When COVID-19 forced college courses online, Stuart Middleton, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia, was having trouble connecting with his remote students. So he decided to try to meet them where he heard they were happy to spend time — on TikTok.
He started creating videos on TikTok, and he worked to make his posts fit the playful spirit of the platform. In many of his videos, he acts out scenes from famous Hollywood films, except swapping in terms from the strategic management courses he teaches.
In one of them, for instance, he plays the part of Clint Eastwood’s character in the film “Dirty Harry,” in an iconic scene where he asks, “Do you feel lucky?” Except, instead of saying “Have I fired six shots or only five today?” the professor says, “Have I analyzed five forces or only four,” referring to a management theory known as Porter’s Five Forces.
Other clips he’s created feature modified scenes from “Zoolander,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Titanic.”
The professor admits it’s “corny stuff,” but he says he was inspired by watching other top TikTok influencers, such as the performer Drake.
“He’s doing heaps of corny stuff,” Middleton tells EdSurge. “This is the way he’s relating.”
It turns out he’s not the only professor experimenting with TikTok in their classes. It’s hard to figure out how widespread the practice is, but some scholars, including Middleton, have recently published papers in academic journals about their experiences. And a few TikTok profs have even gone viral.
But the TikTok platform is also increasingly controversial. At least 20 state universities around the U.S. have blocked the use of TikTok on their campus networks, often to comply with new state laws and regulations barring the app on state-owned devices and networks. Officials in those states argue that the platform, owned by a company in Beijing, is a threat to cybersecurity, or they are concerned about spying by the Chinese government.
Even so, data shows that TikTok is where students congregate these days. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. teens say they use the service, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, and TikTok recently surpassed Google as the most-visited site on the internet.
Will it come to play a role in college classrooms?
Bringing Science to the Public
One of Caitlin Light’s many duties as an assistant professor at Binghamton University is running the social media accounts for the first-year research immersion program, and students quickly had some advice for her: No one uses Instagram anymore. Students now are all on TikTok.
So she decided to experiment with making TikToks of her own — with the help of her students.
“I’m an expert with what students struggle with and what they need to know,” she says. “And they’re the experts on what’s going on with TikTok right now.” Plus, she added, figuring out TikTok can be like “going down a rabbit hole.”
Many of the posts Light has made have focused more on motivating students rather than delivering instruction.
And she knew she had to make it interesting from the beginning to get anyone to watch.
“If it’s a boring, lecturing thing — like you’d see with a YouTube video — you’re going to get scrolled right by,” she says.
One of her posts shows Light bursting into the laboratory in a white lab coat and dancing to a pop song that was popular on TikTok at the time, while a halo-like effect flashes around her. Text on the screen says: “Me entering the lab second semester of FRI excited to perfect my lab skills, be a good team member and make new discoveries!”
The goal, she said, was “to build some momentum and enthusiasm for the semester.”
As she learned more about TikTok, she decided to make creating short posts an assignment for the class. She challenged students to put their TikTok skills to use explaining science concepts, and what research looks like, to the public with posts.
“The biggest piece for me using this in the classroom is helping my students explain their research to normal people,” Light says. “Our research is for the people and it’s for making change in the world. If we can’t get people interested in it, we’re not getting money, we’re not creating impact. People aside from our little academic bubble have to be interested.”
She and a colleague published a journal article about their experience last year, called “TikTok: An Emergent Opportunity for Teaching and Learning Science Communication Online.”
“It is the ethical responsibility of researchers to disseminate findings with the public in a timely way,” the paper concludes. “As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, effective science communication is vital to fulfilling that obligation. Inspiring the next generation of science communicators will continue to improve science communication, making exciting discoveries accessible to everyone.”
‘It’s a Language That the Kids Speak’
Shauna Pomerantz, a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, in Canada, doesn’t make TikToks of her for classes, but she finds ways to play clips from TikTok in her lectures.
“I bring TikToks in all the time,” she says. Just this week, she says, she gave a lecture about racism. “I showed a compilation of TikToks of Black mothers showing their Black daughters the trailer for the new ‘Little Mermaid’ movie which has Halle Bailey in it,” she says. “I used this TikTok video as a way to talk about how representation matters.”
She sees TikTok as the latest in a long tradition of professors using popular culture and youth culture to connect with students.
“If you’re not on it, you’re missing out on a conversation,” Pomerantz says. “This is why teachers are gravitating to it, because they know it’s where the kids are and it’s a language that the kids speak.”
Pomerantz became interested in TikTok early in the pandemic, when her then-11-year-old daughter found comfort scrolling through videos there. She ended up inviting her daughter to collaborate on a research project with her about TikTok, to document the platform’s role in young people’s lives.
“There’s so many wedges on TikTok that you can’t really talk about it as one thing,” Pomerantz says. “It’s like being at a big high school where you will find your people and you will ignore the rest.”
Not everyone thinks professors should be encouraging the use of TikTok, which many see as a distraction that can keep students from paying attention in class or their studies. And others complain that it perpetuates a skimming-over-the-top attitude toward information.
“These little videos can perpetuate mythology, incorrect information, slanted views and actually discourage critical thinking,” educational consultant Paul Bennett told the CBC News, in an article they wrote about Pomerantz’s experiment.
Middleton, the professor in Australia, says he was initially reluctant to embrace social media in teaching, and that he rarely uses Twitter himself and at one point canceled his Facebook account in protest.
But he decided to give TikTok a try, especially since so many of his students were international students from China, where the service originates. Still, he makes a point to post all of his videos to the learning management system so even those who don’t use social media can see them. “I don’t want my students who don’t have a TikTok account to miss out on this content,” he adds.
“Would I encourage my students to be on social media all the time? No,” Middleton says. “But they’re not going to get off of social media because I told them to.”