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Social media has broken the barrier between faculty and students. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
Social media has broken the barrier between faculty and students. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

Education

Social media has brought students, faculty too close Add to ...

I stopped reading RateMyProfessors (RMP) years ago. I would occasionally log in and read the comments. Most of the comments were positive, but no good came out of the experience overall. I was amused with some of the comments, but I did not have that moment when a comment made me rethink my course, change a book on the reading list, or delete an assignment.

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RMP is a bit of insight on whether a student likes or dislikes you. I am assessed by my peers with a tool designed by my university for a more reflective learning and teaching purpose. The tool allows me to see how I compare to my department and across campus. This is useful for my own teaching and learning, and also gauges how I fare compared to others. Frankly, the students’ qualitative comments on this assessment are the most useful and are more well-thought out than what I read on RMP.

I was thinking about why I steer away from RateMyProfessor after reading a new study which found that professors are experiencing cyberbullying online, from both students and fellow professors. One of the changes ushered in by social media is that the barrier between professors and their students which sometimes put too much distance between us, but often ensured mutual respect, is now broken.

Students can converse via Twitter in 140 characters or less and instant message via Facebook or other apps. Students can also post on these platforms and share things that they may not say to your face. There is a certain freedom behind that phone or laptop.

If you are online lots, as I am, students assume you are always available. To them. This is a mixed blessing, as they ping you asking for a paper extensions, informal essay rewriting or want help with their research. For some of them it is easier to contact me than read the syllabus; however, I am clear – read the syllabus first.

On other occasions, the ways in which students engage on social media gives me pause. I have had to ignore certain conversations regarding rude behaviour in my classroom or trolling by former students. It is easy to ignore; however, I do not like it when they include my employer’s hashtag in a tweet. Pick on me or troll me, but you do not have to troll the university.

Some of my current students send text-like emails that lack punctuation and even capitalization. If I cannot read an email, I certainly cannot respond to help you with your issue. Others use all-caps when they are frustrated and I have to point out that all-caps means they are yelling at their professor. I do my best to practice safe computing and good social media use. However, I have seen other faculty face personal or political attacks via their former students or community members online via different social media platforms.

As a result of all these interactions, I have now changed my syllabus to include a section on “How to email your professor and teaching assistants.” I have also added a paragraph explaining that students cannot contact me or the teaching assistants for 24 hours after they receive a grade. Why? This helps some of them from sending off an angry text-like email to me or one of my teaching assistants.

The ease of communicating via social media has also introduced more positive informal conversations. I have met prospective students online and then scheduled a coffee or office hour consultation. I have found that my university network has grown exponentially in a positive way thanks to social media. It is great to walk through the library or another building and hear, “Hi Professor, great tweets this morning! I will see you in class tomorrow.”

I might not know this particular student’s name, but the fact that they are saying hello and engaging more is extending outside of the classroom. Students will also share information with me on different social media platforms or via email. They are sharing current events or information related to our course discussion in the same way that they used to come with a clipped article. When I hear from my students more, that demonstrates to me that they are thinking deeply about the course materials.

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