Surprising Study: 4 of 5 Professors Embrace Social Media

It’s apparently a common misconception that professors are not willing to embrace social media. According to a new study from the Babson Survey Research Group, more than 80 percent of professors have at least one account with either Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, LinkedIn, MySpace, Flickr, Slideshare, or Google Wave. Nearly 60 percent kept accounts with more than one, and a quarter used at least four. A majority, 52 percent, said they used at least one of them as a teaching tool. (view slideshare presentation)

The Nitty-Gritty

The survey was a collaboration between Babson Survey Research Group, New Marketing Labs, and Pearson. The survey polled 939 professors from 2 and 4-year colleges and universities around the country. Most said they teach in undergraduate programs, and more than a third reported teaching online or blended courses. Demographically, the respondents did not skew strongly to a particular sex, discipline, professional rank, or age, says Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson group, a research organization that also does work with the Sloan Consortium.

The study found that social media use is highest for humanities and social sciences teachers, and that long-tenured professors don’t shy away from social media any more than their younger colleagues.

But the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights an important nuance in social media consumption:

Don’t picture a nation of professors asking students to tweet in class. Only about 10 percent or 12 percent of survey responses represent “active” uses of social-media tools, meaning professors expecting students to post or comment on or create something, said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which conducted the study with Pearson and New Marketing Labs. He contrasted that with “passive” activities like reading or watching a video.

Nearly Every Professor Uses Social Media, No Matter Their Age

The negligible difference in social media use among professors of different ages came as a surprise, says Seaman. “It was universal across all classes of faculty members as far as how much they’re embracing this,” he says. “It was pretty much the same, no matter how we sliced it.”

This surprising result is similar to the results found by Babson in a large-scale online education survey the group ran with the Sloan Consortium and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities last summer. It found neither age nor tenure status had anything to do with whether a professor had created or taught an online class.

According to Inside Higher Ed:

Faculty use of social media both in and out of the classroom has been the subject of some controversy. A professor at East Stroudsburg University was placed on administrative leave two months ago after some of her frustrated musings (“Does anyone know where to find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day”) were interpreted by some students as threats. Besides isolated cases of extreme indiscretion, there has long been debate over whether professors should accept “friend” requests: Some professors are glad to friend their students, while others prefer to maintain a professional distance. Professors have likewise been split over the use of certain social media as teaching tools. For example, some have called in-class Twitter forums gimmicky and distracting, while others evangelize it as a vehicle for unprecedented engagement with course content.

Professors Love YouTube

Of course, not all Web 2.0 tools are created equal. Among respondents to the Babson survey, YouTube was the preferred tool for teaching, with more than a fifth of professors using material from the video-sharing community in class. (Less than five percent said they use Twitter to transmit information to students.) Facebook and LinkedIn, meanwhile, were the most popular tools for communicating with colleagues. About ten percent of all respondents instructed students to create content within a social media community — such as contributing to a blog or posting a video — as part of an assignment.

While he says it is reasonable to treat the Pearson sample as representative of faculty behavior generally, Seaman warned against pinning any permanent theses about professors and Web 2.0 to the results of this particular survey. In the open-ended portions of the survey, a substantial number of professors said they do not currently use social media tools but expect they will in the near future — meaning that by next year, the rate of usage will probably be even higher. The tools are so new, he says, that professors are only beginning to discover pedagogical uses of different social networks. As those networks become more feature-rich, and as formal inquiries into the learning outcomes associated with different applications of those networks begin to be published, the popularity of certain tools might rise or fall in relation to others.

There was one point upon which nearly all the respondents, both advocates and skeptics, agreed: “This is a supplement to how I teach,” says Seaman, paraphrasing. “It will never become a primary delivery mechanism.”