Chapter 5: Gathering: Meeting the locals

Chapter 5 introductory graphic

The above tweet marked the point of departure for this Gathering, but what I now present is a summary of what that traversal through the data revealed.

Whilst it is possible for anyone to find information on Twitter, even without an account, that would render it no more a means of undertaking professional learning practice than say, using Wikipedia. With an account however, connections become possible and connecting is facilitated and encouraged through profiles and tweets. The bio and follow button help to begin the process, whilst retweets and likes help to sustain the relationships which form. Connecting is more than merely a one-time click when viewed as assemblage. Every tweet sent, retweeted or liked; every hashtag, mention or emoticon included; every link to a site, post or image, offers potential. It might be an act of renewal – touching base with those with whom you’re already connected – or growth, and be perceived as an invitation to make a connection.  A broad palette of possibilities is available ranging from a tight focus on those with similar experience, from similar educational contexts and with similar interests, to those from different educational phases, in different countries, who might espouse different pedagogical views. Each mix assembled by each individual will do different things.

A tweet is far from the simple limited character message it might initially present. Much better to think of it as an assemblage in which a variety of actors are working together, and from which associations emerge. Once authored and cast into the Twitterstream, a tweet continues to do work as it appears in various timelines. Aaron’s above tweet appeared in my timeline, although I first saw it as a result of a notification. It will also have appeared in the timelines of anyone else following Aaron, and in the timeline of anyone following the RoCur hashtag. As its tweet stats show, it was also retweeted, so will also have appeared in the timelines of all those following the retweeter. A tweet is a busy actor, and is often the point from which further activity begins.

Connecting with others has become part of the professional practice of teachers on Twitter. It is common for people to associate connecting with learning, if not in the same breath, then definitely in the same tweet. Connecting has become almost synonymous with learning for many. So when Fenwick (2015) observes that

A sociomaterial perspective tends to view all things – human and nonhuman, hybrids and parts, knowledge and systems – as effects of connections and activity

Connecting becomes more than merely making links, it is a constitutive activity within a learning assemblage.

Through Twitter, teachers can connect with like-minded peers to enhance and extend their repertoire – the resources they use, the beliefs they hold. Through those connections, they also expose themselves to other perspectives and different ways of doing things, and as a result, may change their views. Twitter’s role in this is to enable and encourage those connections, acting as a social glue, and facilitating the regular exchanges which constitute ‘ambient intimacy’ (Reichelt, 2007) and which maintain ongoing relationships. The Follow button might initiate a relationship, but the Like and Retweet buttons can help sustain it. Tweet and profile constituents become integral in forming and sustaining relationships. The Retweet is a repeater and amplifier, causing the original message to appear and then reappear in Twitter timelines; a nudge here, a prod there. This is more than creating or extending a network of practice or personal learning network, it is networking.

Hashtags cooperate with other actors, repeat themselves and become more insistent. In collaborating with other human and nonhuman actors they do work by forging connections and facilitating communication exchanges. Hashtags don’t simply work for teachers in this regard, but work with them, sometimes coaxing, sometimes cajoling and sometimes compelling. Hashtags, usernames and hyperlinks are distinctively coloured and are interactive, inviting readers to click, and provide an easy route to make further connections and extend the learning potential. When aggregated together in a single tweet, their effect increases; a hashtag working together with a hyperlink is more insistent.

The flexibility and adaptability of hashtags help to bring forth activities like hashtag chats, and to extend into so many different educational spheres. Hashtag chats begin from a single premise; a Twitter conversation enabled by a hashtag filtering tweets from the general twitterstream. Chats have become prolific, enduring, and offer different formats at different times to suit different needs and interests. Offering structure and regularity, balanced with informality and openness, chats have become multiple, depending on how they are done. Although not universally celebrated, those who choose to become involved are able to progress through different stages of experience. A novice can choose to lurk, but with more experience become an active participant, a moderator or even establish a new chat.

Hashtag chats present a different form of professional practice which may have at its heart, the simple premise of a professional discussion. What Twitter adds is the scope to transcend time and space by allowing access to synchronous or asynchronous participants who may be in school, on the bus or at home, from Iceland to Ireland to Indonesia. The agenda of chats may be influenced, but is not driven by wider educational issues or initiatives. Participants themselves are at liberty to decide the content, duration and depth of exchanges. Those who participate can seek affirmation from, or award it to others; they can challenge views or offer their own for scrutiny.

When embarking on any new experience, a period of acclimatisation allows a new participant to become familiar with the conventions and expectations. This is one instance of how ‘lurking’ might be perceived a more legitimate endeavour and even a necessary part of the learning process. Progression is then possible as participants’ capabilities and confidence increase, but especially when other actors like Tweetdeck are enrolled in the sense-making process. Perhaps arising from the goals participants bring to chats, or from unexpected outcomes, or both, those involved in chats experience consequences. They may expand their number of connections with new followers or by following others; they may increase their knowledge about a particular issue; they may try out a new pedagogical strategy in class; or their well-being may have been enhanced.

EduTweetOz (ETO) has parallels with hashtag chats and is often, though not solely discursive. It introduces an added dimension with participants having the opportunity to take on different roles, as host or as a follower-participant. The view from, and demands of, each role are different, each offering its own learning opportunities. Rather than activity being marshalled by a hashtag, EduTweetOz is driven by a single account with its associated activity reliant on its handle – @EduTweetOz. Those who wish to participate with ETO rely on the handle, either to follow the account it fronts, or to monitor tweets which include it. The principal activity takes place on Twitter however, this is bolstered by the EduTweetOz blog which provides a further point of reference for hosts and participants alike. The connective tissue between Twitter and the blog consists of the permanent link presented in the full bio, supplemented by occasional tweets pointing to individual posts.

The activity associated with ETO is rich and varied. As each host passes through, a different range of strategies and techniques is presented to participants. Some make extensive use of hashtags, whilst others are more sparing. Some retweet a lot, some hardly at all. Some hosts reply to many tweets, others to only a few. At times therefore, ETO becomes a stream of useful information, a provocation for one’s thinking, or an amplifier of the knowledge that others are sharing. The overarching sense is one of variety and change.

EduTweetOz affords opportunities for both hosts and participants. The audience for ETO is exposed to a variety of hosts employing a range of techniques to cover a wealth of topics. As a consequence, following ETO is one way to help ameliorate the effects of the echo chamber. Those who take up the challenge of its hot seat have the opportunity to try on a second skin, or stretch themselves beyond where their usual educational Twitter account allows. As Condie, Ayodele, Chowdhury, Powe & Cooper (2018) found from their university student hosts, hosting provides an opportunity

[…] to build confidence and an authoritative voice within their discipline by posting original content … and by participating in two-way interactions within and beyond their immediate learning communities.

The different, often bigger, audience with differing expectations requires hosts to think differently and adapt accordingly. Many described the experience as both demanding, but rewarding. Moving beyond one’s comfort zone in this way can be one strategy for developing capability.

How this addressed my research questions

The architecture Twitter provides as part of tweets and profiles help to make connections, and establish and maintain relationships. They present and filter information, bring people together around a rallying point and do so across spaces and time. Activity directed by and through @EduTweetOz overcomes the distance separating geographically distant people. Different components help in different ways, but have an invitational quality where involvement can begin with little more than a simple click. Participation at that level can be criticised as tokenistic however, the ripples which spread can have much larger cumulative effects.

Burnett (2017) suggested that iPads can be considered as having a ‘layered architecture’ comprising physical presence, interactive features, apps and digital artefacts. One could conceive of Twitter in a similar way, with an architecture including layers which address:

  • Appearance – what is presented to the user. This is fluid and depends on the device through which Twitter is being viewed
  • Content – the information being passed between users. This includes text, images, links which are presented through tweets, profiles and Twitter-generated content (e.g. ‘Trends for you,’ ‘Who to follow’ etc)
  • Interactivity – Twitter underlying coding transforms some user provided content into interactive resources. When a hashtag, @mention or url are included in a tweet for example, Twitter turns them into clickable links
  • Connectivity – through the links which are included or generated, other internal and external locations are connected together, enabling users to easily move between them.

Different Twitter components span different layers and support TPD in different ways. A link from a Twitter profile to a blog is more than a single-use ticket from one place to another, but expands the available information space of each. When the character limitations of the Twitter bio prove too constraining, this can be augmented with the ‘About Me’ page of a linked blog. Hashtag chats may take place within Twitter, but other platforms like Tweetdeck spread the participative space and reduce the load for some. The knowledge generated during chats remains distributed, though not necessarily accessible, on Twitter. By curating and condensing the tweets into an archive elsewhere, those unable to access a chat synchronously are granted a second chance.

The professional practices in which teachers participate vary in scale and scope. This Gathering confirms what Carpenter and Krutka (2015) found, that teachers share and acquire resources and ideas. Sharing a document or idea is as simple as including it in a tweet however, finding specific resources can be more demanding. When hashtags become involved, resources on a particular theme are held together, become searchable and more easily located. As I discussed in an earlier post, hashtags can also generate an affinity space (Gee, 2005) enabling teachers to assemble and participate in a time-limited activity. Although there are some elements of structure, #12days had a planned sequence of tasks, completion is not obligatory and participation is on an informal basis. Hashtag chats offer similar opportunities, although generally on a more regular basis and are typically arenas geared towards discussion. As Carpenter (2015) noted, different degrees of participation are possible, from lurking to moderating. Those levels of participation might be extended to include founding, establishing and promoting the chat. In other cases, individuals might curate and archive tweets, or blog their chat reflections. Different intensities of participation are available to suit different needs and interests. EduTweetOz similarly offers different levels of involvement, although through a wider range of tasks. In isolation, these might be considered mundane; after all, teachers are involved in discussions daily. What makes EduTweetOz arguably unique, is how the topics, the participants, the roles, and the level of formality (or informality), are continually shifting. I’ll return to this theme in a later post.

 

Burnett, C. (2017). The fluid materiality of tablets: Examining ‘the iPad multiple’ in a primary classroom. In C. Burnett, G. Merchant, A. Simpson & M. Walsh (Eds.), The case of the iPad : Mobile literacies in education (pp. 15-30). Singapore: Springer.
Carpenter, J. P. (2015). Preservice teachers’ microblogging: Professional development via twitter. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15(2), 209-234.
Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2015). Learning in 140 characters: English teachers’ educational uses of twitter. International Journal of English and Education, 4(2)
Condie, J. M., Ayodele, I., Chowdhury, S., Powe, S., & Cooper, A. (2018). Personalizing twitter communication: An evaluation of ‘rotation-curation’ for enhancing social media engagement within higher education. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, , 1-18. doi:10.1080/08841241.2018.1453910
Fenwick, T. (2015). Sociomateriality and learning: A critical approach. In D. Scott, & E. Hargreaves (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of learning (pp. 83-93). Los Angeles: SAGE.
Gee, J. P. (2005). Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces. Beyond Communities of Practice Language Power and Social Context, , 214-232.

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