Ethics 2 – Context

flickr photo by soldierant shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

In this post I intend to present the factors which need weighing when thinking about the ethical considerations involved in my study. This begins with the research question(s) I want to answer and the strategy I intend to follow. It would be ethically unsound for example, to attempt to answer particular research questions using inappropriate methods. The details are in the About section, but I’ll summarise them here:

I’m aiming to answer the following research questions:

  1. How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
  2. What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
  3. How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and the ‘real’ world?
  4. What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?

I intend to undertake a digital ethnographic study and employ an actor-network theory approach. Since this research is being undertaken within a relatively new context, I’ll begin with a pilot phase which will include small-scale tests of potential methods to be employed. These largely come under the umbrella term of participant observation. They will include:

  • Immersion in my Twitter stream for 24 hours (possibly over three shifts) – ‘deep hanging out’. This will provide a snapshot of activity from a self-selecting sample of the two thousand plus educators I follow.
  • Closely following the twitterstream of a teacher for a limited period, chosen from those who have made claims regarding the efficacy of Twitter. This is to investigate whether focusing on an individual might yield more informative data.
  • Attempting informal interviews using the commenting feature on blogs. This will be across a small number of blog posts in which the authors make claims of how useful they found Twitter for professional learning.
  • Conducting a single semi-structured interview with one of the more evangelical of those educators making claims for Twitter. This should tease out areas and themes to explore in more depth.
  • Seeking permission, then attempting a focus group interview within a Twitter #edchat. This may push the boundaries of what constitutes a focus group, or the depth of discussion possible in a #chat.
  • Using an automated routine to collect tweets over one month which reference a particular term e.g. “professional learning.” This will access the general Twitter stream and therefore a wider sample, offering the potential for unanticipated outcomes to emerge.
  • Attempting to open dialogue within Twitter (or elsewhere) with anyone who makes claims about Twitter in relation to their professional learning. A ‘naive’ stance will be taken whilst attempting to draw out further information.
  • Small-scale social network analysis of a topic or hashtag to explore the interconnections which are forming. The focus here is not on the content of the tweets, nor the people which are connected, but the ways they are connected with each other and the information flows between them.

It is likely that some those brief descriptions of methods may have caused a sharp intake of air between pursed lips! At least, if you’re adopting ethical sensitivity, then they should. I’ll explore my more detailed thinking in subsequent posts, but first let’s start with an overview. In order to answer questions about the activities people undertake in particular locations, an ethnographic method is appropriate. The methods traditionally associated with ethnography begin with fieldwork, in which the researcher will observe activity, record field notes, participate in activities and ask questions of others. At the core then, this is participant observation, interviewing, notemaking and interpretation. The process is iterative, in that an observation might prompt a particular set of questions, which when answered may lead to more specific observations. The methods I’m proposing are built on these foundations; the field is (mainly) online, methods 1, 2 and 6 are largely observational; methods 3, 4, 5 & 7 are different forms of interviews. Method 8 is not traditionally associated with ethnography, but serves as a useful adjunct to explore how people are interlinked and the pathways through which information is exchanged (Edwards, 2010).

Having considered the methods to be used, and having discussed in the previous post that this research involves human participants, it’s to them I now turn. It is not unusual to be studying groups of people with something in common; they may be geographically co-located, share a common interest or be biologically linked. In my case the group is people embedded within, predominantly as providers. The majority will be teachers in the compulsory phases (working with children aged between five and eighteen), but may also include those in pre-school or tertiary sectors. Some may work in independent education, others in the maintained or state system. Some may be former teachers (retired or in new posts outside school) and others providing services to schools and teachers. Approximately half are in the UK, the remainder spread around the world, but almost universally tweet in English. This is not a comparative study, so a precise breakdown would serve little purpose. They will not be representative of the population as a whole, nor even necessarily of the teaching profession. They are a subset – people linked to education who use Twitter. The crucial ethical point though is that these people are adults and can be considered educated to a high standard. This is an important factor when thinking about providing information about this study and seeking their informed consent. They are better placed than an average member of the population to be able to understand any information with which they are presented. Another significant factor is that as a group, they would not be considered ‘vulnerable’ members of the population as a whole.

After the methods and the participants, the final part of the contextual make up is the ‘field’ and it is to that I shall turn in the next post.


EDWARDS, Gemma (2010). Mixed-method approaches to social network analysis. [online], ESRC National Centre for Research Methods.


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