Movement of Ideas Project: Approach

As a pilot project, the scope for a deep exploration is rather limited. In order to track and analyse how ideas about practice move and change, two approaches were chosen. The first involves exploring social media – mainly Twitter – in a similar way to how I conducted my PhD research. Secondly, any interesting lines of enquiry can be developed more fully by inviting primary school teachers to participate in semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Where the latter has a typical and well-understood format, the former is far from common and may need setting out in more detail. The reason for this post then is to make more explicit the steps I take when ‘exploring social media’.

The need to make clear how I’m becoming immersed in the data was a task I undertook before, but something with which I continued to wrestle. I began the process in a couple of posts beginning here which I attempted to summarise in this post. This prompted me to consider using visualisation to try to illustrate my endeavours and in a later post presented the following attempted summary:

Visualisation - What I do when I do Twitter
“What I do when I do Twitter” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/44602792592 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I went on to think more about the serendipitous wandering nature of the approach, rather than a structured set of steps, and began to articulate it as ‘flanography.’ This short, pilot study however, lacks the luxury of time needed to conduct such an ethnographically infused approach. I needed to be far more considered and plan out more precisely the steps I could take within the allocated time. In the remainder of this post I’d like to set out the different elements that helped me begin to ‘track and analyse how ideas move.’

The majority of people I follow on Twitter are educators, many of whom I surmised might have something to say about literacy. I reintroduced myself to scrolling through the twitterstream in the way I used. For me this involves starting the Echofon app on a tablet, allowing the stream of tweets to refresh, then scrolling through the approximately 200 new tweets which appear. Whereas before I was seeking examples which might illustrate or discuss teachers developing professionally through Twitter, now my attention became drawn to those tweets in which knowledge surrounding literacy in the primary school context might be moving around. I bookmarked any tweets to which I might later wish to return. After a few sessions it appeared this method which had served me so well in the past would be less successful with my new topic of study. Partly that’s because previously, any educator might have been involved in or discussing professional learning, whereas now only a fraction of all the people I’m following are primary educators or express a particular interest in literacy in primary schools. The few tweets I did find however, helped me tap into other potential trails to follow, such as particular  accounts for which literacy was significant, or hashtags that fed into literacy discussions. I’ll return to these matters later.

Needing to tap into a more concentrated stream of literacy, my next step was to conduct advanced searches on Twitter using expressions such as “literacy lesson”, “literacy practice”, or for terms found in literacy documentation such as reading, writing, vocabulary, phonics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, fluency, etc. By using multiple columns in Tweetdeck I was able to monitor several ongoing searches at once, but again with only measured success. The search terms were either too broad and presented tweets from much broader contexts than primary, (e.g. financial or media literacy) or when used in combination to try to reduce the breadth, they became too tight and produced very few results.

My third attempt focused on the small batch of tweets which I’d already gathered. Here I could see that some individuals were prominent in the literacy landscape and that some hashtags (such as #readingforpleasure) seemed to be marshalling literacy-related activity. Following hashtag activity involved a two-pronged approach. The simplest was to add further columns to Tweetdeck to provide streams of tweets containing the hashtag; I could monitor and bookmark these manually. Alternately, where activity became more intense at particular times as it tended to with hashtag chats (e.g. #OURfPBookBlether), I set up a TAGS Google sheet to capture tweets automatically over a period of time. Both strategies proved fruitful, although in the second case rather too much so! Whereas previously I had the time to go through and analyse a corpus of a few hundred tweets for themes and patterns, in this project I’m unlikely to be able to spare that much time. At least now though I was making progress.

I now turned to those individuals for whom literacy appeared to be important, as indicated by the subject matter of their tweets or by the interests or roles expressed through their Twitter bio. Some of these educators I already followed, but I had to think carefully whether or not to follow those I currently didn’t. This became an ethical issue for me. In the past I rarely thought twice about following people; that was simply an expected part of being within the community of educators on Twitter as one developed what some call a personal learning network. My bio made it clear what my interests were and those who I followed were free to follow me back if they felt I might have something to contribute their learning, to not follow back if they didn’t, or to block me if they were concerned. Now though I felt far more uncomfortable about following someone with an interest in literacy – to me, this would be overstepping the mark and was likely to tip the recipient-contributor balance too much in my favour. In an arena where contributing to the commons is an accepted norm and where those who only take are viewed unfavourably, I wasn’t happy initiating a follow. With little experience in primary teaching and only rather narrow conceptions of literacy (related to secondary science or the digital realm) The compromise I settled on was to produce a ‘List’ of those accounts which appear to be interested in literacy in primary schools; there is then no potential pressure to follow back. By describing my list as “Teachers and organisations tweeting about literacy (within the (UK) Primary school context)”, when people were notified that someone had added them to a list, they could choose to follow it. As I write, ten people have done so, are hopefully learning something from the List members and as a consequence I feel slightly happier that I’ve made a modest contribution that might help the primary literacy community.

Adding a further column to Tweetdeck to present the tweets from those accounts in my Literacy List began to yield far more relevant tweets than the previous strategies I’d employed. I now had enough bookmarked tweets to explore more carefully. In the next post, I’ll take a look at what that involves.

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