Yesterday I received emails and tweets asking what I thought about the study reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education that examined the relationship between tweet content and student perception of instructor credibility. One of my social media (and life) rules is that I will not comment on a paper that I haven’t read. Luckily, through the magic of Interlibrary Loan, I was able to get my hands on a digital copy today.
One of the things I liked most about the study was their clever design: they created three Twitter accounts for fictitious instructors and had three groups of students rate the instructor’s credibility using a 3-item scale (which unfortunately, was not shared in the paper). The author found that students rated instructors as more credible if their Twitter feed included only social tweets versus instructor accounts that contained only scholarly tweets. There were no significant differences in credibility for the group that was exposed to an account that had both social and scholarly tweets.
The author does a good job of framing their research using studies looking at instructor credibility in the real world. Since I began teaching, I’ve thought about this a lot. I mainly teach first year students and it’s clear that my students are apprehensive about interacting with their instructors– something that doesn’t fit with my philosophy of education which is that education is an interpersonal relationship and for me to be most effective, I must know students as people and they must know me. Now, I’m not talking about inappropriate sharing– I’m talking about helping my students know that I’m a real person and approachable. One byproduct of being approachable is that it increases the chances of a student being successful in class (and beyond) because they are more likely to come to the professor with concerns (academic and otherwise) that might impede their learning. They are also more likely to ask questions and engage academically. I believe the same about online social spaces– they give students a low-stress way to see what you are like. I’ve said elsewhere that my Facebook page is “sanitized for mass consumption” and that while I don’t ask students to friend me, I will accept friend requests from students. What they find on my Facebook page might sometimes be surprising because I share much more in the classroom than I do on Facebook. That’s just how I roll.
- The most interesting point was that in order to control for extraneous variables, students were rating static Twitter streams. That is, students read a web page with 22 tweets. In real-world use of Twitter in the classroom, there is dynamic interaction between faculty and students. Just like in the real world, when students follow an instructor’s Twitter feed, over time they begin to be able to “read between the interpersonal lines” to get a better sense of what the tweeter is like. Imagine having no context by which to make appropriate evaluations of someone– ever receive an email where you wondered if it was a joke or a mean spirited statement? Yeah, there’s a paper for that and let me summarize it for you– it’s almost impossible to discern tone online without added context. I would have loved to see other conditions– where students read statements made by instructors on paper and another where the students knew the instructors in real life and followed their Twitter feeds (certainly the latter condition would have thrown off their tight controls but would make for interesting data to elaborate on the “between the lines” phenomenon).
- In addition to missing the digital context between tweets, students in this study were missing real-world context of experiencing a professor in the classroom. Presumably (and as cited in some of the studies in the introduction), instructors are also sharing personal information in the classroom.
- There may be a gender interaction effect– the majority of the participants were women and all of the Twitter accounts portrayed female instructors, who may have been rated as more caring and credible. This was cited as a limitation by the author.
- An interesting finding that wasn’t reported in the Chronicle article was that older students were less likely to believe that instructors should have Twitter accounts. They didn’t provide an explanation of this but maybe it’s because once students have acclimated to college and have engaged with faculty, they are “over” that and would rather be more business like. It could also be due to Twitter penetration rates– Pew Internet and American Life Project data show that younger adults are more likely to be on Twitter than older ones and therefore, the younger students may have a better understanding of what it means to be on Twitter.
It’s been clear through my own research that student comfort level with faculty use of social media depends on the faculty member’s reason for doing so. If you ask students if they want their professors to use Facebook or Twitter with them, many will say “no.” However, if you ask them – or better yet, encourage them to use Facebook or Twitter for educational purposes, they take right to it. One study found that 47% of students said that using Facebook in their courses would be “convenient” and 27% stated they would welcome the opportunity to connect with faculty and other students on Facebook. Preliminary qualitative analyses of a study we are currently conducting show that when given a choice, students are much more comfortable using Facebook as part of a large lecture course than other technologies (including the institution’s Learning Management System). Furthermore, the richness of discussions on the course Facebook group wall and in the group chat are unparalleled when compared to other technologies. This makes sense– students spend a lot of time on Facebook and are very familiar with the platform. Build a space that’s not a creepy treehouse, give students a nudge, and watch them engage in collaborative learning and take ownership of their education.