The TikTok Scientist: A shift to online learning during a global Pandemic

March 2020 marked the date that schools across North America were shut down. With teachers scrambling to get material online, school boards and institutions struggling to find ways to make eLearning accessible, and parents trying to juggle working from home and homeschooling their children. It’s easy to say we were all in a state of chaos. At the same time, people began shifting to various methods of entertainment to keep themselves occupied while being at home. This is when I noticed the community on TikTok really begin to take off.

As someone who downloaded the app for fun back in the fall of 2019, I noticed that many of my peers were not as interested in downloading it because the demographic was a younger audience, ages 12-18. Once the pandemic hit, I noticed more of my millennial peers and baby boomers popping up on the app. The amount of activity also increased. TikTok’s analytics company, Sensor Tower, released in May that the app had over 315 million downloads since January, making it the single largest number of downloads in one quarter. Research also suggest that student engagement is significantly higher on social platforms, such as twitter 1, so I hypothesizes this could also be the case for TikTok.

This is when I noticed the emergence of a shift in the content being created. There was less comedy and 15 second dances, but more teaching videos through recipes, at home science experiments, and “how to”. I found myself keeping up with the latest COVID-19 research from physicians and researchers, learning how to cook with top chefs, and broadening my knowledge of space exploration with NASA employees, all while scrolling on the app. If I – a PhD level scientist – was learning, then surly the children at home must be learning as well. This was that moment that I decided to start creating content related science, through experiments in my kitchen, quick facts, and my personal experiences with pursuing a PhD. The response was amazing! In a short amount of time, I had created a classroom community with over 90 thousand students around the world, all of which were excited to learn about science!

In April, I was approached by TikTok to take part in a new program called the Creative Learning Fund. TikTok was investing $50 Million dollars into content creators to increase educational content on the platform and reduce misinformation regarding COVID-19. As a science content creator and educator, I saw the value in taking part in such a program. I was especially excited to see that my peers joining me were other scientists, physicians, health care workers, teachers, and industry professionals all over North America. Although what we were teaching was vastly different, we all had one thing in common: promoting learning and inquiry in exciting and engaging ways.

As a researcher, I took this opportunity to analyze the type of content that performed well on my page and correlate that to the best methods of delivery for science education. Data analysis included the average watching time (learner retention), number of views (diversity of learners), number of comments (learner engagement), and number of video shares (learner excitement). I found that videos where I performed a demonstration or science experiment, and related it back to answering real world questions, were received very well from learners. For example, in one video I taught users how to make ice cream at home in a bag with salt and ice, and discuss how salt lowers the melting temperature of ice, allowing the cream to freeze. This video received over 260 000 views, 37 000 likes, 2700 shares and 400 comments, showing that students get excited about learning through real world applications. I suspect that engagement with educational videos on TikTok is far higher than other social platforms because the app is more content-oriented rather than profile-oriented, meaning the viewers are there for the value-added content and not for “celebrity worship”.

In my experience, I found that online platforms, in this case the social media platform TikTok, provide an easy interface for students to engage with science education. The involvement in these social communities promotes online discussions about what is being learned, and fosters student engagement. People inherently love to learn, we just need to adapt our teaching methods to the growing needs and desire of society.

1. Tess, P. A. The role of social media in higher education classes (real and virtual)–A literature review. Comput. Human Behav. 29, A60–A68 (2013).

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