Communication Currents

Will This Be on the #Test?

December 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

As social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter become more prevalent, we see a blurring of lines between what college professors tweet about for social purposes and what they post for their academic audience (think: students and colleagues). Because of this, we became interested in how students interpret professors’ credibility when they use Twitter as a mode of public communication. Our study examines how the Twitter messages a professor posts could be sending the right—and wrong—signals to student Twitter followers.

This casual, out-of-class communication is important, as studies have found that informal communication with instructors can positively influence a student’s perceptions of trust, feelings of instructor immediacy (psychological distance), and motivation to learn. Research suggests that using multiple communication methods with students is a good idea because not all students are interested (or able) to meet with professors during office hours.

Despite the evidence that using mediated technology can help professors connect to students, we found some contradictory evidence about the content of those messages. If a professor is tweeting reminders about class content, then of course students might be interested and think positively about the professor using Twitter. But if the professor is tweeting about his or her pets and kids, how do students feel? Our research aimed to examine perceived differences in credibility based on the type of tweets a hypothetical instructor posted, and we wanted to investigate what students thought about instructors who use Twitter.

We created three different Twitterfeeds for three different hypothetical professors. One feed focused solely on tweeting social topics related to the professor’s personal life. Another feed tweeted only professional tweets. The third feed was a combination of both social and professional tweets. College students were then assigned one of the three Twitterfeeds to examine, and then they answered a variety of questions based on their perspective of that professor. Participants also answered questions about their own Twitter usage and completed open-ended questions regarding both positive and negative outcomes related to a professor having a Twitter account.

Our results revealed that the Twitter profile with professional content was the most credible. Looking at each dimension of credibility separately, the professional profile was considered more competent, higher in goodwill, and more trustworthy than the social content profile.

Our findings also indicated that the more participants thought it was a good idea for instructors to use Twitter, the higher their credibility ratings were regardless of the Twitterfeed the students were assigned to view. This means that if the students generally favored the idea that professors should be on Twitter, they found the professors to be more credible compared with the students who did not think their professors should be tweeting.

Finally, we wanted to determine how students describe the potential positive and negative effects of an instructor using Twitter. Students appeared to have overarching positive and negative perceptions about instructor use of Twitter, and this can affect how they feel about those instructors. On one hand, students found Twitter to be a useful addition to an instructor’s persona, as it keeps the student connected with the professor. Students indicated that Twitter can be used to extend the physical classroom, and it might serve as a better venue to use for communication compared with email. Twitter can also help improve student-instructor relationships; using Twitter can make instructors seem more relatable, personable, and approachable.

On the other hand, many of the same arguments made in favor of instructors using Twitter were also identified as drawbacks. Some students did not want the student-teacher relationship to go further than the classroom. They wanted to uphold the boundaries of the classroom and keep both students and instructors from being accessible at all times. Students were also troubled by the potential violation in the student-instructor boundary Twitter caused. They were concerned with their own professionalism as well as the instructor’s credibility being affected by biased or inappropriate tweets. Several of the concerns students raised were based upon an assumption that Twitter is where young people could express themselves and be silly without being noticed by authority figures. Many students also felt they did not want to know more about their professors’ families and hobbies. So, while instructors may look at a new social media tool and see opportunities to communicate with students, some students may not appreciate that effort.

As new social media tools emerge, instructors may find that those new tools are useful in and out of the classroom. From this study, we propose some common-sense guidelines for instructors and students on Twitter. First, for instructors: 1) clarify whether your tweets are intended for personal or professional audiences (or both), and 2) make sure your students understand how to use Twitter if you plan to post messages related to professional development or course materials. For students: 1) understand that, like you, your professors are human beings who have social lives outside of the classroom, and 2) if you like using social media and following or friending your instructors, recognize social media should not be the only way you form impressions of your instructors.

Overall, an instructor’s use of Twitter can be summarized by one student’s response: “It breaks barriers between students and professors, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing.”

About the author (s)

Jocelyn M. DeGroot

Southern Illinois University

Associate Professor

Valerie J. Young

Hanover College

Assistant Professor

Sarah H. VanSlette

Southern Illinois University