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TeachTok: Fame-seeking or Game-changing?

TikTok has gained its popularity from just a joking punchline "kids these days" to" of the most downloaded apps in the U.S. in 2022" (Sensor Tower, 2022). Emerging as a video-creating application for users, TikTok has taken the world by storm with its magnified powers filled with 60% of Generation Z users (Sensor Tower, 2022), thus reaping the whole world's attention once its CEO had his first hearing with Congress in the U.S. last March 2023. TikTok has its own affordances and recipes to acquire a large number of users ranging from youngsters to even educators. It is probable that celebrities utilize TikTok or other social media mediums as platforms to share their lifestyle, stay connected with their followers and amplify their fame, hence, educators who professionally participate in social media venues as "edu-influencers" may also articulate their micro-celebrity status from this video-sharing app. Curious about how these teachers navigate their way around social media, or in this particular case, TikTok, this research aims at gaining insight into how the microcelebrities employ their educational strategies, including the affordances they rely on to reach target audiences and improve their pedagogical approaches online, thus acquiring a better understanding to the reason behind these famous TeachTokers and having more critical viewpoints about this potential learning platform.

TikTok: facts and stats

TikTok is a short-video application from a Chinese Company named ByteDance which owns both TikTok and its China-only cousin Douyin, founded in September 2016. One year later, the TikTok Project was kickstarted and soon became popular for creating short videos up to 10 minutes after its merge with lip-syncing app named in August 2018 (Influencer Marketing Hub, 2022). By the time of 2022, the platform reached 3.5 billion all-time downloads (data from Sensor Tower, 2022) engaged with entertainment and everyday life experiences, ranging from cooking, singing, and beauty tutorials to house arranging. In that essence, the annual report from the "We Are Social" website (2022) announces that TikTok has skyrocketed among young people, becoming one of the apps where they spend most of their time on an average of 23.6 hours per month, followed by YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Figure 1: TikTok has gained popularity for encouraging users to do dance challenge videos (Podrez A., n.d.)

Literat (2021), an associate Professor in the Communication, Media and Learning Technologies Design program at Teachers College, Columbia University, annotates that the app of TikTok is especially prevalent among young people, 13 to 24 years old who account for 69 percent of TikTok user base. This ever-expanding social media platform plays a vital role in young people's social and cultural lives, both reflecting and developing popular culture.

Regarding TikTok's manual, the app offers an extremely wide range of options for customizing the videos uploaded by users, including videos taken with the user's smartphone, photos uploaded from the web, emojis, and other text superimposed on the video; a library of filters, and video-distorting effects. ( Influencer Marketing Hub, 2022) . Khlaif and colleague Salha (2021), report that TikTok, by all means, is an easy-to-use interface for making, editing, and sharing short films in which users can comment on and share materials with the rest of the TikTok community. Other users can leave comments on each TikTok including comment threads that the creator can choose to endorse. Upon opening the app, the user first encounters a TikTok video that starts playing: this is the "For You Page" which plays TikTok's algorithm recommendations for that user. The metrics for the accounts include well-known followers and following numbers, which are also linked to the other most relatively important part of TikTok: the number of "Likes" that users have received in a total of the TikTok videos. This metric also discourages users from deleting their own videos which nowadays seems to be the common practice on Twitter and Instagram as it would affect the number of likes, thus harming the appearance of the overall popularity of the account (Influencer Marketing Hub, 2022).

TikTok as a game-changing emergence in education

During a tumulous period of time marked by a global pandemic, forced lockdowns, and educational institutions going digital by default, teachers and students were forced to digitalize, and as Pokhrel and College Chhetri (2022. p.1 ) refer global pandemic as "a force to push the teaching-learning into the digital arena." (Pokhrel & College Chhetri 2022, p. 1). This notion has been supported by a number of research-acquired insights from the integration of TikTok into education (Xu, Yan & Zhang, 2019). There are also a hundred examples from around the world demonstrating how the short videos on TikTok have been used by teachers in primary and secondary schools as well as higher education institutions to teach a variety of complex topics such as Math, and Chemistry- which are deemed as boring to students (Zhang et al., 2019; Yang et al., 2019, 2020; Basch et al., 2021). Indeed, Hartung and his colleagues (2022) prove that the nature of bite-size learning naturally binds with the characteristics of social medial platforms such as TikTok, thereby making learning more fun, fast-absorbed, condensed, and engaging. In an attempt to explain the reason TikTok entails positive learning attitudes and outcomes for learners, Khlaif (2022), a professor at An-Najah National University with years of working in ICT, digital transformation, and mobile learning suggests that the efficacy of Tiktok should be viewed as a concept of micro-learning as its nature of offering more digestible pieces of lesson for students. Yniarshi and the research group (2022) suggest that TikTok videos, as an example of a micro-learning approach, could be employed in the flipped classroom. The idea here is to provide pupils with links to content through videos and infographics before the course begins, thus the material brought by TikTok videos can be embedded before the actual lesson, thereby saving time and encouraging independent learning. In that sense, Denver (2016) agrees that micro-learning is a strategy that is more and more common for delivering focused, brief material to learners who choose what they learn and when they want to study. And because each social media platform has its own unique traits, TikTok excels at short videos, making video explainers or motion graphics the ideal micro-content for educators to utilize.

Figure 2: TikTok offers a myriad of content ranging from dance challenges, comedy, and fitness aspirations and now paves its way to the education field. ( Khoury, R.n.d)

For example, the study conducted by Jacobs et al. (2022) to identify the efficacy of TikTok as a learning tool, has proved the prominent functions of TikTok in the delivery of course material in teaching statistics using Microsoft Excel. Seven TikTok tutorial videos, about 60 seconds long or shorter, were created to explain notions of data analysis step by step under a TikTok profile called "@bite_size_stats". Compared to the group who only used normal materials from the course book, over a period of time, the students of the controlled group with TikTok video learning reported positively to the use of TikTok as a platform for microlearning content of statistics and reported that they learned something new about Microsoft Excel for statistical analysis. The students also highlighted that learning from TikTok is more fun, condensed, and engaging ( Jacobs et al., 2022, p.10 ) An online TikTok account called "The Chemistry Collective" managed by undergraduate students from the research group of Hurst, an Associate Chemistry professor from the University of York,2020 produced 16 educational videos about Chemistry and has confirmed again the efficacy of TikTok as an educational tool: 82,7 % of participants in the survey admit an increased interest in Chemistry after watching the videos( Hurst, 2020, p.1) As such, TikTok can be used to enhance public and undergraduate student engagement with chemistry and science education, together with facilitating the ability of the public to understand how Chemistry can be fun, can be performed at home, and is part of our daily lives.

Teachers as micro-celebrities on TikTok: Fun or Fame?

In recent years, teachers have started to use online resources for classroom inspiration and professional support (Carpenter et al., 2019; Hertel & Wessman-Enzinger, 2017; Kaminsi & Sloutsky, 2020; Opfer et al., 2016; Sawyer, et al., 2019). Sawyer and his research group (2019), demonstrated that pre-service teachers turn to the Internet for lesson planning almost as often as they turn to their college or more than they consult university faculty members or friends and family. Indeed, educators have utilized multiple platforms to reach outside of their own school's social circle to share ideas and network (Carpenter & Green, 2017; Rehm & Notten, 2016; Smith, 2013). Carpenter and his colleagues (2018) have noticed that teachers adopted Pinterest to find, curate and share curriculum materials. On the same notion, Twitter has been utilized for networking, for new communities of practicing learning, and combating the isolation long associated with the profession (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014; Harvey & Hyndman, 2018). Hence, it can be seen that the participation of educators is mainly presented by promoting certain educational products, sharing useful resources, and examples of classroom practices as well as facilitating teacher networking (LaGarde, 2019; Roose, 2019; Rozen, 2018). However, on the understanding of the challenges presented to teachers using social media, Carpenter and Harvey (2019) also worry that there is difficulty managing a personal and professional balance as many may promote products simply for the sake of sponsorships to reinforce status-quo and the like.

Figure 3: Tik Tok influencers could have an impact on users through their self-promotional practices (Receno, C. n.d)

Compared to previous research about edu-influencers on other platforms such as Instagram, TikTok has also become one of the potential venues for teachers to engage learners and gain popularity regarding this generational preference and the emergence of the pandemic. In that sense, the figure of famous educators who opt for TikTok to share their knowledge emerges as that of someone who ".. may go beyond mere online branding to cultivate audiences' interest and empathy, thereby reinforcing the emotional support and connection between home, school, and social life" (Literat, 2021,p.10 ). In the understanding of the micro-celebrity identity of teachers, a study on teachers who use online technologies and platforms for teaching and learning has introduced four aspects that constitute their identity on social media (Nuruddin-Hidayat et al., 2020). Such aspects provide insights into the subculture called TeachTok in which teachers utilize TikTok as a platform to stay connected and express their identities with followers.

They are:

1. responsibility: which consists of how they share their educational content as a service with their students and peers. This approach taps into their pedagogical competence and how they are responsible for sharing knowledge with others; 2. commitment: which consists of how they manage their digital content or plan to deal with issues that are not directly related to their subject teaching; 3. authority: which consists of indicators of building a role model/ status in front of their followers namely their students and their families; 4. recognition: which consists of the appreciation and complaints received by the teachers for example how teachers feel about others commenting on their professional work. Utilizing these identities in their research, Verdú - a predoctoral fellow at the University of Huelva, Communication Ph.D. Candidate and researcher in transmedia storytelling - and Abidin - an associate professor of Internet Studies Principal Research Fellow at Curton Univerity (2022) - put a closer look at the profile of 12 micro-celebrities teachers and affordances employed by them to reach the identity as micro-celebrities on TikTok. There are some insightful findings from their research that this article would like elaborate on. To start with, among the 12 accounts of the content creators' teachers, there were not many differences in the content of their TikTok. In other words, they explore the possibilities afforded by TikTok to gauge the attention of their followers through popular communication practices such as dance challenges, audio memes, and effects regardless of the fact they are kindergarten or high school teachers. This notion aligns with research conducted before by Abidin (2015) in which she also points out that the pattern characteristics of micro-celebrity via social media are, in general, the attempt to produce content that enhances the proximity and lessens the distance with their followers or in this research are students and other co-workers. The research's findings from Abidin and Verdú come to conclusions with 3 interesting aspects to explain what elements characterize the identity of a teacher on TikTok, thus making them become famous: 1. The break of the stereotype of typical hierarchy roles among teachers and students- the relationship of teachers and students here based on trends, audio memes, and jokes related to education (Abidin & Verdú, 2022, p. 16); 2. Secondly, a sort of out-of-school affective bond between teacher and teacher, teacher and students has emerged in this online community. Hence, it is compulsory for this community to belong to the connection and networking of those TokTeachers, thereby emphasizing the aspects of commitment coming from these micro-celebrities teachers (Abidin & Verdú, 2022, p.17);

3. Lastly, teachers can build friendships and edutainment environments in which they can openly share their adventures and misadventures in their teaching journey with students and peers ranging from dance challenges, arguments with co-workers, or motivational talks about students' grades (Abidin & Verdú, 2022, p.17). It is interesting that the findings gauged by Abidin and Verdú (2022), challenge the notion that famous teacher figures use TikTok or social media platforms to pursue a status or profession. As the findings in their work seem to be opposed to the recent theories of micro-celebrity imitation in which both the researches conducted by Maddox (2022) and Bishop (2022) argue that influencers of knowledge "creep" their work onto social media, thus hoping to be on trend or popularising themselves. Abidin and Verdú (2022) work proves that much of the content shared by these content creators/teachers focuses on showing fun experiences and the struggle of education or what motivates them to keep teaching.

Figure 4: The teacher, out of the school context, may use TikTok as a platform to express their adventure with education and to share experiences and insider knowledge with peers, families, and students from all over the world. ( Wayne, A.n.d)


What really matters in TeachTok's subculture is the educational content deployed in teachers' videos which show that they have the tendency to limit their activity to only share experiences and insider knowledge about education instead of building fame. In an effort to minimize the gap and hierarchy instilled between young students and teachers, teachers have used their authoritative skills to create fun, engaging, and motivational content, thus attracting quite a large number of followers. While their adoption of micro-celebrity status may not be in order to gain fame or to promote themselves, they receive their cognitions for being creative and attentive in their teaching journey. In addition, it is clear that TikTok has also gradually taken the world by storm and soon carried its educational mission for this generation and proved to be an effective tool for teachers and students in their learning and teaching process.

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