Article by James Kabrhel
Facebook. Snapchat. TikTok. WhatsApp.
Any adult would be hard pressed to keep up with the number of social media apps that are released every year. They are like fad diets in a way, with each having a vogue and then fading into nominal usage as the younger generations constantly look for the next fun way to communicate with their friends. This kind of commentary makes me sound like a much older person, but it is very important to recognize that the typical methods current instructors used to communicate may not be the preferred methods for students.
I have been using social media since soon after the advent of smart phones. I do not remember who originally invited me to Facebook, but that website has had a profound effect on my life. I have shared many personal items over the years, including important events in my family, numerous pictures and videos of my son, and various comments on the world at large. After a few years using Facebook, I thought I would leverage it into a way to keep in contact with former students at the Sheboygan and Manitowoc campuses. Many of us have former students who have come back to tell us how they are doing, or to ask for a reference or letter of recommendation, or even general advice. I figured a Facebook group would be a conduit for students to engage with me that way. I did not count on Facebook falling out of favor with the younger generations. After a year or two, I stopped keeping up with it. Over time, even I did not use Facebook as much. There is a fatigue that sets in when you feel obligated to go to a place regularly, whether it is a real place or a virtual place. I am sure that students also feel the same kind of fatigue (especially when it comes to our classes, sad to say).
I teach Organic Chemistry to all three additional locations, so communication can be a bit challenging. I am based in Sheboygan so the other campuses do not get as much physical time with me. Several years ago, I had a group of Organic Chemistry students who asked me to join a Snapchat group they had created. I had never used the app before, as I had no need to, and other than Instagram, did not use social media much anymore. I did this because it allowed the students to ask me questions about course material directly, sometimes taking screenshots of their work, while allowing the whole group to see the answer. I had responded to student questions via email before, even getting screenshots that way, but email is generally slower for providing feedback, and as we have heard, students do not use email in the same ways that we do. They abandon modes of communication quickly, except perhaps texting.
The Coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the need to adapt communication methods, as it became very easy for students to fall off the radar. The normal lines of communication (direct phone calls, text messages, emails) will likely have limited impact in future years because many students will not bother to communication back via those methods. It will be using messengers connected to social media apps, like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and many different apps that do not exist yet, that will allow for better communication.
There are some secondary benefits to establishing communication via social media, though those benefits also have risk associated with them. Students who communicate via these social media apps do so with their friends, which means they often share their personal lives too. That bleeds over into communications with me. This is often not an issue, and sometimes can be very helpful. More than once I have been able to provide guidance in a more personal and important matter for a student, when other members of their circle are not supportive enough. I have even been able to steer students towards support from the Dean of Students office and mental health counselors. This certainly shows a level of trust they have in me that goes beyond just a professor. From interactions I have had with some former students, I am part school advisor, career counselor, mental health counselor and even parent.
This is where the risk comes in. While I can say that most of the interactions I have had of this type are former students, sometime current students will ask for advice or support of a more personal nature, and that it really becomes a blurring of professional support and personal support. Using these apps also means that I can get messages at all times of the day or night. I tell my students that a quick response can be expected during normal hours, but I’m not checking in during the middle of the night. Some students can get used to instantaneously responses and could get annoyed or worried when I do not respond right away. I do my best to let them know that I have a life and family outside of campus and they cannot expect instantaneous responses all the time.
I have also shared a little more of my personal life with my students via these media, though I have never hesitated to talk about my family (in a general way) in class. The students become a bit more familiar with me in that way, seeing me more as a person and less as a guy who talks about chemistry a few times a week.
Sadly, there is no one medium or one app that would allow us to communicate directly with our students instantaneously. I really wish that there was. We used to depend on email but that has completely fallen out of style with students, based on my experience. In the absence of that one direct communication pipeline, we have to get creative to make sure that we can engage and support our students in the ways that they need. That means getting a little more “social” and perhaps a little more personal.
What successes have you had communicating with your students? What challenges have you faced? Have you seen the shift away from email—and how have you adjusted? Let us know in the comments below!
About James Kabrhel
James is an Associate Professor of Chemistry with research interests that are largely Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SotL) based, including the incorporation of pseudoscience-based projects in support of information literacy, and the support of student mental health in the classroom. James also actively develops Open Educational Resources (OERs) for use in the chemistry classroom.