My principal loves Twitter, and frequently lauds it as one of the best places to access professional development. This endorsement led me to approach social media as a professional development tool with an open mind, and I find that I return most frequently to TikTok. But social media app like TikTok can also be a black hole for time and attention with algorithms that don’t always work in the user’s best interest. So, how can teachers efficiently and effectively use TikTok as learners to enhance their teaching practices in the classroom??

Although many consider TikTok the exclusive domain of teenagers, there is ample evidence that the user population is aging with app and that the app is attracting new adult users. According to Oblero, adult use has grown significantly from 2.6 million U.S. adult users in 2017, “Since September 2018, TikTok usage among US adults has increased exponentially – doubling and reaching 14.3 million in just six months” (Oblero). The adult users include a fair number of educators and those interested in education. According to the NEA, the app provides a large audience for teacher posts, “Videos posted by teachers to TikTok have been viewed at least 5 billion times” (Flannery, 2020).

Is TikTok Useful for PD and PLC?

One way teachers can use TikTok to strengthen their teaching is to build and maintain a sense of professional community. Educator and TikTok user Jeremy Winkle outlines four ways teachers can do this: provide encouragement, share resources, provide quick professional development, and ask a question of the day (Winkler). Each of these activities use the short vlog structure of the app to their advantage.

In some ways, TikTok helps fill the void that budget cuts create for new teachers as mentoring programs disappear from school districts. Tiktok videos are the right length for providing teachers bite sized bits of advice from their peers. Ariele Fodor, a Los Angeles teacher with 350,000 followers on TikTok, uses the platform to give advice to other teachers on classroom management and teacher conferences (Young). A perusal of educator Tiktok quickly returns several examples of similar content, such as classroom management, education technology tools, student engagement strategies, and student-centered instruction.

Tiktok also provides access to specialists In a time period when many public schools lack a dedicated school social worker or school psychologists, TikTok creators step in to provide expertise and advice to teachers who would otherwise not have access to them. For example, TikTok user @schoolpsychbyday provides psychology-based critique of the problematic nature of a popular responsibility-focused bulletin board from the perspective of a school psychologist that brings to light concerns teachers may not have otherwise considered. This video is effective partially because the user posts a follow up post explaining the issues raised.

School psychologist perspective on problematic bulletin board

What About TikTok for Student Projects?

Users of the app have always skewed young, Tiktok’s users includes 69% of teenagers in the United States (Piper Sandler, 2020). Additionally, they have eyes on the app for a significant amount of time: “between the ages of 4 and 14, they use the app about 82 minutes a day” (Tutt, 2021). Clearly, TikTok reaches students in the secondary education age-group, but is it a good classroom learning tool? The answer for college age students is probably; but for secondary school students, the answer is probably not.

Because youth represent a significant audience for TikTok and because those who use TikTok do so for an extended period of time, it’s important for secondary teachers to acquaint themselves with the privacy settings specific to younger users, and to the risks and safety measures necessary for using the app.

Teachers of middle school through sophomores (13-15 year old users) need to know about safety features that the teachers will not necessarily see on their own accounts. For example:

  • Users can set their account so Friends or “no one” can comment on videos
  • You cannot duet or stitch with a video created by these users
  • Only a video’s creator can download it
  • Users cannot host live sessions
  • Virtual gifts are restricted
  • Family pairing gives parents oversight of the child’s account
  • Users can only access a curated library of videos
  • These accounts will not as suggested for others (Han, 2021)

Teachers of juniors and seniors (16-17 year old users) need to know about safety features specific to these ages. For example:

  • Videos can be downloaded, but the default for this option is “off”
  • Duet and Stitch is set to “friends” by default
  • Virtual gifts are restricted
  • Family pairing gives parents oversight of the child’s account (Han, 2021)
Restrictions and Safety features in TikTok based on user age

The same tools that increase TikTok’s safety decrease its efficacy for use as a student assignment and project completion tool. This is likely due to the fact that TikTok is a social media app that is only incidentally a useful educator tool. For example, teachers have limited or no access to their student’s TikTok, and younger teens may not have access to their teachers’ videos. Whereas video creation and sharing tools specifically designed for education, such as Flipgrid or SeeSaw, that allow commenting and viewing of student and teacher created videos with high levels of teacher control over the learning environment.

Additionally, experts raise other concerns regarding using TikTok in the classroom including that it can be distracting, it can be a platform for bullying, and the data privacy issues that are part of most apps (Klein, 2019). Anecdotally, some of my students enjoy watching “cringe” videos on youtube, which are compilations of TikTok videos taken without the permission of the TikTok creators and posted for the purpose of mocking the videos and their creators. Being mocked and going viral as “cringe” is especially cruel for adolescents (and people in general) who are already more likely to be marginalized:

It is not an accident that the majority of viral cringey TikToks are posted by people without the privilege of beauty, wealth, or in-depth knowledge of internet norms. They possess qualities we’ve been taught to deride: the wrong sort of body type, a lack of talent, an unusual hobby, a rundown house. The top comments are usually fairly predictable in their cruelty. . . Often, commenters don’t assume that a video might be the result of a physical or mental difference and are quick to fire off the most hurtful joke in the hope that their comment will rise to the top.

(Jennings, 2020)

However, many educators find that the usefulness of the app overshadows those concerns. For example, Education Week reports on a teacher who used TikTok for student field trip reporting because it makes use of an app that students are comfortable using and have downloaded on their phones already. The teacher “gave students the option of using TikTok to show what they learned during a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and to point out examples of French and Spanish language use in signage around the city” (Klein, 2019).

What About TikTok For Classroom Teaching?

TikTok remains a strong tool for providing educational material in short chunks to secondary and college age users. In Edutopia, Paige Tutt explains “the platform is especially helpful for students who are reluctant to ask for help in class and need different entry points to the curriculum. TikTok videos—like any video content—give students the ability to access content asynchronously. Students can self-serve the gaps in their understanding and revisit these bite-sized lessons again and again until they understand them” (Tutt, 2021).

For encore classes, TikTok videos can result in improved attendance and participation. An elementary school PE teacher interviewed for an Edutopia article found that TikTok video brain breaks and short exercises during remote learning led to increased participation that continued to improve once he added PE class livestream workouts (Tutt, 2021).

One important aspect that can get lost when adopting any technology is ensuring access to learning for students who cannot access the technology. High school science teacher Winnie Sloan, who published “micro lessons” on TikTok deals with this challenge by providing “a Google document of all her videos, curated by subject, to help students access what they need—even if they don’t have a TikTok account” (Tutt, 2021). This can also be accomplished with a google drive folder and downloaded videos.

Resources

Elizabeth, T. (2019, August 16). Supporting youth and families on TikTok. TikTok Newsroom. https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/supporting-youth-and-families-on-tiktok.

Flannery, M. E. (2020, December 10). TikTok Opening a Window into the Teaching Life. NEA News. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/tiktok-opening-window-teaching-life.

Jennings, R. (2020, November 20). When ordinary people go viral, where’s the line between comedy and cruelty? Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/21575707/tiktok-cringe.

Klein, A. (2020, December 4). TikTok: Powerful Teaching Tool or Classroom Management Nightmare? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/technology/tiktok-powerful-teaching-tool-or-classroom-management-nightmare/2019/11.

Piper Sandler. (2020). Fall 2020 survey. Piper Sandler Research. https://www.pipersandler.com/3col.aspx?id=6039.

Rinkle, J. (2020, February 7). Using TikTok to Build Relationships with Teachers. Teach Better. https://www.teachbetter.com/blog/using-tiktok-to-build-relationships-with-teachers/.

Sloan, W. (n.d.). TikTok Curation Bio Videos. Google Docs. https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1apM0e_7i9dkDfZk_ORcSnNp2bVnFS4SYLkPPwuGhsHw/mobilebasic.

Han, E. (2019, August 16). Strengthening privacy and safety for youth on TikTok. Newsroom. https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/strengthening-privacy-and-safety-for-youth.

Tutt, P. (2021, March 19). From Headache to Helpful-Teachers on Using TikTok in the Classroom. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/headache-helpful-teachers-using-tiktok-classroom.

Young, J. R. (2021, January 26). Teachers Are Going Viral on TikTok. Is That a Good Thing? – EdSurge News. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-01-26-teachers-are-going-viral-on-tiktok-is-that-a-good-thing.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for exploring this tool, Deanna! I appreciate your attention to, and suggestions about, age appropriate student engagement with the tool and what it might look like to try to harness student knowledge of TikTok for use in a student project. You’ve done an excellent job presenting the possibilities and pitfalls of this particular platform. I’m curious–do you plan to use TikTok for your own PD and Professional networking moving forward?

    1. Personally, I use Abraham Piper’s account for conversation starters with my PLC at work. I pull the TikTok video links and email them.

    2. Hi Katie, I only started using TikTok this school year for my own development, and I’ve gotten some great ideas and resources from it. The areas of information I find on it that are most helpful for me are: technology tools and tips, classroom management, discipline, and inclusive classrooms.

      The initial videos are informative, but TikTok allows the original poster to reply to comments either with text or to record a video reply. The video replies are great resources to get answers to clarifying questions and continue discussion on the topic.

  2. Wow, this was great to read! I haven’t touched TikTok at all, but I can see how useful it could be in the classroom, from reading your post. How would you compare it to Twitter? Personally, I think I would still prefer Twitter over TikTok due to the amount of visual stimulation that each video brings. Did you come across any concerns about that, since the videos auto-play or can you control that if you have an account? I was also wondering about how accessible TikTok is, since there weren’t captions and I couldn’t find accessibility information on the company site. It looks like captions was just turned on this past month (https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/introducing-auto-captions) which is great! I think that will really help make TikTok a user friendly tool for all persons.

    1. Hi Karen, Auto captions are imperfect, but a really nice part of TikTok. You asked about concerns–the auto play can be frustrating for me because if I don’t mark a video as “favorite” and I am not following the creator, it disappears into the void the minute I close the app. I wish there was a better “viewing history” option.

      Another concern I have which is why I won’t ever have students create videos for my class is that on some posts, I’ve seen some pretty cruel comments, some of which are racist or fat-phobic. Adults are able to deal with that and know to block the commenters, but it could be debilitating to a child.

  3. Awesome work as always, Deanna. I think one of your greatest strengths is to be able to distill complicated things in easy-to-understand ways for your students/audience. I’ve seen you do this behind the scenes and also as you’ve done here with your table.

    Algorithm-wise, do you think people should have personal and professional accounts if they’re using social media?

    1. Thank you Joey! I think it helps to have personal and professional accounts. I think I’m only going to use TikTok for work though because I just don’t feel comfortable putting myself out there for personal things, and the risk level needed for recording videos is significant. I have a personal and a professional Twitter though and the feeds are night and day different.

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