Students and scholars in tweet harmony

Sian Lawson on how to align expectations in the social media age

August 8, 2013

Students may not grasp what we are up to much of the time (after all, if there are no photos on Facebook, it didn’t happen)

In some ways being a student and being a lecturer are not so different: we stay up late writing papers; we chase deadlines; we go to lectures.

Yet sometimes academics fall into the trap of assuming that students inhabit the same world as us, generating confusion when they act in ways we do not expect.

One obvious and crucial difference between the groups is the fact that the current crop of students have been immersed in a world of information technology their entire lives. It can be hard to grasp the discrepancies in etiquette and expectations that this can bring.

Of course, today’s school leavers – practically born with Twitter and Facebook accounts – take for granted that information will always be at their fingertips. Just because we have smartphones too doesn’t mean that we understand the worldview of someone who is likely to be googling our words as we say them.

For students, taking an hour to respond to an email indicates a callous lack of interest; for lecturers, leaving Facebook open on screen during a computing lab is disrespectful.

When a department in which I teach started to record lectures and make them available online, many of us were concerned that physical, real-world attendance would drop. We were wrong: in fact, it went up by more than a third. It had never occurred to the students that they might not be able to get all the information online afterwards, and when they listened to the recordings they came to understand the benefit of attendance, too.

So how can we better align our expectations? Let’s start with that impatience – the fact that students expect a response or solution from academics immediately, even outside office hours.

Most universities use virtual-learning environments, which have forums for student discussion and tools such as online quizzes with instant feedback, but do we always make the best use of these resources? Some lecturers (including me) have got into the habit of putting frequently asked questions and their answers on the front of module pages. These may contain information that students should already have, but every emailed question is incontrovertible proof that someone has failed to find or understand the answer. I respond to the emails but also post the answers online as FAQs, a tactic that has saved me hours of effort and improved student satisfaction to boot.

It is also worth acknowledging the fact that today’s students may not grasp what we are up to much of the time (after all, if there are no photos on Facebook, it didn’t happen). Regular updates – whether on an FAQ board that keeps growing or via a regular automated email on the topics to be covered at the next seminar – help to reassure students when we are not able to speak to them face to face.

The visibility of students’ lives online has changed the nature of peer pressure, too. Many of those who use Facebook post endless pictures of their amazing social lives; I imagine that they rarely post images of themselves writing essays.

But we can use online forums or virtual-learning environments to help remind students that it is normal to apply themselves. Many departments have started Facebook groups to discuss academic issues informally and students check into them far more regularly than you might expect.

This approach can also help to reach the students who are less bold in asking for help, and engagement on Twitter or Facebook will encourage more of the small questions or complaints that we would not hear about otherwise. It may result in an uncomfortable level of feedback for some – but it also means a less anxious wait for the results of student surveys.

Academics are used to altering their tone to match the audience and context, whereas students tend to lack such skills and so will, for all their tech-savvy, sometimes be uncomfortable with more formal forms of contact. In the long term, students need to develop these skills: in the meantime, we can meet them halfway.

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