Despite the fact that educators are typically expected to keep their private lives private, a recent study found that professors whose Twitter feeds included personal tweets that had nothing to do with academia were regarded as more trustworthy, competent, and caring by students.
In the scope of things, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are still relatively new. Many colleges, universities, and school districts have created rules and regulations regarding online interactions between teachers and students. Administrators want to avoid inappropriate behavior and they’re beginning to hold educators responsible for their online actions.
When used properly, though, social media can actually improve the learning experience. Teachers can post reminders about assignments or create discussion threads on topics being covered in class.
A 2010 Faculty Focus survey of nearly 1,400 higher education professionals found that over 35% of the 1,372 respondents who completed the survey in July through August 2010 use Twitter in some capacity, up from 30.7% in 2009. Over half of the current Twitter users (56.8%) said they expected their Twitter use to increase during the coming academic year, while only 2.5% said their Twitter use would likely decrease.
“Twitter is a great way to keep your students thinking after class,” Chris O’Neal, an instructional technology coordinator in Charlottesville, VA, told the National Education Association. “You can tweet a quick provocative question about a social studies lesson, for example, that will keep their brains active.”
Dr. Monica Rankin, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, decided to add more student-centered learning activities to her spring 2009 U.S. History course. After a few Twitter “experiments,” she found that breaking students into small groups to discuss required reading assignments and having one person in each group tweet the group’s most relevant comments, which were then projected on a screen for the rest of the class to see what others were discussing, was the most effective way to use Twitter in the classroom. “Twitter did not replace more conventional discussion formats; instead it enhanced the discussions and brought more student interaction,” Rankin concluded in Faculty Focus.
Kirsten A. Johnson, an assistant professor of communications at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA, always wondered whether her personal posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social-networking websites affected her credibility in the eyes of her students. To learn more, she designed an experiment for 120 students at the college. The results of Johnson’s study, The effect of Twitter posts on students’ perceptions of instructor credibility, was published in the most recent issue of Learning, Media and Technology. Her study, co-authored with student Jamie Bartolino, found out that professors with personal Twitter streams appear to be more credible than those who “stick to business.”
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Johnson and Bartolino created three Twitter accounts for three fictional professors named Caitlin Milton, Caitlyn Milton, and Katelyn Milton. One account was filled with personal tweets such as “Feeling good after an early morning swim at the rec center,” the second was filled with scholarly tweets such as “Working on a study about how social-networking sites can be used in educational settings,” and the third included a combination of the two.
When surveyed, students rated the “personal” professor the highest on measures of competence, trustworthiness, and caring—which adds up to credibility. “I think that students, particularly undergraduate students, want to make a connection with their professors that goes beyond knowledge,” Johnson stated. Her school, Elizabethtown College, is a small, liberal-arts college where, she says, students strive to forge relationships with their professors.
Ars Technica (Latin for “Art of Technology”) reports Johnson learned that older students tended to rate professors lower in credibility after having viewed their Twitter accounts. (The 120 students participating in the study were between the ages of 18 and 23.) Older students were also more likely to think it was a bad idea for professors to have Twitter accounts at all, citing the potential for revealing too much personal information and creating an awkward student/teacher relationship. Johnson pointed out that her three fake professors were all female, and that another study may want to see whether there’s a difference in perception of credibility among male professors.
Jason B. Jones of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker writes that “The notion of ‘pretending to be personal’ is important, and not just for Twitter. I’d be the first to admit that I talk a fair amount about my son on social media. But almost none of that is directly ‘personal’ in any particularly important sense. I can ‘pretend to be personal,’ without really expending too much emotional energy, or risking my family’s privacy. Much like Twitter, a few well-placed stories can create the effect of bonding–thus making interactions easier–without really requiring intimacy as such.”
Jones may have the right idea. Many educators cross the line, post inappropriate comments on the internet, and wind up in hot water for their actions. In February 2010, East Stroudsburg University sociology professor Gloria Gadsden says she was suspended because administrators thought she was making threats on Facebook. She jokingly referred to looking for a discrete hit man in one post and removed another that said she didn’t want to kill any students today, but “Friday was a different story,” reported the Gainesville Sun.
Lisa Soronen, staff attorney of the National School Boards Association, offered some advice to educators reading MSNBC. “If it were me, and I were a teacher, I’d say just don’t do it. Don’t engage in social networking with students at all. The name says it all. It’s about social networking. Social. Those are not the kinds of relationships that teachers are supposed to have with students.”
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.