“Can Twitter learn? Can a tweet learn?”
Two questions one of my supervisors posed in the feedback on a recent draft thesis section I’d submitted. Despite knowing this was playfully provocative, I’m only too well aware that I need to be able to answer questions like this, whatever their intention. In response, I first need to clarify what learning is within the context of my study. Although there’s an imperative to lay that out within my thesis, I haven’t yet done so because I’ve been wrestling with how learning is conceived through a sociomaterial perspective. What better time to grasp that nettle?
What constitutes learning is often unproblematically taken for granted amongst most educators, however, during twenty years of teaching I can’t recall ever discussing it explicitly as an isolated concept. When he asked what they thought learning was, the adult students that Säljö (1979) interviewed responded as follows.
- a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.
- memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
- acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
- making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
- interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. (quoted in Ramsden 2003:28)
Within these statements are illustrations of the two ways learning is often presented: as a product – a change in the knowledge or behaviour of someone; or as a process – something you do in order to make meaning from, or sense of the world. Both place the locus of learning on the individual and more specifically are internalised, cognitive processes. There is also the sense of possession, accumulation and refinement, whether of knowledge or meaning, which led Sfard (1998) to propose a metaphor of acquisition to describe this form of learning. There are parallels here with what Beckett and Hager (2005:98) propose as the standard paradigm of learning which also assumes the filling of an individual’s mind with abstract ideas and concepts, divorced from the context with which they might be associated. It involves growth in representational knowledge and is based on cognitivist approaches which view that growth is achieved through a mental process located within the individual. Knowledge is a representation of reality and is separate to it (Mulcahy, 2014). This narrow, ‘learning as acquisition’ conception has underpinned much of the provision of professional development in the workplace.
In contrast to the standard paradigm, Beckett and Hager offer the emerging paradigm of learning. Here, learning involves action in the world and is largely practice-based. It is contextual, with the learner learning from the context and reshaping it as a result of learning. Knowledge is seen as fluid, ‘produced and continually reconstructed through the relationships and interactions between individuals’ (Lee et al, 2004). This is what Sfard embraces within her metaphor of participation, in which the learner seeks to participate in an activity with others; it is a process of becoming and signals a shift away from the the permanence of having, towards the constant flux of doing.’ Learning is no longer viewed as located within individual minds, but is distributed across the people and the environments in which they associate with one another. The focus shifts from individuals, to individuals-in-context and learning is skilled participation in the practices of a social group.
So learning can be conceived as an individual, cognitive process, or as a situated, collegial practice. Both however, retain the focus, perhaps understandably on the human aspects of learning and fail to account for the materiality inevitably present; the pens and paper, books and burettes, desks and diagrams, rubbers and rulers (McGregor, 2004). Materiality matters. As Latour (2005: 71) challenged us to compare hitting a nail with and without a hammer, or boiling water with and without a kettle, we might also consider learning in a classroom with and without a black/whiteboard, or desks, or books. The different materials available shape both practice and knowledge (Fenwick, 2014); watching a YouTube video, reading a textbook or participating in a webinar discussion, bring forth different knowledges. Adopting a sociomaterial sensibility allows us to decentre the human subject as the focus of attention when considering knowledge and learning as either personal or social processes (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013).
Sociomaterial sensibility involves attending equally to sociality (social negotiations of meaning) and materiality (the spaces and tools which participate in the learning). This is a relational view in which matter and meaning emerge through the associations and connections which assemble, or don’t. What learning is depends on how both the human and nonhuman participants accomplish it as practice (Mulcahy, 2014). Learning does not exist separate from the networks of associations through which it is enacted and is better conceived as an immanent assemblage (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013). The making, unmaking, reconfiguring, expanding and contracting during assemblage of heterogeneous actors constitutes the learning process. These mutations produce what Sørensen (2009) calls liquid knowledge, typified by a continual process of reactivation and (re)formation. Liquid knowledge ‘is performed as part of the flow of the ongoing mutation, not as a human possession or ability.’ Learning here aligns more closely with the emerging paradigm, but goes further by accounting for nonhuman actors. The fluid learning ‘does not belong to the human individual; instead, each participant is affected by mutation of the space, not in terms of “more or less” but “qualitatively” in terms of differences.’
A sociomaterial approach therefore enables us to inspect the kinds of learning assemblage that might be manifest amongst those educators who are active on Twitter, the platform itself and the mediators through which information is exchanged. Certain practices may become stabilised, and therefore produce more significant and ongoing effects, whilst other become marginalised and disappear. We therefore ask what needs to be assembled in order for learning to be enacted and what forms of learning assemblage consequently emerge?
So can Twitter learn?
To return to the original provocations, can Twitter learn? Can a tweet learn? A cognitive standpoint built on the inner mental processes of an individual, would say no. The same response would result from a constructivist standpoint, however if Twitter was framed as a community of people, rather than an online platform for communication, then one might go so far as to say it could learn. If on the other hand, Twitter or a tweet are considered to be contributing to a learning assemblage, then positive responses to the questions are more likely. To explain further, it might be wise to first of all to distinguish between Twitter the platform, and the subset of Twitter each user experiences as result of the people, hashtags and topics they have chosen to follow, who follows them and what Twitter pushes in their direction. The Twitter users experience a constant state of churn as new tweets enter the timeline, new follower-followee relationships are initiated, or others are blocked or muted. Information is viewed (or not) and processed, tweets are retweeted, modified or quote tweeted; some tweets receive replies, some are Liked, others become embedded in blog posts or, if they come from the President of the United States, end up on the daily news. This mutation and flux is the fluid learning that Sørensen (2009) proposed, or is simply learning assemblage. From both cognitivist and situated epistemologies, asking whether Twitter or a tweet can learn is meaningless; without an individual person, there can be no learning. If learning is assemblage however, than Twitter or a tweet participate as part of that process; they are entangled within it. They transform, they reconfigure, they act and they bring about difference for all participants contributing to the assemblage.
Learning can be conceived then as an individual enterprise of interpretation and representation, as collegial participation in shared, situated activity, or as ongoing (re)formation of webs of relations generated as a process of assemblage. These apparently different phenomena could be explained by assuming they represent different worldviews or different perspectives (interpretative, participatory or relational) on the same phenomenon. To do so however, assumes a single, independent, anterior world ‘out there,’ from which we make sense of ‘in here’ in order to be able to represent it. This may be consistent with a view of learning centred on the individual, but lacks coherence with the relational view in which learning is not the sense-making of an anterior, exterior world, but bringing the world into being through assemblage. What an actor-network theory approach requires is a shift away from the visual metaphors of different perspectives, different views or different lenses. The alternative it offers is one of performance, interaction and enactment, of things being done. In this rendering, different performances will result in the production of different worlds, different realities; a question of ontology. There is no anterior notion of learning; whether process or product; whether interpretation, participation or performance. What learning is depends on how it is performed. The different realities which emerge present what Mol (1999) refers to as ‘ontological politics.’ How institutions and individuals choose to support, guide, provide, encourage, review, record, assess or participate in professional learning will determine the learning they bring about. If their ontology assumes only a single notion of learning, an acquisitional, cognitive one perhaps, then their actions and the outcomes will perform a particular kind of learning. This may introduce tensions if that reality fails to overlap with how participants expect learning to manifest.
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