Professors and Social Media

May 4, 2010

Professors, particularly those in the senior ranks, might have a reputation for being leery of social media. But they are no Luddites when it comes to Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook and YouTube, according to a new survey scheduled to be released today.

The data suggest that 80 percent of professors, with little variance by age, have at least one account with either Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, LinkedIn, MySpace, Flickr, Slideshare, or Google Wave. Nearly 60 percent kept accounts with more than one, and a quarter used at least four.

A majority, 52 percent, said they used at least one of them as a teaching tool.

Designed by the Babson Survey Research Group, with support from New Marketing Labs and the publishing giant Pearson, the survey netted responses from 939 professors from colleges in Pearson’s network of two- and four-year colleges. Most said they teach in undergraduate programs, and more than a third reported teaching online or blended courses. Demographically, the respondents did not skew strongly to a particular sex, discipline, professional rank, or age, says Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson group, a research organization that also does work with the Sloan Consortium.

The negligible difference in social media use among professors of different ages came as a surprise, says Seaman. “It was universal across all classes of faculty members as far as how much they’re embracing this,” he says. “It was pretty much the same, no matter how we sliced it.”

This finding mirrors a similar surprise from a huge online education survey the Babson group did with Sloan and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities last summer, which found that neither age nor tenure status had any bearing on whether a professor had developed or taught an online course.

Faculty use of social media both in and out of the classroom has been the subject of some controversy. A professor at East Stroudsburg University was placed on administrative leave two months ago after some of her frustrated musings (“Does anyone know where to find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day”) were interpreted by some students as threats. Besides isolated cases of extreme indiscretion, there has long been debate over whether professors should accept “friend” requests: Some professors are glad to friend their students, while others prefer to maintain a professional distance. Professors have likewise been split over the use of certain social media as teaching tools. For example, some have called in-class Twitter forums gimmicky and distracting, while others evangelize it as a vehicle for unprecedented engagement with course content.

Of course, not all Web 2.0 tools are created equal. Among respondents to the Babson survey, YouTube was the preferred tool for teaching, with more than a fifth of professors using material from the video-sharing community in class. (Less than five percent said they use Twitter to transmit information to students.) Facebook and LinkedIn, meanwhile, were the most popular tools for communicating with colleagues. About ten percent of all respondents instructed students to create content within a social media community — such as contributing to a blog or posting a video — as part of an assignment.

While he says it is reasonable to treat the Pearson sample as representative of faculty behavior generally, Seaman warned against pinning any permanent theses about professors and Web 2.0 to the results of this particular survey. In the open-ended portions of the survey, a substantial number of professors said they do not currently use social media tools but expect they will in the near future — meaning that by next year, the rate of usage will probably be even higher. The tools are so new, he says, that professors are only beginning to discover pedagogical uses of different social networks. As those networks become more feature-rich, and as formal inquiries into the learning outcomes associated with different applications of those networks begin to be published, the popularity of certain tools might rise or fall in relation to others.

There was one point upon which nearly all the respondents, both advocates and skeptics, agreed: “This is a supplement to how I teach,” says Seaman, paraphrasing. “It will never become a primary delivery mechanism.”

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