Students are increasingly turning to social media platforms when they need to research topics for school.
One of those platforms is TikTok, a video-sharing platform popular with K-12 students of various ages. Kids ages 4 to 18 spend an average of 91 minutes per day watching TikTok videos, according to data from parental control software maker Qustodio.
In fact, a general survey of TikTok users in the United States found that 1 in 4 use the platform for educational purposes, according to a new survey from online learning platform Study.com. And 69 percent of those who use TikTok for educational purposes said it has helped them complete their homework.
The Study.com analysis also examined what academic subjects had the most views on TikTok. English was first, followed by history, science, and math. Survey respondents who reported using TikTok for educational purposes said they used it most frequently for English classes.
Teachers who spoke with Education Week said they weren’t surprised that so many people use the platform for educational purposes.
“It’s the app where the majority of students are,” said Chris Dier, a high school history teacher in New Orleans and the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. “So it does make sense that a lot of them are getting their information from TikTok.”
While TikTok could be used to better engage students in lessons, it’s also been a big distraction. A string of viral challenges on the platform have caused headaches for educators. And like with other social media platforms, TikTok could be a forum for bullying and misinformation, along with data privacy concerns. The platform is owned by Beijing, China-based tech company ByteDance.
Plus, many experts remain critical of using social media platforms—such as Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter—for educational purposes. They say the platforms emphasize quick-hit learning, rather than deep discovery and analysis.
“It’s also important to distinguish the learning that might come from a TikTok video to that of a book or a longer article or even long-form video,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of learning apps for Common Sense Media, in an email. “We like short, and sometimes that works when it comes to homework: Kids might just want to know if they need a comma or how to cite a source.”
“But when it comes to critical thinking, forming opinions and values, or understanding key moments in history, surface learning just doesn’t do the subjects justice,” she added. “It may be able to provide one piece of a greater puzzle, but it isn’t suited to deeper thinking.”
Students bring information to class from TikTok
Still, some teachers say they use TikTok to meet students where they are, and then engage them in deeper learning through other approaches.
During the pandemic, when Dier was teaching remotely, he was making lengthy content videos for students. That’s when his students told him to try out TikTok.
“At first, I thought ‘I definitely don’t want to join whatever this app is. It’s for kids.’” Dier said. “But as I started teaching, I noticed that students were bringing in information from TikTok. I would ask them, ‘Where did you learn this information?’ They would say, ‘Oh, I heard about it on TikTok.’”
Eventually, Dier created an account and started sharing quick history lessons. “As teachers, we’re supposed to meet students where they are, to engage and make our content come alive. What better way to do that than to utilize the app [where] students are already watching content?” he said. (Dier’s TikTok account now has more than 146,000 followers.)
Claudine James, a middle school English/language arts teacher in Arkansas, also started a TikTok account after she realized her students weren’t watching the grammar and vocabulary video lessons she posted on YouTube.
During one stretch in the fall semester of 2020, she had more than 25 students absent due to COVID quarantine protocols, but her YouTube video lesson only had seven views.
When the students came back to class, James asked them why they didn’t watch the YouTube videos. Her students said they don’t watch videos on YouTube because they don’t spend time there.
“Someone said, ‘You should put them on TikTok. [Students will] be on there and they’ll just happen to see [the videos],’” James said.
Two years later, James said her TikTok videos on grammar, spelling, and other English lessons have been helpful to her current and past students. “I’ll have a past student send me a message like, ‘If you haven’t already, do a lesson on this, because I want you to explain it to me.’” (James now has 4.5 million followers on TikTok.)
For better or worse, TikTok caters to kids’ shorter attention spans
When asked why they use TikTok for educational purposes, 60 percent of survey respondents said the app is easy to access, 57 percent said it’s easy to understand, 51 percent said there’s a lot of content, and 47 percent said it’s free, according to the Study.com survey.
TikTok “presented a new way to deliver information that corresponded with students’ attention spans,” Dier said. “Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. And now there’s an app that allows you to create content that caters to the attention span of younger generations.”
TikTok could also be used to share information that’s often left out of textbooks or the curriculum that students might have never heard of otherwise, Dier said. For instance, Dier put together an educational TikTok video after he uncovered historical records about a reconstruction-era massacre orchestrated by white residents against Black people in a Louisiana community in 1868, fueled by whites’ fears that Blacks had gained the right to vote.
But because anyone can post a TikTok video, misinformation can be a problem. The majority of TikTok users judged the trustworthiness of the content by its number of likes (55 percent) and views (53 percent), as well as the number of followers the creator had (51 percent), according to the Study.com survey. Less than half, 44 percent, said they fact-checked a video before deeming it credible.
“[Misinformation] is an issue because I have heard students repeat things that they’ve heard from TikTok that are definitely not true,” Dier said. But when he corrects them, he said the students are “really receptive.”
“As history teachers, we teach students how to analyze the source, how to contextualize information, how to corroborate information with other sources. So in many ways, this push to TikTok also highlights the importance of teaching these types of skills in the classroom that can transcend just what we learned in class,” he added.
Elgersma echoed those sentiments.
“Likes and follows doesn’t mean a creator truly knows what they’re talking about, so it’s always best to fact-check and consult multiple sources,” she said.