Language Online

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Barton and Lee (2013) contend that if social scientists are conducting research online, an understanding of language is essential. Although they are approaching the field from a linguistic perspective and examining how language is enacted online, I was keen to see if they offered anything to my study.

With social practices increasingly moving online, including that of professional learning, new forms of language and literacy practices are emerging, suited to these new social spaces. The texts which support those practices lose the rigidity they had when offline and are now much more time- and space-dependent. In becoming more dynamic, interlinked with one another and more (or should that be less?) ephemeral, their materiality is transformed. In this less concrete form, greater agency is afforded to different readers, who may perceive the text in different ways and consequently be prompted into different actions. Sharing a resource online in a particular way might prompt one reader to ‘like’ it, another to ‘retweet’ it, someone to write a blog post critiquing it and yet another to remix it for use with their students. Or it may pass completely unacknowledged. Consequently, approaching learning (professional learning in my case) through the lens of language practice would could offer new viewpoints.

The context within which the research was conducted was international and multi-lingual. The focus for much of the research was translingual practices and language switching in social media sites. What kinds of practice do users exhibit when posting to those sites and why do they make those choices. Although the lens was linguistic, the methods employed are similar to the methods I’m (currently) proposing – dissecting and interrogating the affordances and constraints of the platforms, exploration of user-generated content and interviews with a sample of users. Although I’m unlikely to be dealing with language switching, I wonder if there is a parallel as I look at professional learning? Do people switch practices or behaviours as they move from one environment to another (perhaps in response to different audiences?), or indeed from online to offline and back? Which presupposes that people still acknowledge and on- offline boundary; perhaps that is beginning to blur?

I was interested by the concept of ‘situated language ecology’ of users and how that shapes language choice. It is influenced by geographical, educational, linguistic, social and cultural backgrounds. Could there be a ‘situated (professional) learning ecology’ influenced by similar criteria;

  • geographical – what effects do location have? Nation, region, rural, urban etc.
  • educational – personal, in the sense of an individual’s educational history.
  • educational – institutional, as determined by the place of work. Sector, phase, specialism etc.
  • cultural – within the department, school, subject discipline
  • social – family and friends.

What impact do these factors have on one’s disposition towards professional learning?

Another area of study of which I’d had little previous experience, but am becoming increasingly aware of its significance, is that of identity. The authors state that ‘identity online is multi-faceted and fluid,’ implying that identities might be a more appropriate phase. Use of nicknames or handles can be considered an ‘extension of the self.’ Rather than looking at this intrinsically however, I wonder what effects this projection of the self has on those perceiving it? Are people seeking online connections at all influenced by the identities they perceive and what effects might those choices have on the diversity of their network?

My attention was really caught be the assertion that the new affordances provided by the online world encourage reflection, whether of one’s own actions or that of others. Although that chimes with my own views, I’m only too well aware that at the moment, I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support that. I’m also aware that the literature on professional development is rife with references to reflection and reflexivity. So that opens a potential avenue for exploration – online spaces encourage reflection (arguably); reflection is a crucial part of professional learning (some say); so where do the two intersect, if indeed they do at all?


  • Given the nature of the enquiry which informed the research within this book, it’s no surprise that the research subjects formed a multinational sample. It prompted me to realise that my sample will be chosen from the English-speaking world, as my French, German And Dutch language skills stretch little further than getting a return train ticket … and even my sample draw in from those nationalities I’d be stuck with a (western) eurocentric bias(?). Which prompted me to reflect further on what other restrictions will inevitably influence my choice of population.
  • The authors assert that the most effective online interviewing platform is the one that is readily available on the site which forms the stage for the research. When conducting interviews from their sample of Flickr participants for example, those interviews took place within the commenting feature in Flickr itself (subject to the usual ethical safeguards). I’d simply assumed that I’d conduct my interviews face-to-face in an online conferencing environment; a more conventional format. Which prompted me to consider what, if any, other spaces might be suitable. Surely one couldn’t conduct an online interview in the restricted short-form that Twitter provides?! Hmm.


Barton, D., Lee, C., 2013. Language online: investigating digital texts and practices. Routledge.

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