Anna Blakney shimmies and slides in front of a green screen, showing a graphic of a cell membrane. As she breaks into the can-can, she points to pops of text on the graphic, and explains the difference between antibodies built up from infection versus those acquired from a vaccine. She claps her hands and pumps her fist, while information about the COVID-19 spike protein pops up.
It’s an introductory biology class, if that class took place at a nightclub.
Of course, Dr. Blakney isn’t teaching her students in the middle of a dance floor. She’s creating a video to post on TikTok, the latest social media channel that has captured the attention of young people. Dr. Blakney has created hundreds of videos that explain scientific concepts in just 60 seconds. In one video, she reminds her viewers to wash their face masks “as often as (they) wash their underwear” to keep them clean. In another, she tilts her head from side to side, answering questions about the solar system, the periodic table of elements and magnification in an on-screen science quiz.
It’s the accessibility and immediacy that initially drew Dr. Blakney, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia, to TikTok. She joined the app in October 2020 as part of Team Halo, an international collection of scientists who wanted to provide answers to the general public on anything and everything related to the COVID-19 vaccine effort. Now, Dr. Blakney has more than 215,000 followers on her TikTok account, including her own students.
But producing the videos has also had an unexpected result, offering Dr. Blakney more opportunities to engage with her students. As she’s recruited students to her lab, each student she’s interviewed asked about her TikTok. “I was surprised, but every single one of them has mentioned it.”
While TikTok is decidedly more casual than the average university lecture (Dr. Blakney laughs at the thought of dancing in front of her undergrad class, for instance), there are lessons in creativity and concision she has taken from producing the videos. “I do think being able to explain things, in terms that people can understand, is a really useful skill,” Dr. Blakney says. “I think the more engrossed you get in science, actually, the harder that is to do because you’re so entrenched in it, and you kind of forget that not everybody is at our level.”
While TikTok hasn’t taken over her lesson plan yet, she does hope that the skills she has developed to make compelling videos to explain scientific concepts in easy-to-understand terms make their way into university classrooms, especially virtual classrooms. “Maybe there’s a 20-minute lecture they watch beforehand, and then you have interactive time during the actual class. I think it’s provoked a change in the way we actually teach. Hopefully, it’s going in a direction of being more engaging and interactive.”
Gigi Osler has also noticed a difference in her teaching style. The assistant professor with the department of otolaryngology at the University of Manitoba originally started her TikTok account as the past president of the Canadian Medical Association. Her multi-part video series featuring real, and occasionally heartbreaking, stories from health care workers went viral, and now Dr. Osler uses her account to answer questions mostly relating to COVID-19. She’s noticed that success on TikTok often depends on videos having what she refers to as the four Es, “emotional, engaging, entertaining and educational.”
Like Dr. Blakney, Dr. Osler has found TikTok has made her reevaluate some of her teaching methods, as the app encourages quick videos with clear explanations. She’s even found inspiration from an unlikely source: TikTok recipe videos, which can show dozens of steps and cooking styles in one minute. “I’ll see a video and I’ll think, ‘oh, that looks really good.’ And then I go do further research based on that one recipe,” Dr. Osler explains. “As a teaching tool, TikTok really forces you to drill down to that essential message. And how are you going to explain that message in a way that is engaging and educational within that 60 seconds?”
Using TikTok as a teaching tool does come with reservations, though. Kate Tilleczek, a professor of education at York University, and director of the Young Lives Research Lab, says relying on apps can put more pressure on students. For one thing, many students are experiencing Zoom fatigue, exhausted from having a slate of virtual courses to keep up with. Dr. Tilleczek’s research has also found that students have privacy and addiction concerns when it comes to social media.
For any professors interested in joining TikTok, Dr. Tilleczek recognizes the desire to try something new, or share teaching moments in a kind of digital town hall. But she urges professors to ask, “is this educative? Is there something better that we could be doing? Just because young people are [using TikTok], does it mean that the tool will somehow boost their deep learning and fundamental learning?”
Most importantly, Dr. Tilleczek says educators have a responsibility to not only question the educational value of the tools they use, but to include their students in those discussions. “We’re not alone in this. Let’s ask our students. Let’s make them full partners in this conversation about what is useful to them,” she says. “I do believe there’s a deep responsibility, particularly now, when, through no fault of their own, students are living their whole life online, more than they were before.”
Both Dr. Blakney and Dr. Osler acknowledge that TikTok doesn’t have a permanent place in their syllabi yet. Dr. Osler sees the app as a supplement to her other teaching, and a way to reach people with important health messaging. “If I can create information that is science-backed, evidence-based, and educational, and explained in a simple way, then if that helps one person, we’ve made a difference in hopefully one person’s life.”
In that way, TikTok is just one more tool for faculty to reach students and create an educational space – even (or perhaps, especially) if they can-can while doing it.