At the urging of my daughter Karen, a grad student in Public Relations, I have been experimenting a bit with using social media, namely Facebook and Twitter, as a way of interacting with students. I was also encouraged by a study by Joseph Mazer and his colleagues that suggested that students expected a “more positive classroom climate” from teachers using Facebook . On the other hand, 35% of the undergraduates said that teacher use of Facebook was “somewhat appropriate,” while 33% chose “somewhat inappropriate.” Since the study was published in 2007, one might wonder if the data would now be different.
Mazer et al.’s participants also had some words of advice for teachers: be professional, “be yourself,” and “respect your students’ privacy.” Hopefully, professionalism goes without saying, but there are certainly some people who need some lessons here, like the Dartmouth professor who confessed to using Wikipedia to prepare her lecture the night before. Oops. Fortunately, our family has maintained websites since 1996, and none of us would write an email or post anything that one wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper.
How much personal stuff to share is another interesting issue, whether one is talking online or in the classroom, and here you will see professors on both ends of the continuum. Some are quite open, others speak of nothing outside their subject. Obviously, the professional part plays a role here–students really don’t want to hear about professors’ politics, ex-spouses, personal problems, etc. I don’t think you can go wrong by keeping things positive.
The student privacy issue is a big one. I do have students who have “friended” me on Facebook, and I usually respond to their inquiries by private message. I do not typically look at their pages. On the other hand, students should remember that when they update their status, we get notices on our home pages, and that includes the use of profanity, oh I have a huge hangover, etc. Professionalism goes both ways. I know, that spoils the fun a bit–it’s like having a chaperone at a party–but given the access to Facebook by potential employers, this may not be a bad thing.
The most effective strategy, in my experience, is to set up a group site for your class on Facebook, which doesn’t require anybody to “friend” anybody else. I have a group for my intro psych classes and another for my Discovering Biological Psychology textbook, which I’m hoping people will use to ask me questions or make suggestions for the book.
Twitter seems to be a whole different thing, and it’s evolving rapidly. At first, I thought of Twitter as being a constant stream of status updates, but now it seems more like a news feed. I actually have two Twitter accounts, lfreberg and biopsych. The lfreberg is for more general things, like blog posts and comments on interesting articles, and the biopsych is more specifically for my textbook writing.
Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” motto seems to apply here. The rules seem to be evolving along with the technology, but a little common sense seems to go a long way. If you have other suggestions for professors using social media, please let me know.
1. Mazer, J. P., Murphy, R. E., & Simonds, C. J. (2007). I’ll see you on “Facebook”: The effects of computer-mediated teacher self-disclosure on student motivation, affective learning, and classroom climate. Communication Education, 56(1), 1-17.