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TikTok teaching? KMDI researchers study the social media platform’s use in academia

Submitted on Tuesday, November 09, 2021

By Rekha Morbia

Professors are following in the footsteps of their students, taking to TikTok to share their videos. But while the students may be showing off their dance moves and pets, the professors are putting the spotlight on their research, hoping to make it accessible to a wider audience beyond the academy.

A new study by a team of researchers at the Faculty of Information’s KMDI Institute looked at the different ways academics, educators and scholarly communities are using TikTok, the popular social media platform that specializes in short-form user-generated videos, to share knowledge. The researchers discovered everything from gothic architecture explainers to weight loss tips.

In one video, for example, Evan Pridmore, an art historian who goes by @evan.hart on TikTok, explains how church interiors during the dark ages were actually highly colourful and brightly painted as opposed to dark and dreary, as they are perceived today (a result of accumulated soot). In another TikTok, Dr. Giles Yeo of Cambridge University discusses how managing one’s body weight through calorie counting is a trend that negatively impacts many people. To understand the implications and benefits of professors and researchers using TikTok – which ranks as the fourth most popular social media platform after Youtube, Snapchat and Instagram – the Academic TikTok study examined user behaviour, concerns about youth engagement, data and privacy implications, the technical features of the app, and the visual aspect of scholarly contribution.

Working under the supervision of the study’s co-leads – JP King and KMDI Director and Associate Professor Sara Grimes – four graduate students with an interest in critical media literacy reviewed TikTok videos made by academics. The team also analyzed more than 100 journal articles, books, and research papers focused on TikTok, social media, technology, and digital rights. Finally, their study recommends some best practices for academics using TikTok or thinking about trying it out.

“If watching YouTube is like sitting in a lecture, then using TikTok is like having a conversation,” says co-lead JP King, an instructor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, who researches how technology can improve learning experiences. “TikTok provides a fun place to create new forms of accessible learning shared outside of classrooms, textbooks, and conference halls.

TikTok videos tend to be “amateurish” and offer a peek behind the scenes. The estimated 20 million-plus daily users, who are mostly under 30, embrace a less professional approach and don’t feel the need to make everything perfect. They may simply record themselves with their smartphones with no special lighting or makeup. While this might feel out of place on Instagram or YouTube, it is acceptable if not expected on TikTok.

What makes TikTok, which came into existence in 2016, unique is how the platform encourages active engagement. Users can remix one another’s videos or produce creative responses towards others’ content. York University Professor Kinnon MacKinnon’s TikTok videos often use catchy rhythm and blues songs to draw attention to the intersection of LGBTQ+ public health and STEM research.

At the same time, users risk having their video or audio remixed or repurposed without their permission if they don’t adjust their privacy settings accordingly. “You might make a sincere video explaining your research that someone else turns into a song or a joke,” the study warns academics. “Decide now if you’re comfortable with that possibility.”

The study’s authors attributed this issue at least partly to a generational shift around intellectual property. Without bibliographies or citations, TikTok videos can challenge the sense of ownership that academic communities have around ideas. “It’s more difficult to maintain ownership of your ideas online, and you can’t control how people will use your imagery or audio. Researchers must be aware of this fact, and be thoughtful when they are publishing content,” said King.

Academics also need to understand the large impact that a single video could have on their personal academic brand. If their personal view clashes with institutional values, there could be pushback from the academic community and repercussions from administrators. Even though tenured faculty members have academic freedom, they won’t get a free pass if they use TikTok in ways their colleagues consider out of line.

What’s more, a high profile on social media won’t necessarily enhance a scholar’s professional status. “In simple terms, a million followers won’t guarantee you tenure or a promotion,” said King

Above all, it’s a way to spread the word, possibly dispelling popular myths with factual information, or getting the audience to think about a topic from a different perspective. Casey Fiesler, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, runs a popular TikTok account that often challenges viewers to consider the problems with Facebook’s domination of the online experience. Given that for many people in the global south, Facebook is the only way to access the internet, it’s possible, says King, to imagine a teen finding one of Fiesler’s videos tucked between dance trends and dog tricks and questioning Facebook for the first time.

“TikTok offers enormous potential for the discovery of critical ideas,” he says. “This is why using TikTok effectively is crucial. Sharing research with an audience outside of the academy brings together people with diverse educational backgrounds. TikTok offers an exciting new way to find like-minded thinkers, makes research accessible, and start important conversations.”

At KMDI, the pilot TikTok study convinced its co-leads to investigate further including production of videos by the KMDI community. Here are a few of the study’s recommendations for best practices on how scholarly communities can engage:

1. Keep your videos short and simple. Keep them less than one minute because online attention spans are shorter than in person.

2. Use storytelling and humour to make your content more accessible. You are competing with all the other content online, so lighten the mood by telling a story or adding unique humour.

3. Find ways to engage people instead of speaking to them. Invite users to try out an experiment for themselves and create a video reply with their results.

4. Get your data from TikTok so you know what’s being tracked. Remember social media lives forever. You might be surprised by how well TikTok knows you. Download your data and decide for yourself if you are comfortable with Tiktok both having this information and selling it without your knowledge.

5. Be aware that your video or audio may be remixed, or repurposed without your permission, unless you change your privacy settings. You might make a sincere video explaining your research that someone else turns into a song or a joke. Decide now if you’re comfortable with that possibility.