Research Proposal … the expurgated version

Working title

Professional development … in 140 characters?
Twitter and teacher learning – process and progress

Aim

The aim of the research is to critically assess whether and how Twitter can be considered a powerful mediator of professional learning. This will be achieved through the following objectives:

  • Establish the features and affordances within Twitter that enable professional learning.
  • Investigate what unique aspects of Twitter make it particularly suited to supporting professional learning.
  • Investigate the teacher attitudes and dispositions which enable them to capitalise on Twitter’s affordances.
  • Examine the wider networks which assemble during professional learning using Twitter.

Context

We are in an active period of educational reform agendas, school improvement programmes and immersed in issues of performativity and accountability. This has resulted in a changing school landscape offering greater diversity of provision, greater autonomy from top-down directives, but with developing forms of school partnerships and alliances. This coincides with the emergence of new technologies, through which schools and the teachers within them are able to connect and collaborate, through both formal and informal channels. As an evolving environment, this offers both challenges and opportunities.

Professional development (PD) is quite naturally seen as a major plank in achieving the goal of improving teacher capability. The evidence would seem to indicate that we are getting a clearer picture of the most effective ways of ensuring professional development programmes ‘develop an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher.’ (OECD, 2014). However, there are those who suggest that much of the current provision is far from effective, for a whole variety of reasons.

The capability to take greater control over your professional learning has increased with the access to resources that the Internet has enabled, especially where individuals can become interconnected and form professional learning networks (Forte et al, 2012). The exchange of knowledge and resources, the dialogue which accompanies those exchanges and the subsequent reflections contribute to professional learning (Burden, 2010) and the facility to do this has increased with the advent of social media.

One platform above others has attracted a greater degree of attention from teachers and other professionals wishing to cultivate or extend their learning networks. Educators have turned to Twitter for the ways it allows them to form their networks from an eclectic mix of other passionate, knowledgeable people drawn from a wide range of educational contexts (Beadle, 2014). Teachers use Twitter to establish links beyond their local communities, enabling them to become conduits for ideas and practice to move in and out of their school. They share resources, make and respond to requests for information and in so doing, refine and develop their own practice and that of others (Forte et al, 2012). Although true dialogue can and does take place within the Twitter platform (Alderton et al, 2011; Honey & Herring, 2009; Rehm et al, 2014), the learning is often developed further through other social media.

Teachers themselves are making bold claims of the impact this has had on their learning, but these claims go largely untested, with little research to verify the extent to which they might hold true. The questions which these issues then raise include what, if any, professional learning is actually taking place? Where precisely is that learning occurring, both in the online and offline worlds? How is the professional learning being enabled and undertaken? Who is involved and how are they interrelated and interconnected? Individually these are major areas for exploration, so I propose to focus more tightly on how teachers’ professional learning is supported through social media and specifically how Twitter enables that.

Research Questions

With the aforementioned in mind, I propose the following research questions:

  • How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
  • What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
  • How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and the ‘real’ world?
  • What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?

Methodology and methods

To answer the above research questions, I propose a digital ethnographic, mixed-method study. Digital in this sense implies that the tools used to undertake the study are digital AND the field of study is online (although recognising that, as previously stated, some of the learning may move offline).

The first stage will involve a literature search to provide the background for the study, inform it and locate it within current research.

In the second phase, a content analysis of blog posts discussing Twitter as a source of professional learning will explore more deeply into the areas emerging during the preceding stage.

Given the interconnections and flow of information, performing a social network analysis is a natural next step which will further explore the actors involved, patterns of their relationships and how information is transferred between them.

In the final stage, semi-structured interviews will be used to provide participants with the opportunity to further clarify and verify what has emerged. It will also allow first-hand access to their beliefs and attitudes, what they perceive are the effects and outcomes on and of their professional learning.

Conceptual framework

Learning is inherently a social process many would argue and in Section 4 we saw that effective professional development involves collaboration and co-operation with others. When professional learning also involves social media, non-human elements become pivotal in facilitating that learning. A socio-material perspective which sees the material and human elements as intertwined assemblages should serve to illuminate the dynamics of those learning processes in a fresh way. A socio-material viewpoint can examine the whole system, tracing interactions amongst human and non-human entities, whilst avoiding privileging consciousness or intent (Fenwick et al, 2012).

In Twitter, the connections which form are sometimes transient, sometimes partial, but can also become more stable achieving greater longevity, forming networks assembled around a particular issue or activity. Although not a single theory or specific methodology, Actor-Network Theory can provide a socio-material perspective which explores the nature of those assemblages and how they are formed and maintained (Latour, 2005; Law, 2009).

ANT will provide the overarching framework and the lens through which the study will be viewed. A further conceptual framework will be developed with which to describe and analyse professional learning. This will build on Guskey’s (1986) model of the process of teacher change, Bell and Gibert’s (1996) aspects of professional learning, Clarke and Hollingsworth’s (2002) interconnected model of professional growth and Reid’s quadrants of teacher learning (Fraser et al, 2007).

The full version can be found here which provides more detail on methods, ethical issues and potential impacts, together with the references cited above.

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