The professional development that teachers undertake on and through Twitter resists easy, simple description. Despite my efforts, it cannot easily be condensed into a single list of characteristics, set of features or tight-knit package of outcomes. Where one teacher finds no more than a place to keep abreast of current educational developments, another might be seeking a virtual staffroom to unwind and either celebrate or pick apart the challenges they are facing in the classroom. Someone else might relish an opportunity to debate received wisdom within a broader educational arena, whilst another wishes to become part of a committed group of fellow practitioners seeking to extend and enhance their classroom practice and capabilities. People don’t appear to set out on Twitter with the above as objectives they’re keen to achieve, but instead develop a range of practices which address their needs and provide the benefits appropriate to them.
Despite the bold claims some make, teachers don’t tend to see what they do on Twitter as offering a replacement for other PD in which they would be involved, but they do see it as a supplement. That is to say it runs alongside other PD, sometimes intersecting it, informing it and even at times challenging it. Twitter PD provides access for some teachers to opportunities unavailable through other channels
Participation in learning practices on Twitter is more than just an individual or social affair. Practices are a sociomaterial endeavour in which teachers, Twitter, tweets, hashtags, likes, mentions, threads and notifications are entangled in social and material relations. It is difficult to conceive how experiences like EduTweetOz could arise and flourish without the infrastructure and capabilities that Twitter provides. Continually forming, reforming and reshaping, assemblage brings forth knowledge, but does so coupled with a sense of goodwill and good feeling amongst the human participants. Perhaps there is something of the flâneuse or flâneur in the way that teachers approach their learning practices on and through Twitter, sometimes setting out with a particular intent, and sometimes wandering where links, hashtags, clicks and taps take them. They are at the one time purposeful and purpose-less, open to serendipity, engaged in what Lemke (2002; 2005) would call a traversal rather than a trajectory. The flâneur never gets a birds-eye view and has to piece their picture together bit by bit in an ongoing process of knowledge assemblage. Perhaps most of all, the freedom from constraint is liberating and refreshing.
Within the Gatherings I outlined how assemblage, multiplicity and fluidity, as part of a sociomaterial approach, helped to produce ‘compound learning.’ As that concept was beginning to unfold, similarities between the practices of teachers on Twitter and my experience as researcher, flâneur and thesis author began to emerge. Becoming a researcher and flâneur of and on Twitter is a process of assemblage involving some of the same actors and practices as teachers: tweets, hashtags, Likes, apps, scrolling through the timeline, following hashtags, bookmarking tweets, asking questions. Each observation or participation in a hashtag chat, or each visit to Team English, begins to intensify the data collected. Each visit back to those data intensifies the unfolding understandings. Like the flâneur who becomes increasingly familiar with the streets the more times he wanders along them, repeatedly moving between and amongst the data produces intensification.
This study makes four contributions to knowledge:
- Empirical, through its rich account of teacher learning practices on Twitter. Conceptualising those practices as ‘compound’ at different scales provides a preliminary framework which helps to legitimise this activity.
- Empirical, in revealing the important role nonhuman participants have in enabling TPD to be personalised.
- Methodological, in offering ‘flânography’ as a different approach.
- Methodological, through two newly emerging methods.
By adopting a sociomaterial approach, this study illuminates teachers’ professional learning practices on Twitter through a lens not previously used. As a result it provides an empirical contribution which extends the work of previous research, revealing more detail about teachers’ professional learning on Twitter. I proposed ‘compound learning’ as a process of assemblage to help conceptualise this, where webs of relations are (re)formed and intensified thereby extending temporal and spatial reach. This helps us to think about how we might broaden professional learning experiences and enable them to reach beyond local contexts and narrow windows of time.
Secondly, the ANT approach ensured the nonhuman participants were not relegated to mere tools or background context, and that they are actors which affect and effect, especially within the mediated world of Twitter and social media. This study revealed how they make it easier to personalise the learning experience: choose content to engage with, establish groups with similar interests, choose the people and communities with whom you would rather connect, and choose the time and duration of participation.
A third contribution is made through a novel approach I call ‘flânography.’ This involves bringing together ethnographic, ethical and sociomaterial sensibilities with those of the flâneur. Flânography is characterised by a particular form of mobility in which attentive pathways of experience are traced through time, the field, the data and the text. This enabled different insights to emerge than might not have done with a different approach. Rather than solely producing a ‘rich description,’ flânography offers the means to produce a description of riches, and highlight what is significant, telling and potent.
A further contribution resulted from two new methods which emerged during the study. The adaptive and responsive nature of flânography allowed me to capitalise on opportunities which presented themselves. When a participant suggested using Voxer, a ‘walkie-talkie’ app, to conduct asynchronous interviews, I was able to respond quickly, try it out and as a consequence allow someone to contribute who might not otherwise have been able. The second method arose when I needed to respond to the disruption caused by Twitter changing Favourite to Like. My solution was the PLDbot, a way of automatically gathering and responding to tweets containing specific terms.
As I outlined in the preceding chapter, I chose certain paths through my research project and through the data and not others. I hope those choices were made for practical and pragmatic reasons, rather than with any intention to privilege one set of outcomes over another. Yet I have to acknowledge the biases I carry with me, as I outlined in personal hinterlands, but that there may be others of which I am unaware.
Another instance which left me in somewhat of quandary was whether to follow up the suggestion that some people were voicing, that Twitter was becoming less comfortable and a more aggressive, confrontational space. If this was affecting learning practices, then it was worth following up, but this was late into the study, and I felt I lacked the resource to do much more than scratch the surface.
There are a wide range of self-identified ‘communities’ on Twitter. Community often refers to a (bounded) group of people, having shared values and beliefs, and a shared sense of identity. However, those parameters exclude the nonhuman actors which are such significant participants within Team English and the MFLTwitterati. Without hashtags, Lists, blogs, Dropbox, wikis and especially Twitter itself, it’s difficult to conceive how these communities would hold together. The question then arises, how should we conceptualise a sociomaterial, rather than sociocultural, community? This study only began that process by identifying some of the actors, but didn’t go so far as to better understand alternative criteria through which a sociomaterial community might be defined.
The Twitter space occupied by teachers is never short of possibilities for a researcher, typified as it is by people who are keen to experiment. #NZBTchat , #BrewEd and #TeamScience emerged, unfortunately rather late in my study. The opportunity to conduct a longitudinal study following initiatives like these more tightly from their inception, through growth, and if it arises, their decline, might have yielded insights.
People who sustain projects such as #NZBTchat, EduTweetOz, Team English and others might be embarking on an alternative pathway through which they develop leadership skills. This may be because the systems and structures available through their schools are somewhat restricted or limited. Permission to proceed is not required in the more open environment of Twitter, yet leadership was another potentially fruitful strand I was unable to pursue.
Almost inevitably, research studies focus on some things rather than others. One of the areas I unsuccessfully attempted to access directly through this technique was the ‘real-world’ setting of participants while they were involved in Twitter. There is perhaps more to learn here about the way pyjamas and slippers, the cat and coffee, as discussed in chapter 7, become involved in and contribute towards TPD. Finding ways to learn more about this otherwise hidden world could prove revealing.
If some of the most enthusiastic participants in this study are to be believed, using Twitter to support teachers’ learning practices should be encouraged and developed more widely in schools. I have to confess to a greater degree of ambivalence. There are those for whom Twitter appears to provide connections through which they: can develop their practice and knowledge; extend the range of resources and techniques they take into their classroom; and become aware of wider educational issues and challenges and how others are addressing them. However, achieving that through Twitter may not be appropriate for all. Those who seem to get the most from Twitter commit considerable time and energy into their participation; this is largely their personal time. It would be unconscionable to demand that of others who may not be in a position to dispose of their time in that way, even if they were so inclined. Another concern is the degree to which those who choose to be involved in Twitter become beholden to a commercial enterprise which is profiting from their presence, their activity and the data they generate. An individual may be capable of making the decision whether to participate or not, however, the ethical and legal questions of a school requiring or even suggesting its teachers participate on a platform like Twitter need careful consideration. For a teacher to choose to be on Twitter is one thing, for them to be obliged to do so is quite another.
Whilst it may be inappropriate for school leaders to encourage the use of Twitter, it is another matter for them to recognise that some of their teachers might use it, and may be gaining professional benefits useful to the school. Perhaps it is more a matter of ensuring that systems are in place which capitalise on the developing capabilities of all staff, wherever they are gaining their experiences from. Of being open to possibilities and ensuring those who might be keen to explore and experiment have the opportunity to do so and can share their successes. Not necessarily so easy within current systems of performance measures and accountability where only particular forms of professional development are acknowledged as valid.
Rather than thinking solely about PD on Twitter, it might be more fruitful to consider what can be learned about teachers’ learning practices more generally from this study, which just happened to focus on Twitter? When teachers talk about their ‘PD on Twitter’ it would seem they have in mind a broader conception of the practices found in conventional PD. Friendship, camaraderie, fun, hygge, are also valued and valuable constituents which contribute to a more fulfilling experience. If schools and CPD providers are considering how their PD programmes might be enhanced, then exploring ways through which these elements could be incorporated might offer one way forward. One of the most valued aspects of their activity on Twitter is the extent to which teachers are able to choose their own path, the degree of autonomy and independence they enjoy, and the opportunity to pursue their interests. As a consequence, and despite the need to drive through whole-school strategies, schools might do well to consider how teacher choice and autonomy might be accommodated, and well-being addressed, within their PD programmes.
When I sent that first tweet in 2009, having been encouraged by a fellow student on the Masters programme to do so, I spent far less than the 140 characters I was then allowed. I could never have imagined it was the first step leading towards the 80 000+ words in my thesis, nor the 200 000+ words here on my research blog. My Twitter activity since that first tweet, though not visible in the thesis, is nevertheless still present in the way it informed my research questions, the approach that I adopted, and the conclusions I ultimately drew.
Teachers’ learning practices on Twitter are about more than professional development. Or to say it another way, teachers’ professional development is more than learning practices. Knowledge is developed, classroom practices change, beliefs are challenged, friends are made, colleagues are supported, cake is eaten and beer is drunk. Although I had some sense at the outset that actors other than humans would be significant in mediated activity of this nature, I hadn’t appreciated just how much. Simple acts such as a clicking, following, liking or retweeting, through compound learning, can have far-reaching and significant impacts, in the same way the tweet above did.
At the outset, I had never heard the word flâneur, was unaware of the Voxer app and couldn’t conceive that I might create a bot. Perhaps it was the same curiosity that nudged me to send that tweet that also allowed me to be open to the methodological possibilities which presented themselves. I certainly never imagined that the visualisations I produced might influence my thinking rather than just presenting it.
As my thesis shifts into the University digital repository, I’m minded to think of it amongst the pantheon of other research as no more than a single tweet. A brief statement made at a particular time. Yet I hold out the hope that like my tweet above and the 109 other tweets herein, it too will resurface from time to time, prompt someone to a particular thought and perhaps rekindle the conversation.
Lemke, J. L. (2002). Travels in hypermodality. Visual Communication, 1(3), 299-325. doi:10.1177/147035720200100303
Lemke, J. L. (2005). Multimedia genres and traversals. Folia Linguistica, 39(1-2), 45-56. doi:10.1515/flin.2005.39.1-2.45