“You have 164 pending friend requests”: the readiness of secondary school teachers to communicate with their students via social media
A small research study was conducted at a bilingual school in the Netherlands to establish whether there are factors that affect the use of social media between teachers and students regarding course content. One major contributing factor was found (school policy), ‘student involvement' and ‘a work phone' were only important if it was supported by a school policy. Others (teacher-student relationship and uncertainty avoidance) had little effect and the teachers' willingness to move their communication to social media.
General introduction and relevance
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, stated, “we are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain”. There is no denying that the Internet has taken a central position in our society: sharing information, sharing pictures of cats, dogs and our everyday life, connecting with friends and strangers from around the world, its pull is evident and the possibilities are endless. It seems that people live two lives simultaneously; one online and one offline, and the boundaries between those lives are blurry. Teenagers who have grown up with technology are labelled ‘tech-savvy' and find it hard to resist the pull of the devices that connect them with their online world (Abe & Jordan 2013). This offers a potential platform for schools to reach students who have become decreasingly motivated to participate and excel in schoolwork (volkskrant 2016). It seems logical to assume that teachers can influence the students' commitment by using social media and other technology used by students. However, despite the potential academic advantages and a potential selling point for schools in their quest for new students, the use of using personal social media platforms, such as Facebook, might affect the professional boundary between teachers and students. In a school environment that welcomes the digital age and promotes interconnectivity are teachers willing to become digital ‘friends' with their students, even if it benefits the students' learning experience? This small research will explore factors that can influence the readiness of teachers to interact with their students via social media.
Social media and its uses
The promises of using technology for learning are numerous: communication, inquiry, collaboration, practicing research strategies, resource sharing, critical thinking, peer support and communication regarding class content all belong to the possibilities that can enhance students' learning experiences (Greenhow & Lewin 2015). Boyd and Ellison (2007) define “social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 2). Social media enable students to build a sense of community, which is important for their identity development and sense of belonging (Casey & Evans 2011). Social media used for learning also allows students to engage with less hesitation with class content, such as asking questions and participating in discussions (Mazer, Murphy & Simonds 2007). Schools try to incorporate technology in their system since “integrating these applications into learning and teaching practices has the potential to trigger significant educational innovations as they enable new forms of interactive and collaborative learning” (Schroeder, Minocha & Schneider p. 169). Especially the younger generation of teachers, who can be as equally tech-savvy as their students, use one or more forms of social or digital media, especially Youtube and in their lessons (Szeto, Cheng & Hong 2015). Dutch marketing research bureau Newcom Research & Consultancy concluded in 2015 that the most popular social media platforms among teenagers in the Netherlands are: WhatsApp, Facebook and Youtube, with an honourable mention of Instragram whose usage by teenagers between 15 and 19 years of age has increased with 8% compared to 2014 (Oosterveer, 2015). Despite a decline of 12% in 2015, the large majority of Dutch teenagers between 15 and 19 have a Facebook account. Since Dutch teenagers use these platforms most frequently these platforms will be included in this research. Facebook and Instagram are social networking sites, adhering to the definition above, that involve a higher degree of personal disclosure than a content community such as Youtube (Szeto, Cheng & Hong 2015). Facebook and Instagram require the user to make a personal profile and display an array of various content to the visitor of the profile page. These platforms, as well as Youtube and WhatsApp, require a personal account to allow the user to actively participate in connecting with others and, thus, are an extension of ourselves and create an image of us as we communicate with others. This research will only incorporate Facebook, Instagram and Youtube since these platforms fall within the definition mentioned above and these platforms create this ‘extension of the self' and allow for making a network connection with others and ‘like' or comment upon each other's messages and pictures. Students respond positively towards a curriculum that uses social media as a tool for teaching and communicating, despite the fact that they do not score better on tests (Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds 2007). Also, teachers seem to be aware of the different types of social media and how it may be used in the classroom and increasingly make efforts to enhance learning through these digital platforms (Abe & Jordan 2015; Szeto, Cheng & Hong 2015).
Importance of teacher disclosure
The man or woman in front of the classroom, the teacher conveying information to students is, to this day still, a human being who is responsible for the students' learning development. Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007) state that “research has suggested that teachers who personalise teaching through the use of humour, stories, enthusiasm, and self-disclosure are perceived by their students to be effective in explaining course content an foster student learning and create an environment that encourages student participation inside and outside the class room” (p.5). The face-to-face conversations that the teacher has with his or her students in the classroom can be moved to an online environment, such as Facebook. Szeto, Cheng and Hong concluded that students who visit Facebook pages of teachers who have a high level of self-disclosure become more motivated in class than when they visit the Facebook page of a teacher who has a low level of self-disclosure (2015). Combined with the information regarding social media use it suggests that teachers who have a high level of self-disclosure and actively participate in communicating with students might have the highest level of influence on the students' level of active involvement with course content and their learning development. This research will draw on the term ‘self-disclosure' as used by Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007) as “any message about the self that a person communicates to another” (p.1). However, the use of this ‘self-disclosure' will be extended to online-disclosure through the use of the social media platforms as described above.
Teachers are able to connect with students through social media sites, such as Facebook, Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007) warn that teachers also “run the risk of harming their credibility if they utilize Facebook” (p.3). This “risk” depends on what the teacher chooses to disclose about themselves on their Facebook, which may either positively or negatively alter students' perceptions of them. Previous studies reported a positive association between perceived social presence and perceived learning, but no connections were found between social presence and grades on the final exam (Kožuh et al., 2014). Yet, the majority of student perceptions regarding the use of social media in the classroom are positive and the atmosphere in the classroom was positively affected. Furthermore, the boundaries between the professional and private life will become blurred, Pillay, Goddard and Wills (2005) concluded that “teachers are expected to continually adapt and keep up with different types and functions of families and schools, transformation in types of work and the nature of employment, as well as new and different information and communication technologies. These factors have the potential to continuously impact on teacher well-being and competence” (p.25). Paul Levy (2015) stated that modern “employees want to bring their own devices to work, and enjoy social media connection in whatever way suits them. But they want to close the door on work when they get home and not be pestered by work at home”. If teachers continue interacting with students ‘after office hours' this might prevent teachers from winding down in their private time and, consequently, experience a heightened level of work-pressure.
Are there factors that influence the readiness of teachers within the department of humanities of Laar & Berg to communicate with their students via social media in order to improve student involvement regarding lesson content?
The school chosen for this study is a bilingual secondary school in the Netherlands. The school is fertile ground for a study of this kind since the school is part of a larger organisation that stimulates the use of technology and promotes interconnectivity.
Three semi-structured interview were conducted with three teachers within the Humanities department of a bilingual secondary school in the Netherlands. This department was selected since this department's lesson content is drawn from every day life. Therefore, the teachers have an array of topics to discuss with their students outside the classroom and this would not become a potential pitfall. The teachers were not specifically selected for their age or their gender. Due to the small sample their answers should not be generalised and applied to the whole teacher population. However, their answers do give information regarding potential obstacles for teachers and their use of social media with students outside the classroom and their answers could be used as a starting point for a further, and larger, research. The teachers were all between 45 and 55 years of age, two of them were female and all of them had been working at the school for more than thirteen years, showing a committed attitude to the school and to teaching and thorough knowledge of the role of a teacher.
A list of eight questions was formulated (see appendix 1), and the participants were asked the questions at school in an empty classroom without disturbance. Preference was given to an interview to give the participants an opportunity to explain their feelings towards the subject in their own words. The interviews lasted approximately ten minutes. The interviews were conducted in Dutch, since the school is a Dutch school and all the participants, including the interviewer, are Dutch. For the purpose of the analysis the terms have been translated. For the clarity of this research Dutch quotes are substituted for English paraphrases in the results section. The labelled and annotated interviews with are enclosed in the appendices (see appendix 2).
The questions sought to establish to what extent the teachers were already familiar with social media. The questions also required the teachers to respond to factors that, according to the literature, had an effect on or could affect the use of social media between teachers and students. These factors included: ‘seeing the relevance to improve students' involvement' and ‘level of understanding of the social media platforms' both drawn from Szeto, Cheng and Hong (2015), ‘improvement of the teacher-student relationship' and ‘school policy' both drawn from Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007), and ‘use of personal device' drawn from the article by Paul Levy (2015).
The interviews were analysed and labelled with English labels to facilitate the analysis of the interviews in English in the ‘results' below. First, sub-labels were created, which were then grouped together. During the analysis the frequency of the occurrence of the labels was looked at, as well as a positive or negative attitude towards the topic concerned. The label ‘boundaries' (BD) encompassed four sub-labels that all explored a different area of boundaries of the teacher as a professional and as a person. This label was chosen to ensure that the possible pitfalls mentioned in the theoretical framework could be explored. Teacher disclosure (TD) first seemed that it should have been a sub-label to BD, however, since TD can also be used for professional purposes and does not necessarily involve crossing a boundary the TD received its own label. However, should be noted that TD was often mentioned with BD and this will be addressed in the ‘results' below. Work pressure (WP) and stress (ST) have different labels since ST refers to technological stress and WP to pressure through meeting expectations at work or workload. The sub-label ‘social media for communicating with students about school' (SMS) was the topic and objective of this research as well as ‘factors' and ‘readiness (RD), however only SMS and RD were turned into a label since these are connected to the topics the respondents addressed. The label ‘factors', contrarily, was omitted since the questions directly asked for influencing factors; the topics that made up those factors were sufficient. The sub-labels ‘students presence' (SP) and ‘student learning experience' (SLE) were united under the ‘involvement of students' (IS), since these could be a motivating factor for teachers to engage in social media use. SP can also refer to the students' engagement with the way the curriculum is presented. SLE purely looks at whether students are satisfied with the way the content is taught. The learning experience and the presence, mental presence or being engaged, The sub-labels ‘tech-savvy' (TS) and uncertainty avoidance (UA) were drawn from the literature and can indicate whether a teacher does or does not (want) to use social media out of fear of the consequences or having insufficient knowledge of the platforms. No separate (sub) labels were given for negative attitudes towards these factors, since the topic remains unchanged and the attitudes and their effects on use of social media are discussed below.
All of the respondents were, to some extent, acquainted with and users of Youtube, Facebook and Instagram. Especially Youtube was used in the lessons to present and process content and Facebook and Instagram were used for one or two projects. However, none of the respondents had ever used any of these social media to communicate with students outside of class regarding class content. This leaves much room for improvement should the school's management ever decide that the use of social media by teachers was desirable within their strategy. When asked two of the respondents could not think of any factors that would stimulate them to use social media outside of the classroom, one teacher said that she would consider it if she saw a good practical example of the use of social media. However, this was only for occasional use and she immediately added the issue of privacy as an obstacle. Looking at the questions that ask the teachers to respond to the factor of the improvement of the involvement of students (IS, SP, or SLE), it is noticeable that none of the teachers responds solely positively. They all have an objection; this is either preserving the boundary between work and leisure time, preserving the professional boundary between teacher and students or the apprehensiveness regarding social media. The promise of an involved student population is not sufficient to take away any objections the teachers have. Privacy and the professional boundary between teachers and students is an important issue that must be addressed if a school wants to urge its teachers to use social media with their students. None of the teachers thought that an improved teacher-student relationship was a factor that would stimulate them to start using social media with students. This might be affected by the age of the teachers in the sample and the fact that they have been teaching for a long time and rely on their present reputation. Potentially, younger teachers who have not been in the profession long enough might be more inclined to see this as a contributing factor. The third factor, use of a work phone, was met with mixed response; one disliked the idea of being available after office hours, one applauded the idea because it supported the construction of a framework which would clarify the teacher-student role in the field of social media, and one thought it was convenient but not a necessity for the use of social media. The fourth potential influencing factor, a clear school policy regarding the use of social media, this factor seems, according to this small sample, key to a successful way to improve a digital friendship between teachers and students. All of the respondents wholeheartedly plead for a school policy regarding the use of social media. Currently, they feel that the behavioural rules on the social media platforms are unclear and that they would feel unsafe using social media because the tone might become to colloquial and the professional relationship between the two parties might become less obvious. One teacher states that he believes students need to be given guidelines anyway, since they are not aware enough of how information, images, and messages are shared and received. One respondent feels extremely apprehensive and believes that personal boundaries are created for a reason and that teachers have no business interfering with the private lives of students and visa versa. The other two are not as outspoken but still feel that clear guidelines are needed to navigate around the social media platforms without disclosing the wrong information or fail to strike the right note. The final potential contributing factor concerns the unfamiliarity of online platforms. Two respondents first respond hesitantly, however they do express that if desired by students or the school that they would be willing to learn and improve their technological skills. The sample teachers all prove to be tech-savvy to some extent, however they express a reservation towards fusing their professional and their private identity. It is plausible that a new generation of teachers who grow up with the ubiquity of social media and are used to interacting online with people from different social groups will be less hesitant to blend their online and offline lives.
Conclusion and recommendations
This small study sought to explore whether there are factors that influence the readiness of teachers in a secondary school in the Netherlands to communicate with their students via social media to improve the students' involvement. The main contributing factor is a clear school policy regarding the use of social media between teachers and students. Students' involvement was important but has to be supported by a clear policy. The teacher-students relationship and the potential uncertainty avoidance of unknown platforms is not significant importance for the use of social media. A work phone provided by school is only considered to be a positive factor if it is supported by a policy.
This research included a small sample of respondents, however, it explores a perspective that up till now has not been sufficiently explored; the perspective of the teacher as a person and not as a professional. Literature suggests that the benefits of using social media are numerous and that it is indispensible in a modern digital environment, not merely in the chosen sample school but in any school that aims to follow technological developments. However, guidelines should be developed to reduce the risk of potential unprofessional behaviour.
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