By Deborah Miller, PhD, HSPP
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Indiana University East
I like having fun with my students. It’s one of my favorite things about teaching. Getting to know about them and their personalities, senses of humor, pets, jobs, families and how they interact in a group of their peers is so rewarding. But beyond being enjoyable for me (and hopefully the students!) the sense of engagement and classroom community engendered by a positive classroom environment is beneficial to overall student success (Kuh, 2001).
Personalized interactions can be tough to cultivate in an online environment. I’m sure many of us have found out just how tough it can be as we’ve pivoted to online instruction during the COVID pandemic. And it’s likely that online learning is only becoming more prevalent with time – in 2019, about 65% of students had participated in an online course (Sellers, 2019) and that number will likely be closer to 100% by the time the pandemic comes to its conclusion. It will be essential in the coming semesters and years to find innovative ways to engage students in the online learning environment and create a sense of community that allows for relationships between faculty, students, and their peers to grow.
One way to do that is through new technology that is popular among younger generations and allows for glimpses into our students’ lives and personalities. A few studies have explored the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook as tools to increase engagement and community (e.g. Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Junco et al., 2011), but we certainly find that new technologies are springing up and gaining popularity at rates that make it difficult for researchers (and instructors!) to keep up.
TikTok is one such technology that is incredibly popular and also provides ample opportunity for students to engage with class material, faculty, and peers in creative, highly personalized ways. If you’re like many faculty members, you’ve perhaps peripherally heard of TikTok but may not have ventured to use it yourself. But, if there was ever a time to put yourself out there and learn something new for the sake of your students, now is that time.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a smartphone app that allows users to create short video and photo projects that can be edited to include music, filters, effects, text captions, and more. TikTok-ers use the app in many ways, including creating lip sync videos and viral dances to their favorite songs, brief comedy videos, and other incredibly creative, engaging content styles. The allure of TikTok is that the videos are short, engaging, and creative. Once you get the hang of it, TikTok is very easy to use and videos can be created anywhere in a short amount of time.
Why would I use TikTok in my classes?
TikTok can provide a unique way for students to engage with the course material, their instructor, and their peers. It offers a chance that goes beyond ordinary assignments, papers, and discussion posts for students to inject their personality, sense of humor, and snippets of their personal lives into the classroom in ways they might typically do in seated courses. When creating their videos, students turn to their environment for inspiration – whatever is nearby gets used as the cast and crew. For some students, this means allowing their peers and instructor to meet their pets, family members, roommates, significant others, etc. while creating their videos. For others, it is an opportunity to display an artistic skill or a behind the scenes look at an aspect of their lives that would not normally be presented in an online course. This sharing of themselves can increase a student’s sense of belonging and community with their online peers and faculty.
How can I use TikTok in my classes?
While there are endless uses of TikTok depending on your own level of creativity, there are two ways I typically use this in my course to promote engagement and community. First, I want to promote engagement with the material in a creative way, so the TikTok assignments always require students to create a video explaining a concept from the week’s materials according to their own understanding of it. They can complete this in any way they want, whether it is ultra-creative or just meeting the basic requirements. Second, I want the students to engage with each other, so the TikTok video creation assignments are embedded within a discussion post. Students are divided into small groups of about 5-6 and must post their own video to the discussion, view each small group member’s video, then vote for their favorite video of the week by “liking” their favorite video’s discussion post (a feature that can be enabled in the Canvas LMS, but I’m unsure about the features of other LMS platforms). This creates a slight sense of competition for some students and for those who enjoy competition, it motivates them to do their best work to impress their peers. However, I ensure that the environment is not so competitive that it intimidates the students who are less competitive in nature.
This model of discussion board TikTok assignments is very effective at increasing students’ engagement with material and each other, but one final factor requires instructor attention throughout the course so that student-instructor engagement is increased. I make sure to watch and make personalized comments on every student’s video in each discussion. Students are putting themselves out there in a somewhat vulnerable manner for their peers and instructors – showing parts of their personal lives that they may not be accustomed to sharing with online peers and instructors (or even in seated classrooms if they are more introverted). It can be an intimidating and vulnerable process for some – but I have certainly found that the students who were willing to step out of their comfort zones to fully engage with this assignment had incredibly positive experiences when they were met with encouraging responses to their videos, not only from peers but especially from the instructor. I take great pains to make an encouraging comment about a personalized aspect of the video (e.g. I love your dog! You certainly used him to effectively explain the concept of operant conditioning.)
An additional way that I actively use TikTok is to make my own videos that use my own personal life and environment. This is a great way to let students get a feel for who you are as an instructor and just regular person behind your instructor persona, which can highly contribute to students’ perception that you are accessible, approachable, and authentic – three factors that are important to students forming a personal connection with their instructors, which is a predictor of student engagement and sense of community (Mandernach, 2009). I not only create TikTok videos as examples of what students could do for their discussion assignment videos, but also to embed into course materials as a quick way to illustrate a variety of course concepts. This way, students get “behind the scenes” engagement with me throughout the semester, just as they would if we were chatting before or after class or if I told an interesting personal story that related to the lecture material.
Are there any downsides to TikTok?
If students are unfamiliar with TikTok, it can feel intimidating or vulnerable. Nontraditional students may feel especially nervous to leave their comfort zone and learn a new technology that is typically associated with younger people. That is why it is important to design all TikTok assignments with transparency in mind – students need to know that there is a pedagogical purpose behind the activity. You’re not just trying to be a “cool parent” who knows the latest trends – you’re using this app for real purposes that will help them succeed and as an added benefit, hopefully have fun at the same time. This is one assignment that can benefit especially from the Transparent Teaching framework by Winkelmes (2016), so students fully understand the goals and rationale for the assignments at the outset.
Another important factor is that students will need plenty of time to learn how to use TikTok before the first assignment is due. Provide some tutorial materials (easily found on YouTube) and plenty of examples of the types of videos you are expecting. Make the first TikTok assignment a complete/incomplete grade to allow students some wiggle room as they are learning a new skill. Give them a wide range of acceptable types of videos for the assignment.
Finally, you will have students that for whatever reason, students just feel a lot of anxiety about creating a video of themselves. It is important to be clear to those students that personal information is NOT required. TikTok allows users to create photo slideshows and text-based videos that do not require the students to video themselves or their surroundings if they want to retain their privacy. I have had students create a slideshow using a series of memes they found on the internet and did not contain any private information at all. Other students have used tools within TikTok to create text-based explanations of their chosen course concept accompanied by a song – again, no personal disclosures required. It can also be helpful to let students turn in video using ANY app they wish, even just the video recording app on their phone, if they have a particular aversion to TikTok. Students can also create private videos in TikTok, download them to their computer or phone, and re-upload them to the discussion board so that they do not have to use the public sharing feature of TikTok or link their peers and instructors to their personal TikTok account if they have one for personal use. For students who are extremely averse to this assignment, I allow them to create more traditional presentations in PowerPoint or Prezi, if they meet the minimum standard for explaining course concepts.
Using new technologies to engage students and create a sense of classroom community should be a strategy in addition to what has already been found to work. However, popular technologies like TikTok can provide unique opportunities to engage students in ways that are not possible with traditional strategies. While it can be challenging to learn something new, it can also be highly rewarding. Whatever strategies you end up using to create engagement and community, you can be confident that you are doing your students a service and contributing to their success.
Heiberger, G. & Harper, R. (2008). Have you Facebooked Astin lately? Using technology to increase student involvement. In R. Junco & D. M. Timm (Eds), Using emerging technologies to enhance student engagement. New directions for student services issue #124 (pp. 19–35). San Francisco, CA: Jossey‐Bass.
Junco, R., Heiberger, G. & Loken, E. (2011). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 2, 119–132. doi:10.1111/j.1365‐2729.2010.00387.x.
Kuh, G. D. (2001). The National Survey of Student Engagement: Conceptual framework and overview of psychometric properties. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/24268/The%20National%20Survey%20of%20Student%20Engagement%20Conceptual%20framework%20and%20overview%20of%20psychometric%20properties.pdf
Mandernach, B. J. (2009). Effect of instructor-personalized multimedia in the online classroom. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3).
Sellers, E. (2019). Poor time management in online education. Seattle PI. https://education.seattlepi.com/poor-time-management-online-learning-1435.html
Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.