Where to draw the line. Boundary decisions.

flickr photo by ank0ku http://flickr.com/photos/joshhr/4308535000 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

One of the topics that cropped up during my recent supervisory meeting was how I’ll be bounding my study. Although I’ve given this some thought, it’s probably fair to say not enough. I’ve tended to think about areas I’m less likely to explore, thereby allowing me to exclude them, rather than specifically addressing the limits of what I do want include. It’s possible that I may have been influenced to some extent by some of my reading. Hine (2009, 18) is quite clear in advising us “…it is important  not to assume that we know in advance what the Internet is.” which then leads on to “ …a set of fieldwork boundaries is the outcome of a project, rather than its precursor.” (2009, 18).

It’s not entirely clear at the outset what those boundaries might be. Although some perceive a distinction between the online and offline worlds, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts, that apparent boundary is becoming increasingly blurred. My research begins in Twitter (online) certainly, but as I made clear in those earlier posts, it’s also likely to move offline in order to follow the activity of the actors involved. We also have to be aware how different Twitter will be manifest when used in different contexts; there isn’t one Twitter, but many, each person seeing and using it in their own way and perhaps each individual using it differently as they shift from context to context. Kendall (2009, 21) advises that researchers “allow these meanings to emerge through engagement with the cultural context and the people within it.” My supervisor’s caution once more returns and I see this as another possible mechanism through which the study might expand out of control. Kendall does however throw me a lifeline in offering three possible boundaries, together with three spheres of influence which might have an influence.

Three types of boundaries:

Spatial Questions of who, when and where to study Initially my study is bounded within Twitter, but this is inevitably a loose boundary; activity will move out to other online environments (blogs, linked sites) and offline (schools, meetings, conferences).

The study will focus predominantly on English-speaking teachers, but may also include other educators. In the first instance, these will be drawn from those I follow on Twitter, but that too is shifting ground as I follow new people. This boundary is determined by my research question in one sense; in order to express an opinion about Twitter in professional learning, you have to be using Twitter. I can only (easily) observe those people as a result of having followed them.

There are subsets of the Twitter educational ‘community’ which associate around particular interests or associations, so monitoring the activity of some of these groups might prove fruitful. Another boundary could be specified by choosing which group(s) to follow.

Temporal Time spent and issues of beginning and ending research First and foremost, my research is bounded by the time limits of my PhD which is funded for three years. Here then is a somewhat immutable boundary. I have available just over a year (+ or – a bit) to gather data, so another boundary will be determined by what can be achieved within that time. Spanning (at least) a year should mean however that any interesting annual events can be captured.

Since I follow educators from around the globe, there will be activity in my Twitter stream twenty four hours a day. I could monitor activity almost continually, but that is, for an individual researcher, unlikely to be manageable for a protracted period. Here then is a flexible boundary which I can influence, though at this stage of the research, it is not clear what an appropriate time period would be.

I have the option of collecting tweets automatically using the Twitter API. So for example this might be the tweets associated with a particular search term or user. (see ‘Practical’)

Relational Mainly relationships between researchers and the people they study Given the target populations mentioned in the above sections, the relationships I have with potential participants spans a wide continuum. This ranges from a tiny number with whom I’ve worked and know well, through those I’ve connected with online and met offline, to those with whom I’ve some contact online only and finally to those I follow, but with whom I’ve never had an exchange. Should I need to follow up any emerging areas of interest with anyone (and later when selecting interview participants), it might seem that those with whom I already have a relationship might be the ones to start with. There are of course a number of points both in favour and against such a notion.
Kendall also mentions a fourth boundary, though doesn’t discuss it. Here is my interpretation of what she hints at:
Practical Constraints imposed by the resources available, or the skills of the researcher. Collecting tweets automatically using the Twitter API imposes a number of constraints, including the number of tweets you can collect in a given time and how far back you can sample.

Without developing the necessary programming skills, a researcher is limited to the tools currently available off the shelf, although there is in fact quite a reasonable choice.

Following activity offline may not be possible due to geography e.g. if a group of teachers choose to take a discussion further by meeting up in bar in San Francisco, I’m unlikely to be able to follow up that lead.

Conducting online interviews with educators brings certain practical (and temporal!) considerations. Mutually acceptable tools which serve the needs of a research interview i.e. stable audio channel (plus others to share images/docs?) which can be recorded reliably.

Setting boundaries then remains a challenge, especially given the degree of overlap between many of these categories. So to gain a better insight into avenues which might be more interesting and more informative to explore, I’m aiming to undertake a pilot study in the second half of this first year. In addition to yielding data on appropriate methods, it should also bring a little more clarity to how the study might be better bounded.

In addition to these boundaries, Kendall also suggests three types of sphere of influence:

Analytical – project boundaries can be influenced by theoretical and analytical decisions. For me, electing to use actor-network theory has resulted in some of the boundaries above becoming more blurred, since the need to ‘follow the actors’ will influence the paths taken. In breaking down some of the boundaries which might naturally limit the study, such as the human/non-human one, it makes the process of drawing the boundaries that much more difficult.

Ethical – the influences of ethical decisions, especially those taken to protect participants. There are some places ethics will not allow the research to go. In the case of Twitter, some people ‘protect’ their tweets whilst others may ‘block’ individuals; in effect they’re pulling up the drawbridge and expressing a desire for a greater degree of privacy than the default settings specify. This wish has to be respected by a researcher, even if the researcher is within that circle of privacy.

Personal – those aspects of the researcher’s background which influence decisions e.g. personal proclivities, skills, history. The (initial) sample of those I follow on Twitter has been determined by a number of decisions I’ve made over the years and consequently will be influenced by those choices. What criteria did I use when choosing who to follow? I’m also restricted by my (lack of) coding skills which means that any data I would like to gather automatically will be limited by tools which others have produced.

I’m not sure I’ve managed to herd these boundary cats yet, but Kendall’s suggestions have at least prompted the process of thinking about the factors involved.


Hine, C. (2009). How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects. Internet inquiry: Conversations about method, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1-20.

Kendall, L. (2009). How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects: A response to Christine Hine. Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 21-25.


Chapter 6: Gathering: Assembling actors, maintaining relationships


Chapter 6 introductory graphicA single tweet and the hashtag with which it participates provide a point of departure in this Gathering. I first explored the exchange which unfolded from the tweet below and the interrelations between the human participants. This exchange and the #teamenglish hashtag which helped to bring it together, brought me to a second, longer series of interactions assembled by and around a nonhuman actor, the ‘crib sheet.’ Finally I followed the hashtag to the #teamenglish ‘community’ it assembles, then compared and contrasted that with a similarly enacted sister community, #mfltwitterati.

Making a request by way of a tweet is a common practice amongst educators on Twitter. Levels of response vary, but can be assisted by Twitter. Where a hashtag or a mention is included, reach and therefore the likelihood of response are increased. What unfolds subsequently is much harder to predict.Read More »

Thinking about workplace learning

“Women operators at Midvale Company payroll machine in Time Office, April 29, 1949” flickr photo by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library https://flickr.com/photos/kheelcenter/5279278045 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This is one of those posts where I need to get something out of my head and see what it looks like ‘on paper.’ I’m trying to rewrite a section in the literature review chapter of my thesis. I’ve explored workplace learning in a rather narrow way, mainly by distinguishing it from the PD literature in the way it emphasises the informal or non-formal nature of learning. I’d like to expand that into a more rounded consideration of how the literature informs my study. In this post then, I want to explore some of the definitions and conceptualisations of workplace learning, but specifically in the context of TPD – Twitter Professional Development [footnote].

The term ‘learning is used in a number of diverse and diffuse ways, compounded by the fact that it is often deployed when referring to a process and a product. Broadly speaking, there are also two competing and largely incompatible theoretical paradigms: cognitive, and socio-cultural or situational. There is no single, general account of learning and different conceptual lenses are needed, each employing different metaphors and assumptions (Hager & Hodkinson, 2009). Learning is a contested concept, so relying on a single conceptualisation will limit understanding. In what follows, I attempt to lay out some of the ways that learning has been conceptualised, and whether they may be applicable in the context of TPD.

Table of contents
Sfard’s (1998) two learning metaphors
Beckett & Hager’s standard and emerging paradigms
Fuller & Unwin’s Restrictive-Expansive framework
Lave & Wenger’s situated learning
Jacobs and Park conceptual framework
Final thoughts

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In just one tweet?

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.Read More »

Groups, communities, collectives or …?

Recently Stephen Downes released an updated version of a graphic outlining how groups and networks differ in what he proposes as ‘The Semantic Condition,’ a network design principle. He helpfully explains how the diagram was produced in this video:

In addition to the criteria he uses to distinguish between the two ways in which people might organise or aggregate, what attracted my attention was the appearance of Twitter within the arguments. One of the aspects coming through in the data from my research, is how educators on Twitter describe the ways in which they come together. The most common term people seem to use is community, but group, tribe and network also appear. Although these terms are conceptualised differently, I suspect in most cases, a particular term is used simply because it happens to be the favoured choice, rather than having an awareness that there is a distinction between it and the others. If I was to explore this more carefully, I might be able to tease apart the ways in which people see these different terms, but suspect that what for one person is a community, could just as easily be what a tribe is for another. It was from wondering how these different groupings are distinguished from one another in the literature, that I was attracted to Stephen’s graphic.Read More »

It might be a little way off yet, but …

“thesis” flickr photo by Liz Henry https://flickr.com/photos/lizhenry/147745444 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

The traditional way that most theses are presented is in the form of an 80 000(ish) word report. University regulations usually specify that this should be bound in hard copy format, and ready to be posted onto the shelves in the Library stacks. Recently, in the spirit of openly sharing knowledge, it is becoming common for Universities to also require a digital copy of the thesis for posting to the institutional digital repository. For me then, this will be through the Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive, SHURA. We are also now required, where permissible, to post the data that our research generates. This aligns with my own feelings about research being as open as is ethically permissible, so I have no problem with any of this.

As I have begun drafting my thesis, the necessity for it to conform to the constraint of A4-shaped dead trees is causing me a few headaches. I don’t have a problem with writing text … actually I do, but that’s another story! Read More »

What do I do when I do Twitter? #1

“still asking questions” flickr photo by stewit https://flickr.com/photos/98277793@N00/100512763 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Another outcome from the last supervisory meeting was that it would be useful for me to produce a summary of what I actually do when I’m on Twitter – how does my activity generate data? In a conventional ethnographic approach, one would be attempting to answer the broad question “What’s going on here?”, doubtless supplemented by who, how, where, when and why. If the setting is the digital realm, those questions could be the same, but what one would attend to might be rather different.Read More »

Untangling, then becoming entangled with #NAT5HRUAE

Hashtag. Hash … tag. A symbol and a few characters.

I was pretty sure when I wrote this post about hashtags and how they were used, that it was unfinished business. When the following tweet popped up in my timeline, I knew it was time to pay a return visit:

An initial inspection of Malcolm’s tweet reveals it to be a quote tweet (QT), in which the original tweet is embedded in full (although not shown above), together with Malcolm’s comments. (As a separate issue, perhaps the QT is one way of sidestepping the 140 character limit whilst performing interesting additional work, and is probably worthy of a post in its own right?) In the embedded tweet, we see the original hashtag to which Malcolm was referring, plus two additional hashtags that he used in his own tweet. Apart from their structural difference, are they also performing different work? Before I begin to unpick that, let me first say a little about the exchange which unfolded when I asked Malcolm whether he knew anything more about the hashtag. Now that Twitter threads an exchange of tweets, you’ll be able to follow the whole thing for yourself by clicking through to the above tweet, but let me summarise.Read More »

Sentiment … ality?

During my pilot studies, a couple of findings suggested areas for further exploration I’d not previously considered. One of these was the degree to which people talking or writing about Twitter seemed to be ‘affected.’ Although it was not a topic I had gone looking for, nor had asked questions about, and although people rarely mentioned it explicitly, the language and terms they used implied some element of emotional response. Before I could take this much further, I needed to return to the literature and see how people have discussed and/or researched the affective side of teacher learning.

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On the case

flickr photo by Helene Valvatne Andas https://flickr.com/photos/helenevalvatneandas/6203704278 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m currently working on a longer document (which may need a couple of posts) which will outline my analysis strategy. As I read through Miles, Huberman and Saldaña (2014) to explore background material and underpinning concepts, the notion of the ‘case’ came up and it struck me that I’ve not yet articulated clearly what for me will constitute a case. Perhaps this is an extension of the omission I discussed in a previous post where I’ve also failed to mention what I’m conducting an ethnography of? Time to attempt put things right.Read More »