At the interview for entry onto the PhD programme, one of the panel asked me if I could sum up my research proposal in a tweet. Although it shouldn’t have, that question stumped me at the time, but as a result, it did stick with me. A reasonable question to ask in my viva might be ‘Can you sum up your PhD in a tweet?’ Currently I’m struggling to get it under 90 000 words, so I still have some way to go! Following the first draft of my thesis, one of the feedback points was that I needed to be able to synthesise my findings into a handful of bullet points, even if I didn’t subsequently present them as such. It’s about having a distillation that’s brief enough to fit into the abstract and encapsulate what my study found, whilst leaving room for the other bits that also need to be in the abstract like the methodology, methods, theoretical approach etc. I thought I might try to go a step further and get it down to tweet length; after all, since I started the PhD, Twitter’s generously provided double the characters to play with.
I’m attempting to pull together several different strands into a single thread, whilst retaining a sense of the variety of different ways in which ‘professional development’ manifests itself for teachers through Twitter. Had I adopted a thematic approach to analysis, I’d now have some broad brush themes to generate those bullet points. However, I elected to follow a different route, one which only now I think can make a case for as part of the flanography. This doesn’t produce bullet points, yet I know I need to conjure some. It’s not just about satisfying the examiners, it’s about being able to talk about your work. I couldn’t enter the Three Minute Thesis competition at the Uni recently, simply because I couldn’t render my findings into a form which could be delivered in such a short time. In the future when I write papers based on my findings, or give presentations, I’m not going to have the luxury of space to provide rich, extended descriptions and interpretations. I need to find the essence; something succinct enough for an elevator pitch … or a tweet.
A couple of weeks ago, I settled on the first iteration of my bullet points. Then a couple of days ago, while out running and listening to a podcast, I got closer to my tweet, or better yet, a phrase. It was just a word someone used on the podcast, not even related to my research, but which I felt captured the essence within the bullet points. I’ve found that teachers’ professional learning on Twitter is not a single thing, but many interwoven things brought together, working together. The word I heard on the podcast was ‘hybrid,’ but on getting home from the run, discovered it carried too much baggage, associated as it was with blended learning and more about a mixture of on and offline experiences. Even so, I knew I needed something which conveyed a similar sense of different elements working together; this is after all what assemblage is. After shuffling through a thesaurus or two (said he, neatly sidestepping the plural form), I settled on ‘Compound Learning.’ Although it didn’t feel quite the same as ‘hybrid learning,’ the more I think about it and try to flesh it out, the more right it feels. Let me take a shot at my current thinking.
Firstly, ‘compound’ is a grammatically rich and helpful word, given that it can be a noun, verb or adjective. When associated with ‘learning’ as a phrase, it therefore works harder and can offer a variety of possible meanings. Scanning through a range of dictionaries, compound can be:
- Something composed of two or more parts (n)
- Words formed from two or more other words (n)
- A substance in which the atoms of two or more elements are linked by chemical bonds (n)
- An enclosure (n)
- Adding interest to both the original capital and accumulated interest (v)
- Intensify (v)
Firstly, my study confirms what previous researchers have found; learning practices on Twitter involve an eclectic range of activities including exchanging, discussing, exemplifying, searching, supporting etc. Learning is no single thing, but different mixes including, but not restricted to, these various parts and others. This is compound learning at its simplest.
Some while ago, in an earlier post, I summarised three ways in which learning is often framed:
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.
Given the sociomaterial approach of my study, the third of those possibilities provides the frame within which my notion of learning sits. Another meaning of compound drawn from the realm of science seems to work with a view of learning as assemblage, where assemblage involves the formation and reformation of associations between initially disparate, heterogenous elements. This moves compound learning on from just a jumbled mix of different parts. In a (chemical) compound, different elements [even ‘element’ works well here] are linked together by bonds. These bonds are electrostatic forces of attraction and repulsion which pulse back and forth as the compound is mechanically or electrically distorted. Introducing other atoms into the structure may further distort the molecular configurations of the atoms, or cause bonds to break and reform in different ways, in some cases forming new compounds. My argument is that this is similar to the way learning practices are performed through Twitter. Someone may have a particular approach they use in their classrooms, or a view about pedagogical strategies. Their involvement in Twitter exposes them to alternative possibilities which may cause them to adjust their approach, or sometimes to even to radically change their opinions. There are a host of different chemical compounds, each different from the last as a result of different combinations of atoms; even the same atoms can be combined in different ways to form different compounds (e.g. hydrocarbons). Different practices and activities on Twitter can also combine and recombine in a myriad of ways.
One area of carbon chemistry is concerned with polymeric molecules; extended chains or meshes are assembled from similar individual units – polythene for example consists of many ethene units bonded together. This leads into another meaning of ‘compound’ more commonly associated with the financial sector, which refers to interest added on to both an original investment or deposit, and to the previous interest already accrued. It is more than a cumulative effect; one in which the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. One could argue therefore that teachers learning through Twitter will benefit more than incrementally as they participate more. For example, a teacher might see a tweet containing a link to a blog post on direct instruction. Having followed that link, they might read the post. Later they reflect on it and write their own post supporting or negating the view. They may subsequently become involved in an exchange discussing the two stances, perhaps even offline with a colleague. Their practice could be adjusted as they test out what they learned, and the outcomes of that trial then be fed back through Twitter and discussed further. Not only did the practices they went through compound, but by interacting with others, the ramifying relations beyond their individual actions to other people and things, thereby contributing further to the compounding.
One of the ambivalences which arose in my study was how people are keen to seek out like-minds, but are simultaneously aware of the echo chamber that might possibly create. In this we might see another version of ‘compound,’ that of intensification. Most commonly having a negative connotation – as in ‘his actions compounded the problem’ – this has parallels with how concern is generated for some, that they might only be exposing themselves to a limited set of views by associating predominantly with those who share similar beliefs. As Sunstein (2001) suggests, discussing an issue within an echochamber will likely result in fortification of preexisting views, although he also notes that this is not always a bad thing.
In thinking through these different manifestations of ‘compound learning,’ it also became apparent how this can be explained at different levels. So when ‘compound’ draws on the chemical metaphor, the atoms or elements within the compound could be different activities like participating in a hashtag chat, or resharing a remixed resource that someone else originally shared. On the other hand, the atoms could represent smaller units, like adding a hashtag, sending a tweet, replying or retweeting, which are constituents in the aforementioned hashtag chat. Even to authoring of a tweet has constituent elements: text, url(s), gif, emoticon, hashtag etc. It’s similar to how fundamental particles associate together within atoms, which associate to form molecules, which associate to form a molecular structure, and (in polycrystals at least) form macrostructures.
The one conceptualisation of ‘compound’ I couldn’t reconcile was that of an enclosed space. No matter how I tried to spin it, I could not see a form of teacher activity on Twitter which was exclusive and closed off. That just seemed antithetical to everything I’d observed and experienced where learning is expansive, spreads out beyond Twitter, and draws in widely. One might try to make a case for example that a hashtag chat is a compound in this sense – it occurs say, between 20:00 and 21:00 on a Sunday evening, demands a hashtag as an entry permit and adopts a Q1/A1 format. But of course, they’re not all like that, discussion often spills out temporally and spatially, continuing after the chat and into other online spaces like blogs. Although Twitter is arguably a closed platform, links APIs and embed codes move information around, in and out, making it difficult to establish where the boundary fence might be.
On a slightly more metacognitive level, I’m struck be the way in which compound learning is coherent with flanography. Both are about exposure to experiences, expansive knowledge practices which gather and reconfigure fragments as the learner/researcher moves through time and space, and not only being comfortable with churn and mess, but almost revelling in them.
I’m presently trying to consolidate these ideas, so if you have any observations (or can see how ‘compound’ as enclosure could work), do please let me know in the comments.
Sunstein, C. R. (2001). Echo chambers: Bush v. Gore, impeachment, and beyond. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.