Professors increasingly use Twitter to engage students

Faculty members at many universities have begun to use social media as a tool to connect to students outside of the classroom.

Ulf Oesterle, the chair of the department of music and entertainment industries and professor in the Bandier Program, prefers students tweet at him rather than email him.

His last tweet with a student set up a meeting during office hours. Another student asked about an extension for a class project. During his social media and music industry course, students from other classes chimed in on a conversation about Google Glass on the class’s hashtag.

Photo: Danielle Roth
Ulf Oesterle uses Twitter to get to know his students.

He follows his students, most of whom are in the Bandier Program, on Twitter and is friends with them on Facebook if they friend or follow him first. The Bandier Program prepares students for careers in music industry, a field where social media savvy is essential.

Twitter has evolved into a central element in higher education, from how professors teach to how students rant. In 2013, 41 percent of professors used social media in the classroom, about a five percent increase from 2012. Seventy percent of faculty members use social media monthly for personal use, according to Babson Survey Research Group. According to a Pew Research Center report, 31 percent of college-aged people (18 to 24 years old) are on Twitter, and they’re vocal. Students’ tweets about “my professor” on Twitter create a skewed window into the college classroom.

Matt Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies and teaching assistant at the University of Iowa, started searching “my professor” on Twitter last September. “Students, I think, assume that professors can’t find them. It’s kinda like you’re eavesdropping on them,” Thomas said.

He spends a few days at the beginning end of the semester sifting through these tweets, retweeting the ones he thinks are particularly funny or weird. “I like that kinda rawness and honesty. It’s just stuff that you don’t hear as a teacher until the end of the year course evaluations,” Thomas said.

After searching “my professor” on Twitter, everyone has access to the banal or striking comments that sound like chatter overheard in a hallway. For example, @Kristin_Koonce tweeted, “Self-control is not chucking my Scantron at the professor after taking a test that the devil himself made.”

@ahuj9 tweeted, “One time during a lecture my professor’s front tooth fell out and he caught it mid-sentence and slipped it in his front pocket. That ruled.”

Some tweets report offensive things professors have said. @MindRacingFast tweeted, “My professor stated that most black children are born without fathers & will always fall into being in gangs or in jail #MinoritiesAtMadison.”

Some professors blocked Thomas on Twitter because of what he retweeted, but the majority of professors thought they were funny. “When people see these some people think, ‘Oh my gosh, what if a student tweets this about me.’ Other teachers think, ‘My students would never say this about me,’” he said.

Thomas hasn’t found students talking about him on Twitter, in part because he hasn’t searched for it.

Professor Oesterle has seen his students complain about other professors on social media. “You can tell when a class is not engaging based on the conversations that go on,” he said. “I’m sure they’ve complained about me too. It’s their right to do so,” he said.

Thomas said professors should be aware of these conversations happening on Twitter, even if it’s just to remind professors that students have a life outside of class. “It’s good for teachers to know that students can be complicated people too,” Thomas said.

Oesterle said Twitter is useful for getting to know his students. “We limit the number of students who are apart of [the Bandier Program]. It’s very hands on with internship placements and job placements,” he said. “I need to know what they’re into, what their strengths are. That relationship is very important.”

Students, in turn, can gain personal information about professors who choose to tweet such details. “My students know a lot more about me inside and outside the classroom,” Oesterle said.

Self-disclosure, revealing information about oneself, is a tool professors and teachers can use to relate better with students. Twitter facilitates self-disclosure and can help students and professors connect, according to a 2011 study published in Learning, Media and Technology.

In this study, researcher Kirsten Johnson found that students significantly rated professors as more credible if they tweeted socially rather than scholarly. Credibility was defined as competent, trustworthy and caring.

Rachel Shapiro, a writing professor and Ph.D. candidate for composition and cultural rhetoric, follows students who follow her back. “The fact that my profile is public to my students is in the back of my mind,” she said.

Professors face more scrutiny than students if their tweets are inappropriate.

In Kansas, the Board of Regents, the governing body for the six state universities and about 30 community and technical colleges, approved a new policy last December that gives the institution’s chief executive officer the ability to discipline or terminate any faculty or staff member who improperly uses social media.

In September, before the policy became official, University of Kansas suspended professor David Guth after he tweeted an inflammatory comment against the NRA.

Most students’ tweets are not in the limelight like professors’ tweets. Mildly inappropriate content can fly under the radar, until a professor or future employer starts to follow a student.

Geography professor Anne Mosher sometimes sees questionable content from her students’ tweets. “I was a student once. I know what students do,” she said. “I worry about what students say and the ramifications of having something like that out there in the future.”

“I’m sure I’ve posted things that maybe I shouldn’t have posted in the past,” Oesterle said. “I’ve probably have seen things that students haven’t wanted me to see.”

Thomas doesn’t follow his current students on Twitter, but that’s probably to the benefit of both parties.

“I think it’s just so weird,” Thomas said. “If I saw a student tweeting ‘Hey, I’m wasted with friends on Friday’, I’d be like ‘Don’t you have that paper due on Monday?’”

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