Professors With Personal Tweets Get High Credibility Marks

Kirsten A. Johnson always wondered whether her personal posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social-networking Web sites affected her credibility in the eyes of her students.

So the assistant professor in communications at Elizabethtown College designed an experiment for 120 students at the college and has just reported the results. It turns out that professors with personal Twitter streams appear to be more credible than those who stick to business. The study, co-authored with Jamie Bartolino, one of her students, appears in the most recent issue of Learning, Media and Technology.

The researchers created three accounts on Twitter for three fictional “professors” named Caitlin Milton, Caitlyn Milton, and Katelyn Milton. One account was filled personal tweets (“Feeling good after an early morning swim at the rec center”), the second with scholarly ones (“Working on a study about how social-networking sites can be used in educational settings.”), and the third with a combination.

To Ms. Johnson’s surprise, when the students were surveyed, they rated the personal professor the highest on measures of competence, trustworthiness, and caring—which adds up to credibility.

Ms. Johnson thinks this might be, in part, because students could find a professor who tweets personal items to be more caring. The experiment was conducted among students at Elizabethtown, a small, liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania, where, she says, students strive to forge relationships with their professors.

“I think that students, particularly undergraduate students, want to make a connection with their professors that goes beyond knowledge,” she says.

Her study suggests that social networking can help accomplish that, while not sacrificing a professor’s standing in the classroom.

But there were some limitations.

Older students tended to respond less positively to tweets, as did students who didn’t use social-networking sites themselves. (Yes, there are some students who don’t.)

And while students said they like to know some personal details about professors—such as how the day went or plans for the evening—they don’t want to know everything.

“It’s just creepy to get any closer than that superficial level,” she says.

Ms. Johnson says the study has made her feel more comfortable about posting personal information on Facebook or Twitter, but there are certain topics she’ll never discuss, such as student or faculty behavior.

“There are times on Facebook when you just want to vent about something that happened in class, but I always refrain from doing that,” she says.

Professors take a range of approaches to engaging students on social-networking sites. Jeff Nunokawa, a professor of English at Princeton University, has posted 3,200 essays on a variety of subjects using Facebook’s Notes feature. Jeremy Littau, an assistant professor in journalism at Lehigh University, turned to students on Twitter to “crowdsource” his teaching philosophy. In a recent post on ProfHacker, Jason B. Jones writes about the value of sharing impersonal personal information on Twitter and in the classroom.

We’re curious: Do you use social networking in your teaching? And where do you draw the line between the professional and the personal? What are the consequences of crossing it? Please tell us in the comment area below.

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