy, participant engagement, and the technical aspects of launching a distance-learning course. Part I of the guide describes the pilot course and Part II delves into the details of teaching on WhatsApp. Along with MIT GOV/LAB, our collaborative research partner, we also include lessons on evaluation and learning.

Part 1: The Grassroot WhatsApp Course & Pilot

1. Introduction

What is Grassroot?

Grassroot is an organization based in South Africa that builds technology for ground-up social movements and community organizations. The Grassroot tech platform is built for low-bandwidth, low-data settings and allows smart messaging through text message (USSD and SMS). Group organizers can send messages to their members and be sure of delivery, at no cost to the receiver. This makes it easier to notify people of meetings or ask for volunteers regardless of data or device. The platform is available in South Africa and has reached over half a million unique users in the country.

Choosing a message-based app course

After four years of product development and field testing, people have used Grassroot to create hundreds of new groups and events each month, for everything from community organizing to local football meetups. With such promising numbers, Grassroot wanted to see if there was a way to help active users become better at mobilizing and organizing for improved outcomes and government responsiveness.

Though the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa is a successful case of this type of mass collective action, the current generations of activists face new challenges. Some of the social movements that were instrumental to ending Apartheid have since aligned themselves with political parties; others have struggled to move on from organizing models that were more suited to a very different time.

The course, first piloted in 2019 and ongoing today, is an attempt to build leadership skills for long-term organizing and mobilization, and to help participants realize and confront entrenched, systemic issues.

By hosting the class on WhatsApp, the aim is to reach those who typically cannot attend in-person trainings. Though Grassroot is an ideal platform for sending messages for community organizing, it’s not meant to support the kind of interactive group discussions that WhatsApp does. That’s why we looked outside of our own platform for a teaching solution.

2. Course Basics

What the course covers

The course, Leadership through Storytelling, focuses on three main aspects: 1) Storytelling for leadership development; 2) Rights and legislations; 3) Strategic problem-solving.

The storytelling content is based on Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” work, which focuses on identifying sources of hope and motivation to build shared visions for future change. We also include information on rights and legislation related to water and housing, specifically referencing South Africa’s constitutional and legislative provisions, because people often noted human rights in their advocacy work, but may not be familiar with the specifics. We wanted to see if additional information would help them gain traction with government officials.

The last course component focuses on strategic problem-solving as a way to move organizers past reactive responses, and towards more deliberate plans of action that are required for long-term campaigns and systemic change. We weren’t sure how impactful or useful each course component would be, but we wanted to try them out.

How the course works

The Leadership through Storytelling course is held entirely on WhatsApp over four weeks, and takes place in both large and small group chats.

In the large group chat, all participants (10-15 people) are expected to join at a designated time for a one-hour interactive session twice a week. A facilitator leads the class in a participatory discussion using a diversity of media, including text, voicenotes, images, and infographics. Each class ends with a homework assignment to be submitted the next day in the large group chat.

Each participant is also part of a one-hour small group chat (3-5 people) that takes place once a week at a designated time, led by a coach who provides more individualized support and encourages participation in a more intimate setting.

For the pilot, we had one facilitator and four coaches, each in charge of 1-2 small groups. Participants were expected to commit to a total of 4 hours a week for class time, coaching, and homework assignments. As described below, the precise rhythm and mechanics of how these groups are established and relate to each other makes a large difference to how these groups work in practice.

The course was piloted over five cohorts in 2019 with 61 participants, 44 of whom received certificates of completion. Through iteration, we determined that offering a small data incentive (R50 or approximately USD $3.50 per week) helped maintain participation. This amount was enough to cover data for class plus a bit extra for personal use. Coaching sessions that required group calls were also subsidized with R30 (~USD $2) of airtime for buying data. Additional participation incentivizes are discussed in more detail below.

The course content itself has been adapted and improved through Grassroot’s collaboration with MIT GOV/LAB to test the different course components. Drawing on adult pedagogy, we included a mix of participatory questions and tasks for participants to complete in real time.

Learning and Iteration

In technology and engineering, teams use short design sprints to work rapidly, try new things, and learn from what works and what doesn’t. We approached piloting the course similarly by teaching one cohort of participants, learning from what worked and what didn’t, and then making changes for the next cohort.

A key part of this process was building in points for reflection for our team during the course and documenting what we learned along the way. The pilot was also accompanied by a research plan developed with MIT GOV/LAB, which included surveys, interviews, and focus groups to gather data on the course’s impact after participants completed it. Key steps in our iterative process:

  • User research. The course content was tailored to Grassroot platform users. Grassroot used the deep, qualitative research from our strategic review and prior user research to determine community priorities and demand for learning.
  • In-person focus groups. The initial draft content was first tested with focus groups in communities where Grassroot operates in Gauteng Province (near Johannesburg). Facilitators tried out the content by running in-person classes with 5-6 participants, followed by a survey and group feedback discussion.
  • Online simulations. We also ran online simulations, where participants came into the office in small groups of 4-6 and participated in one class using WhatsApp on their mobile phones. Simulations were also followed by surveys and group conversations.
  • Participant observation. Based on initial findings from the focus groups and simulations, we adapted the course content and tried it with two online cohorts. We then drew observations directly from class behavior in the large and small group chats, and wrote up additional recommendations for implementation.
  • Iteration and learning. We conducted three additional cohorts as part of the pilot with adjustments at each stage, including the introduction of behavioral and monetary incentives.
  • Phone surveys and interviews. MIT GOV/LAB conducted baseline and endline phone surveys and qualitative interviews to document course outcomes.
  • Sharing what we learned. This guide is one outcome, but we also plan to share the outcomes of our study and pilot process as we evaluate the course’s impact.


Part II: How to Set up a WhatsApp Course — Tips and Lessons

As might be expected, developing an engaging course on WhatsApp is challenging both in terms of the technical aspects (how to create rich course content in a data poor context) and also pedagogically (how to maintain interest without face-to-face interaction). Most of the tips in this guide are based on the lessons from the pilot, and we continue to make changes and adapt the content according to feedback and behavior after each iteration.

1. Planning and Preparation

Deciding if a message-based course is the right fit

The decision tree below can help determine if teaching a messaging app-based course on a platform like WhatsApp makes sense for your organization.

  1. Identify your teaching goals and audience. What do you want to teach and who is your target audience? What concrete knowledge, skills, or experience do you want participants to come away with? Is there an intrinsic link between your teaching goals and your intended audience’s incentive to learn? Ensuring there is demand for the course, and motivation to participate, is essential to building a virtual classroom.
  2. Determine if teaching goals align with existing goals and activities. Is there a direct link between the online course and your current plans and strategy? By design, online courses don’t have a physical classroom to help maintain accountability. You need to have dedicated time and energy to build a credible team, develop the material, and adapt the course to hold participant energy.
  3.  Decide if online makes sense for your goals and audience. Teaching online has benefits and drawbacks. In the case of Grassroot, we knew that we didn’t have the capacity or geography for an in-person course. At the same time, because of our platform, we knew that many of our users were using mobile devices to interact with us and their communities and that there might therefore be an appetite for a message-based course. We also knew that WhatsApp is widely-used and that data requirements would make a course difficult on other platforms.

(Download the guide for more details and tips on the sections below).

Building a teaching team

To teach an online course, building a team is key. First, you need a facilitator who will lead and respond to participants in the scheduled large group sessions. Next, you need a team of trained coaches who are responsible for small group chats to answer questions, encourage participation, and provide feedback on homework assignments.

Recruiting participants

How do you recruit the “right” people? Below we talk about different ways we advertised for the class and, through trial and error, figured out how to recruit people who became active participants. Please note that in reaching out to potential participants, it’s important to be aware of any applicable data protection and privacy laws, for example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Preparing before class begins

Once class participants are set, a number of tasks need to be completed to set everything up. These are important logistics to cover at the beginning.

2. Developing and Structuring the Course

Developing a course for WhatsApp in low-data, low-bandwidth settings is not the same as for an online class taught with high-speed internet and the latest technology. It is also different from a traditional class taught in person. A key difference is designing content to keep people engaged and using WhatsApp as a social messaging platform to effectively build connections.

  • Find a curriculum designer who knows online learning and your target audience. Developing course content for WhatsApp is not simple. It requires knowledge of pedagogy and creativity. While you don’t need an expert, it’s important to find someone who understands different ways of teaching and learning for your target audience.
  • Play with the mix of media and question types. In today’s online culture, many people are used to rapid responses that don’t go too deep (think about how emojis have replaced emotions in online conversations). We found it was important to ask a mix of quick response and deeper questions (no more than 3 in an hour-long session), because people tend to check out if there were too many deep questions.
  • Practice the timing. Everything works more slowly online, especially when you are competing for people’s attention. Participants often took a long time to respond to prompts. Deeper questions often took 7-10 minutes for people to answer. Test how long it takes people to respond and build in extra time.


Designing for WhatsApp

WhatsApp makes it possible to present class content in a number of different formats, including text, graphics, images, and voicenotes. Check out the legends to see how we drafted and organized content that would be copied and pasted into the class WhatsApp chat. Through trial and error, we have come to use the following media types in the course:

  • colour legend helps the facilitator organize content in a Google Doc that is colour-coded according to the content type. Content can then be pasted directly from the documents into WhatsApp Desktop.
  • Emojis are the best tool for helping participants understand the course structure and what is expected. Different emojis signal when participants need to take action, for example the lightbulb emoji 💡 indicates a question to be answered, the ear emoji indicates a voicenote to listen to, and the pile of books emoji 📚 indicates a homework assignment.
  • Bold letters and numbers help distinguish between the actual questions and additional information that comes within the question or assignment. Numbering questions helps everyone keep track throughout each session, which is especially important given the flow and jumpiness of WhatsApp conversations.
  • Images and infographics make up the majority of information shared in class. They are the lightest type of media (i.e., less data intensive) and are easier to share on instant messengers.
  • Voicenotes are mainly used to share the stories and examples for assignments. Infographics with lots of text are also reposted as voicenotes for those who cannot see clearly. In a few sessions, participants are asked to submit voicenotes in response to questions that require critical thinking. This is easier than typing a long response on a phone keypad.

3. Running the Course

Incentivizing participation

Once you develop a great course and participants are ready, how do you ensure people show up and participate online? Setting expectations for online participation is tricky because there is no in-person social pressure and the course is

free. The nature of messaging platforms like WhatsApp compound this problem because they are designed for quick interactions, not a sustained class.

  • Personalize communications. When possible, use participants’ names when acknowledging good participation, attendance, and completing assignments. This establishes a more personalized connection and people look for their names to make sure they get credit.
  • Give detailed feedback often. If you only say “thank you,” participants don’t know that anyone reviewed their work and they feel assignments aren’t worth anything. Provide specific feedback and notes on all assignments.
  • Consider offering data incentives. We offer airtime for small group calls, and later for good participation, though this is not promised. We define “good participation” as showing up for sessions on time, answering all the questions, and handing in assignments on time.
  • Award certificates of completion. Offer a formal acknowledgement of people’s participation in the course. People asked for this at the very beginning and now participants can receive hard copy certificates and/or PDF versions sent via WhatsApp. Templates for creating these kinds of certificates can be found on Microsoft Powerpoint’s featured templates and themes or on

Download the guide for more details on the pilot and tips for developing your own course.