To Profs, YouTube Tops Twitter

Survey documents faculty members' use of and views of various social media.
April 12, 2011

DENVER -- Think Twitter is a great professional and teaching tool for professors? You're not alone. But according to a new study, you're in a very slim minority.

Twitter, that most draconian of short-form social media, might have Silicon Valley venture capitalists emptying their pockets and Wall Street investors salivating at the prospect of a public offering. But for all the talk in certain academic circles about how useful Twitter can be for generating class discussions, collecting research data, and reaping the wisdom of faraway colleagues, the overwhelming majority of professors see it as a short sell.

This according to a study released Monday by the Babson Survey Research Group and the e-learning giant Pearson. The study -- which garnered responses from 1,920 faculty (tenure-track and otherwise) at various types of institutions -- was designed and carried out by Babson, which says it ceded no editorial discretion to the education company that commissioned it. The collaborators presented some of the findings here during a session at Pearson's annual user conference.

Probing the uses of nine different types of social media among professors, the study found that professors consider YouTube the most useful tool by far -- for both teaching and non-classroom professional use. Nearly a third of respondents said they instructed students to watch online videos as homework, and about 73 percent said they thought YouTube videos were either somewhat or very valuable for classroom use, regardless of whether they use them currently.

Other Web 2.0 tools fared less well among the professors -- particularly the tools with the most currency in broader culture. Only 2 percent of the professors said they used Twitter in class, and another 2 percent said they used it for professional purposes outside the classroom. Slightly more said they could see at least some value in the microblogging site, but those long-sellers still amounted to less than a tenth of all respondents.

Facebook, too, is tapped in class or for homework assignments only rarely, even if many professors use the site for personal or professional networking. Faculty rate the site's long-term prospects in the classroom only slightly above Twitter's, with 15 percent submitting that it is at least somewhat valuable.

Many professors -- 53 percent and 46 percent, respectively -- think that Twitter and Facebook not only lack pedagogical value but in fact harm classroom learning. (They did not say why.)

Wikis, while not attracting as much negative attention as those two, are still not getting much classroom use, according to the survey. However, faculty see their potential value as higher than Twitter or Facebook, with 36 percent saying they view wikis -- shared documents that can be edited by multiple collaborators -- as having some value in the classroom. (The survey did not distinguish between Wikipedia, the open-source online encyclopedia, which has attracted both scorn and optimism in academe, and other types of wiki, such as the more localized kind living elsewhere on the Web and in learning-management systems. Jeffrey Seaman, the director of the Babson group, said that based on "other results," he would guess that professors using or referring to non-Wikipedia wikis are "very rare.")

Echoing the results of a similar but more limited survey Pearson and Babson did last year, faculty use of social media for teaching or any other purpose did not break along generational lines. There was, however, a slight difference between professors who teach online and those who teach in person, said Seaman. Professors teaching online might be more likely to deploy social media tools to make up for the loss of the social aspect that is built into the classroom environment, he guessed. There was also some variation by discipline, with professors in the liberal arts and social sciences using Web 2.0 tools more frequently than their colleagues in computer and information science, Seaman said.

At the unveiling of the survey findings here, audience members offered some personal testimony of their own experiences using social media. One said she and her colleagues in instructional design use a wiki to share tips and best practices. Another said he lets students message him on Facebook, since some seem to prefer that to e-mail. None, however, said they use social media tools in the classroom.

But Gerald Bergtrom, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said he is planning another application that involves the principles of Twitter, though not the website itself: he wants to limit students to 140 characters of text when they are formulating hypotheses and conclusions. Why? Because even if some academics would call such a character limit stultifying, there is something to be said for being concise where it counts. "It's not using it as a social medium," Bergtrom says. "It's actually using the 140-character strength to force students to gather their thoughts and state clearly a hypothesis or a conclusion."

In so doing, Bergtrom said he hopes to cultivate a skill rarely associated with Twitter. "What I'm trying to do," he said, "is get them to focus."

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