Just reading a piece of research by Kirsten A. Johnson from the Department of Communication at Elizabethtown College titled The effect of Twitter posts on students’ perception of instructor credibility (academic paywall) which illustrates some of the positive teaching benefits of not only using an open social network like Twitter, but using it in a very personal way.
Building on results of previous studies that show that instructors perceived as highly credible can have a positive impact on student learning, this study looked at the impact using Twitter might have on an instructors perceived credibility with students.
One of the factors that can increase the credibility of an instructor with learners is self-disclosure of personal information. You straddle a fine line with personal information. Too much or the wrong type and you can hurt your credibility (the phrase creepy treehouse just popped into my head as I wrote this). And indeed, many of the participants in this study expressed concerns about the appropriateness of instructors using social networks:
When participants in the study were asked why it is not appropriate for teachers to have social networking site accounts, many worried that they would not post appropriate information, thereby causing possible awkwardness in the student–teacher relationship. This feeling among participants supports previous findings that show it is important for teachers to disclose only appropriate information.
But as this research shows, when you hit that sweet spot, social media can help you make some very real connections with your learners, which can translate into improved learning.
The research looks at three different Twitter scenarios and how each influences a students perception of the instructors credibility.
- The instructor posts nothing but social information on Twitter
- The instructor posts nothing but scholarly information on Twitter
- The instructor posts both social and scholarly information on Twitter
120 undergrads from a small US college participated in the study. Interestingly, 81% of the respondents were female while only 17% were male and while the gender balance of the institution where the research was conducted did skew female (64%-36%), the author does acknowledge that this imbalance may alter the generalizability of the study.
The students were divided into three groups. One saw only tweets that were social, one group saw scholarly tweets, and one group a combination of scholarly and social tweets.
The results showed that the students who saw only the social tweets of the instructor rated that instructor as more credible than the group that saw only the scholarly tweets. Interestingly, there was no differences found between the group that saw the combination social-scholarly tweets and the other two groups, which runs counter to how I think Twitter should be used by College level educators since so much of an instructors credibility with students at this level is tied directly to their subject-matter expertise. The authors of the study were also surprised by this result.
It was surprising that there was no significant difference between the scholarly group and the social + scholarly group. Since the dimensions used to measure credibility have both a caring and a competence component, it was interesting to note that the scholarly tweets, which were included in the study to raise the teacher’s level of perceived competence, did not significantly raise competence ratings in the groups that saw the scholarly posts. This could be an indication that caring, not competence, is the most important dimension when it comes to assessing perceived credibility on social networking sites.
The researchers conclude that:
No longer do teachers need to use class time to reveal bits of personal information about themselves: instead, this revelation of information can take place outside of class in a forum where students can choose whether to look at it. The nature of Twitter with its short updates, options to share pictures, and to easily post links may make it the ideal place to share information and carry on conversations with students outside of class. The use of social networking sites allows conversations to continue and can enrich a student’s perception of the teacher. As previous studies show, this personal communication can develop trust and lead to a productive learning environment
One of the bits about this research that I wasn’t keen about was that the fake instructor Twitter accounts did not contain a photo of a person, or even an avatar, but rather a generic photo of a sunset. I understand that the research didn’t want to bias the results of the study based on physical appearance, but to me if you are going to examine the issue of credibility on social networks, then not having a photo could very well flip the bias to the other end of the scale.