Beyond Email: Fostering Effective Relationships with Students via Social Media

Tony Ferrar
student communication, social media
A selection of social media apps

If you’ve ever struggled to keep up with email, I’m sure you know that you are not alone. Email inboxes creep out of control for two main reasons:

  1. It doesn’t go away until you do something with it! Anyone can toss anything into your inbox and it will fester there until you deal with it.
  2. It captures communications from so many different contexts! This one bin receives everything from homework questions to conference updates, from textbook solicitations to reminders from your Dean.


The job of managing a catch-all system like this is extreme. What’s worse, because of my struggle in managing my inbox, my students perceived me as unresponsive and distant.


Social Media as Solution 

Social media has been the solution to this problem. When students have policy or other “official” issues, I direct them to my university email. For everything else I invite them to use Direct Messaging (DM) on the social media platform they are most comfortable with.

I have added the following statement to my course syllabus, opening lecture, and email signature:


“The best ways to reach me for a quick response:

                        Twitter Instagram SnapChat : @thetonyferrar




You’re welcome to contact me here too:


            Mobile: 931-486-4806 (text preferred)”


Next, I ask everyone to contact me using their preferred method during Week 1. In Teaching and Learning STEM, Felder and Brent propose that students are much more likely to reach out when they need help if you ask them to contact you in the first week. Many students are intimidated by their instructors, but you can break the ice by requiring your students to send you a message during the first week of classes. After they’ve done it once, they’re more likely to do it again. They’re more likely to open up and participate during class as well.


Each time a student contacts me for the ice breaker, I respond with a simple “nice to meet you, I am so excited to have you in class! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything.”


The result is that most students choose a social media platform over email, and I am able to rapidly answer their questions while maintaining a healthy work/life boundary and avoid email pileup.


The students are thrilled at my responsiveness and approachability. They like to send me photos of their work and ask for pointers. They’re reaching out with more content-related questions than ever before! We’re finally talking about class material instead of the usual “is this on the exam?” or “when is this due?” type communications.


But What About Work-Life Boundaries?

We think of work-life balance as a binary system. The truth is there are three buckets to our lives. There is our public, professional self. Then there are the personal things we share openly with colleagues, students, even strangers. Lastly, there are the private things that we keep to ourselves and others close to us.


Everyone gets to decide where their boundaries are. I love to talk about my rock-climbing hobby, but I’m not going to tell you what kind of medical procedure I just had performed.


We should focus on sharing the professional and personal, but protecting those things we view as private. We need to respect our students’ authority over their privacy decisions as well. Let me tell you how I do that on each platform that I use.



LinkedIn might be the most natural place to get started. Many students and faculty are already using it. The community expects professionalism, and it is far removed from your private accounts elsewhere. The DM platform works well for one-on-one communication. One of the best things you can do to remain approachable is sharing things from time to time - either original or reposting something that comes across your feed.



Facebook is huge. Many people have personal profiles. But have you ever followed a Facebook Page? Maybe a business or celebrity? This is a public page, separate from your personal account. If you create one, your students can connect with your page and even contact you via Messenger DM without gaining access to pictures of your kids. When they follow your page, they don’t give you access to their private information either. I like to post articles related to class and career development here as a way to support my students.


Instagram and Twitter

Instagram and Twitter are continuous feed platforms that live in the open. Anyone can look at what you posted here. They’re great places to model digital citizenship while remaining available for DMs. I like to post something once or twice a week to make my profiles more approachable for my students.



SnapChat is the ultimate in approachability. Everything you say disappears. Think about it: when you bump into someone, there isn’t a permanent record of the conversation you had. SnapChat replicates that, even in asynchronous communication. It’s delightful, and my most popular method of communicating with students.


Google Voice

Google Voice effectively gives you a second phone number on your cell phone. It’s in a separate app, allowing you to mute notifications after hours. Students can send text messages to your Google Voice number even if they don’t have a cell phone, using their university email account.


Why So Many Accounts?

I want to be approachable for my students so that they feel comfortable asking me content-related questions. One of the best ways to do that is to be where they are, rather than expecting them to come to me.


Remember, I’m not suggesting you become a highly active user of these platforms. You just need to set them up to receive direct messages so students can contact you one-on-one. The graphic shows my notification strategy: I use badges, but no other notifications. My phone doesn’t go “ding” every time someone contacts me. Instead, when I choose to look at it, I can see where people have reached out, and choose to dip in and respond on my schedule.


An Added Bonus: Modeling Digital Citizenship

I’d like to close by sharing my biggest objection to using these platforms in the past. I HATED social media because once you publish something, its “out there” forever. The problem with that thinking is that we live in a world which is immersed in these platforms. Choosing to not participate is quickly becoming the equivalent of being a hermit.


Rather than fearing that things are “out there,” post things you’re proud of. It is important for us to teach our students what digital citizenship looks like, and how to engage effectively. I’ve seen a dramatic change in my classes (and student evaluations) as a result, and I am certain you will as well.


Thanks for being here. If you have any questions, I’d love to offer my support. You may contact me using the method with which you are most comfortable – my contact information is listed above.

Tony Ferrar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Temple University.
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