One of the factors prompting this study was the number of people who tweeted how important Twitter was in supporting their professional learning. The following tweet provides a reminder of the kind of sentiment expressed:
During participant observation I curated a corpus of educators’ tweets which referred in some way to both professional learning and Twitter. Analysing this corpus revealed that educators frame Twitter PD in different ways. The capacity to be able to choose the routes you take, the content you see, the time and duration of your involvement and the location from which you participate are important to many. However Twitter is perceived, one can find or be exposed to a wide range of resources, ideas, advice, research, inspiration, support, and answers to questions.
In the corpus it was less common for people to describe making contributions to wider activity in a similar way to that discussed in the previous Gatherings. It would not be fair however, to describe this as solitary behaviour from passive recipients; people discuss and debate issues, organise and coordinate ‘meetings,’ both online and face-to-face. Being able to connect with one another is clearly very important since it enables access to people perceived as innovative and knowledgeable. Having access to the expertise of others through the practice they openly share, not only reduces isolation but might also save time, since many of these opportunities arrive without having had to seek them out. Many of those colleagues from whom people learn would be inaccessible without Twitter, coming as they often do from the wider global community. That knowledge gleaned from accessing a wider body of educators can be brought back into local contexts, or as Forte et al (2012) describe it, participants become ‘conduits for new practices and ideas.’
Having found their way onto Twitter, one of the reasons participants stay around is that they feel in control, rather than being directed or impelled to do so by some other. They have the choice to follow the threads they feel are appropriate to their needs and to the context in which they work. The ‘always on’ nature of Twitter allows them to participate at a time and for a duration of their choosing, one which fits with other aspects of their life. Having the freedom to connect with people with whom they share synergy, makes for a more sociable and mutually beneficial experience.
In addition to having their thinking extended and changing their teaching practice as a consequence, people also remark on the affective ways in which they benefit. They feel motivated, inspired and encouraged to try new things by their encounters on Twitter. Furthermore, the connections they make sometimes develop into friendships which begin online and extend offline as people meet at conferences and more informally. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to explore this in more depth, it would seem that the relaxed, restful atmosphere provided by familiar surroundings allows them to approach their experience in a more positive frame of mind. People described with relish, being able to participate in learning experiences from the comfort of their beds and with a cup of coffee to hand. This sociomaterial swirl of things and places seems to assemble with Twitter to generate a relaxed and receptive mood.
Although #BrewEd and #CakeMeet both have a stated professional side to their activity, one could argue that most of what I presented in the ‘Personal’ section as examples of hygge hardly constitute professional development. They are rarely to be found in most other research studies, articles, or policies addressing professional development. In an exploration of online self-generated teacher communities more generally, as opposed to specifically Twitter, Hur and Brush (2009) found that sharing of knowledge went together with emotional sharing. The reason their participants joined an online community in the first place was to share knowledge and experiences; the reason they stayed was because of the camaraderie which developed. The technology of Twitter, Tweetdeck and a tablet are not the only nonhumans enacting TPD, but perhaps tea and toast do too?
I’d suggest that achieving hygge might either put people in a better frame of mind to learn there and then, or in the longer term helps their well-being, thereby making it more likely they’ll be so inclined to learn at other times. In Denmark, hygge provides an antidote to the long, cold, grey days of winter. For teachers on Twitter, perhaps the ability to engage with like-minded others while in the comfort of their own home is a counterpoint to the intensity and pressure the school day often brings. Hyggelig encounters – those infused with hygge – do not have a predetermined plan, are open ended and allow potentiality (Linnet, 2012). As Linnet (2011, p.23) also points out:
Hygge signifies a safe, low-key, intimate form of socialization. For many people, the notion of having ‘a hyggelig time’ would refer to being with good friends or with one’s family or partner, having fun in an easy-going yet not overly exciting way.
Participants have described their activity on Twitter as similarly ‘safe’ and ‘low-key,’ in the company of ‘good friends’ and often ‘fun.’ Part of hygge is ‘being there’ and enjoying the moment; some would say that burying one’s face in a screen to interact through social media is the converse of hygge. And yet for those like the Early Birds, separated by distance, perhaps Twitter, tweets, hashtags and gifs facilitate a different kind of hygge.
Ambivalence, ambiguity and contradictions on Twitter quickly become apparent when actively searching for them. They manifest in different ways however. Imagine a thread of tweets in which a handful of people are disagreeing about the implications of an educational story in the press. For some, that might represent a healthy and robust debate in which they’re keen to be involved. Others might be frustrated by the tone, and wish people could be more civil in their disagreements, so therefore distance themselves from similar exchanges. Ambivalence here is in the different reactions of different people to the same provocation. On the other hand, ambivalence could be expressed by the same person to different, although similar events. They might see one hashtag chat as informative, stimulating and not to be missed, whilst another is irrelevant, repetitive and unchallenging.
Many of the benefits presented in this Gathering confirm those found in previous research: timely access to resources, information and support, local and global connections which reduce isolation, participation in meaningful discussion and dialogue, keeping up to date with current trends, and access to like-minded and diverse perspectives (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014; Skyring, 2014; Trust, 2012). The ‘levelling effect’ where educational hierarchies are flattened, as reported by Beadle (2014), also appeared in this Gathering. However, this study also extends what we know about the benefits that teachers report from participation on Twitter in a number of ways. Some participants reported how helpful images can be in providing ‘windows’ into other educational settings, or as exemplars of specific resources or practice. For some, Twitter proved useful as a sandpit where they can float ideas, benefit from feedback and comment, and revise accordingly. Some even relished the challenge this brought about. A handful of people even remarked how their activity on Twitter positioned them in such a way that their career path changed.
Inevitably, where there are benefits, often there are also drawbacks. Twitter can be a chaotic and messy space, especially for the unfamiliar. Coping with that, and regular involvement more generally, demands a time commitment which can become intrusive on other aspects of your life. Some features of Twitter exacerbate this; notifications invite attendance, then the infinite scroll of the timeline makes departure more difficult. The space constraints that Twitter imposes can lead to shallow interactions and furthermore, attempting to engage in deeper debate can descend into unpleasantness and distress. As the examples show, people either tend to be aware of these shortcomings and develop strategies to address them, or accept them for the other benefits. One might argue that finding ways to work around the drawbacks constitutes learning activity in itself and which may be valuable in one’s practice more generally.
The ease with which people can associate with like-minded others is one of the important features for teachers on Twitter. It increases the likelihood of them finding relevant resources and news, it provides an antidote to the negative atmospheres they sometimes find themselves in elsewhere, and can provide affirmation of their views and practices. Many acknowledge however, that ‘affirmation’ can become a liability if views are never challenged. There is the risk of becoming exposed to a more limited set of views or becoming frustrated by seeing the same views expressed over and over again. The benefit of being able to craft a personal learning network and personalise one’s learning may indeed exacerbate the echo chamber (Cho, 2016). Ameliorating these issues first of all requires an awareness that they can exist, and secondly, being proactive in seeking to reduce them. This requires attending closely to the choices made of accounts to follow and the activities in which one participates. It is possible to be exposed to greater diversity in communities or groups where membership and attendance regularly fluctuate (Gilbert, 2016); this is where the value of participating in experiences like EduTweetOz, as discussed in Chapter 5, should not be understated. It is also important to appreciate that the Twitter assemblage (the follow and retweet buttons, character limits and lists, unfollow and mute) can act to both amplify and suppress the echo chamber effect, depending on how they are enacted.
- Educators enjoy having choices; the freedom to choose what, when, and how they participate.
- Having access to a breadth of opportunities including resources, ideas, advice, expertise, and support is appreciated.
- In addition to learning, there are also affective benefits including motivation, inspiration and encouragement.
- Educators also face challenges, including the time commitment required, the need to cope in a chaotic environment, possibility of only seeing confirmatory views, the constrained space, and for some, tensions between personal and professional activity.
- Making the most of the benefits or ameliorating the drawbacks only comes with experience, and requires work and effort.
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that different people cite different benefits and drawbacks; there appear to be no characteristics that are universally loved, nor universally loathed.
How this addressed my research questions
The Like (Favorite) button is a busy and far from trivial actor. It responds to tweets, provides a means of nonverbal communication, and serves as a storage and retrieval system (Meier, Elsweiler, & Wilson, 2014) however, it has no universally accepted meaning or function. For teachers, it often acknowledges or affirms the contributions or presence of others. Together with the retweet and reply, the Like especially can contribute towards people developing a sense of ambient intimacy; what Lin et al (2016) describe as ‘an emotional process, [involving] the feeling of closeness toward certain others on social media.’ Liking may be a modest, one-click act for some, but cumulatively, it can contribute towards what Visser et al (2014) describe as the formation of ‘meaningful, interpersonal relationships within a participatory culture.’
Once comfortable on Twitter, the capacity to direct one’s own learning activity, to feel in control, to be able to decide with whom to connect and communicate, in short to be able to personalise the experience, is clearly important. More than this however, is the sense of being with like-minded people in a shared experience, an experience which sometimes develops into arranging face-to-face meetups where the social and professional intertwine.
Few studies into teachers’ use of Twitter discuss the drawbacks of Twitter, beyond the 140 character limitation. As Carpenter and Krutka (2015) noted, this could be because of methods used and participants self-referring who are largely positively inclined towards Twitter. Although that was partially the case in this study too, by attending closely to ambivalences, shortcomings could more easily bubble to the surface. I would suggest that a flânography in which fellow participants could be observed, rather than solely relying on self-reports through either surveys or interviews, probably helped here.
It would be easy to attempt to resolve ambivalence by claiming for example that on balance, people tend to find Twitter a positive environment in which they are happy to invest time engaged in activity which supports their learning. However, attuning to ambivalence means differences and tensions should be expected … and even accepted. As Fenwick and Edwards (2010) remind us, ‘Networks are a dynamic, ever-bubbling series of connections and failed connections.’ The simple, one-click act of retweeting a tweet for example could lead to: the tweet author being notified and a subsequent follow initiated; someone seeing important information they might otherwise have missed; or someone being sufficiently irritated by that retweet that they unfollow. The connections which are made or lost, the learning which is enriched or foreclosed, and the opportunities which ensue or have been stifled, are unpredictable, complex and messy. This is rather different from a facilitated course or workshop which has been planned and structured to provide a coherent, consistent, pathway with transparent expected outcomes. Perhaps what matters for those who find Twitter useful is that it accommodates ambivalence, rather than excluding it.
Whilst the literatures addressing teacher professional development focus on the features of the activities, what the outcomes are, and whether programmes have been effective, they sometimes overlook the individuals at the centre of the process and the environment within which they learn. This study begins to shed some light on those aspects and suggests that the PD that teachers on Twitter refer to is actually better conceived as a bundled package of activities, attitudes and atmosphere. That there is a need, as Korthagen (2017) proposes in ‘Professional Development 3.0,’ to connect the personal with the professional aspects of learning. I would go one further and include the material.
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