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 »


Extending an interview?

On Wednesday this week I was talking into the mic. Not too unusual given I often broadcast on Radio #EDUtalk on Wednesday evenings. This week however I was talking to [Ian Guest](‪@IaninSheffield ‬) for his research on Twitter for CPD. http://www.edutalk.info/cpdin140-john-johnston/ http://www.edutalk.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CPDin140_JJohnston.mp3Being even less prepared than usual I missed a few things. I was…

via Twitter Hugs — John’s World Wide Wall Display

Although I added a comment on John’s post above, I was minded to think more about what he describes as ‘positive communities.’ I perhaps need to tease out further what a positive community is. Are they simply like-minded people? Or people who celebrate and value each other’s contributions? Do they produce a warm and fuzzy feeling it’s hard to express more clearly?

There are two (at least) aspects I’d like to explore further: what do these communities look like and how would we recognise one. Essentially, what characterises them? Secondly what do they do? What are the effects those communities produce in participants that (I assume) makes them want to keep returning?

I’m also obliged to consider that maybe these places are so comforting because they don’t challenge? They’re gentle, kind, undemanding, supportive and provide the feel-good factor. If that’s the case, perhaps they don’t provide the stretch that professional learning actually requires? They don’t move you beyond your comfort zone and so help you to develop and become better? Do they provide an antidote to traditional CPD, or sit alongside it and provide balance?

Not even remotely present …

It’s seven and a half years since I attended my first TeachMeet; at least I think it was my first. When a tweet dropped in my timeline on Thursday night announcing TeachMeet Midlands 2017, I was delighted to see that this long-standing event was on, and still in the same venue. I followed the hashtag #TMM17 for a while, but soon recognised that I wasn’t getting as much out of it as I had expected. In the past, I’ve often felt (and said) that being able to tap into a conference backchannel using Twitter could help to make up for not being able to attend. I started to wonder what had changed – me? Twitter? The backchannel? Now that I’m conducting research into how Twitter contributes to teachers’ professional lives, I was curious whether I had become more critical; less evangelical about the virtues I might once have claimed for Twitter.Read More »


A while ago, I was in a discussion exploring how we might be perceived by someone who doesn’t know us, if the first thing they encountered were our Twitter profiles. For clarity, that’s the page someone drops on if they follow the link from your handle in a tweet, or perhaps from a link you might have provided specifically to do the job of getting someone there, perhaps from your blog, an email ‘signature,’ LinkedIn or about.me. It was only when we began to unpick it, how large the number of actors at work actually was. Some of these make clear, unambiguous statements, some are open to interpretation and others might work completely in the background.

profileRead More »

Pilot error?

flickr photo by Keenan Pepper https://flickr.com/photos/keenanpepper/543546959 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

For my Confirmation of Candidature Report, I’m currently drawing together the findings from, and reflections on, my pilot study. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I’d mentioned to my supervisor that I’d analysed the findings from three of the methods, as assessments for the Research Masters modules I’d been studying. When I mentioned the remaining three methods, he suggested that full analyses for them might not be a good use of my time. That bothered me at the time, because I’d begun a preliminary analysis and had initially coded the data in NVivo. Now that I think more about things however, as usual, he was probably right. I have indeed taken things as far as I need to.

A pilot study can serve a number of purposes, depending on your methodology. In a natural science or clinical study, you might want to test the apparatus you intend to use or the logistics surrounding the processes. In the social sciences, you might be wanting to design your research protocol or verify that it was realistic, test the adequacy of your research instruments or establish whether your recruitment strategies are appropriate (van Teijlingen and Hundley, 2001).

Although a pilot study can be used to collect preliminary data, consideration has to be given to how they will be used. The methods I used to collect data clearly weren’t preceded by a preliminary study to establish that they were appropriate. This means those data may be at best unhelpful, or at worst, misleading. What I wanted from my pilot study was to reveal issues and barriers related to recruiting potential participants, explore the use of oneself as a researcher in a culturally appropriate way and test and modify modifying interview questions (Kim, 2011).

Let’s now look at the methods in turn:

  1. Interviews – the in-depth, semi-structured interview went as planned, and provided indicators regarding which question areas were more informative than others (for this particular interviewee). It revealed a few omissions I will need to remedy when I move forward, and also that my interview protocol might need adjusting from one interview to the next. This is one amongst many reasons for transcribing and beginning the analysis immediately following each interview, rather than waiting until all interviews are complete.

I found the blog interview much harder to gauge. Perhaps this was due to having little access to how questions were affecting the participant – were they confused, irritated, excited by my questions? Even though the s-s interview was conducted by phone, being able to hear a voice, in real time, allowed a better sense of the participant’s reaction to the questions. On the other hand, the blog commenting format allowed the participant to respond at their leisure, and afforded them greater thinking time; time to ruminate and perhaps craft a response which reflects a particular discourse, rather than your own initial reaction, some might argue. Nevertheless, it doubtless takes longer to type out a response, than to do so verbally. As a researcher however, you also have access to the post itself as data in its own right. The post can also serve as stimulus material for interview questions, in much the same way a participant research diary might do.

  1. Participant observation – this really stretched me somewhat, and I’m not at all convinced the method I chose to conduct the observations worked well at all. Such is the value of a pilot study! Although my field notes produced some data I could doubtless have used, what it achieved much more significantly was to alert me that I needed better access to richer data; that the fieldwork will need to take place over a longer period than just 3x one hour slots; to use a variety of routes into ‘the field’ and to try to visually capture some sense of where I’ve roamed – a map to give an overview, rather than reams (kBs?) of fieldnotes alone.

I was also aware that this wasn’t precisely participant observation. Although I was active in the way I normally would be in Twitter, I didn’t ask the searching questions that an ethnography in a community might do … but I’m OK with that for the pilot. Ethnographers do need time to orient themselves before leaping in. In the full study however, I will need to remedy that and attempt to engage people who are tweeting things pertinent to the study. (I also need to ensure that I do not lose the context of those encounters)

  1. Focus group – my intention had been to seek permission to conduct a hashtag chat as a focus group, but with ethical approval only coming through as the summer holidays (northern hemisphere) just started, that proved problematic. I did try a couple of moderators of chats in the southern hemisphere, but received no response to my contact (perhaps they were on midyear break too?). However, in the course of casting around for appropriate chats (there are a lot to choose from!), I came across a recent chat which discussed the areas I would have wished to cover. Although I might have used slightly different phrasing, and I didn’t get the chance to follow up any responses that participating in a live chat would do (wondering whether it’s appropriate/meaningful to reply to a tweet that was made several months ago?!), at least there was a corpus of tweets captured in Storify that was available for me to analyse. There are clearly ethical issues of privacy, consent and the expectations of the uses to which one’s tweets might be put here. I discussed these at greater length in a series of posts, prior to making my ethics submission.

There were technical challenges to overcome to capture the tweets from Storify in a form which lent itself to analysis – another tick in the benefits column for conducting a pilot study. However, having seen the responses in the chat I captured, I’m now less convinced that a hashtag focus group would be able to produce sufficiently rich data, so this may be a method I drop. If however, during the course of my fieldwork, I come across chats which are discussing the areas of professional learning, then I’ll drop by and attempt to participate.

  1. Focused observation – this involved collecting the tweets of a single person (Twitter advocate), with their consent, for a fixed period of time; one month in this case. Given that this was a pilot study, I could only conduct a preliminary analysis to establish the feasibility of the technique. Technically, there were no problems, but I’m not sure the data revealed anything more than earlier studies have done, either the one which used a similar technique (King, 2011), or others which used similar corpora of tweets. I’m starting to wonder whether ripping the data from its natural setting loses much of the context and whether this technique answers the questions I want to ask. If I want to confirm that teachers share things, that they communicate or collaborate, that they reflect on their practice and so forth, then I could probably do that, but all that’s been done in earlier studies. I’m starting to think that the emphasis of my study is shifting subtly away from simply providing evidence that teachers are learning professionally … but I’ve much more thinking to do on that yet.

Overall then, what have I learned from the pilot?

flickr photo by popular17 https://flickr.com/photos/65498285@N08/6040732669 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I think I learned that recruitment of participants may not be as simple as chucking a shoutout on Twitter and waiting for the responses to flood in. Of the dozen or so blog posts discussing professional learning I approached, only one followed through with a full set of responses. Over half never even replied, though I appreciate there might have been mitigating circumstances on some. This has encouraged me to think far more carefully about my participant recruitment strategy. Bound up in that is also my choice of sample; where initially I thought they would be self-selecting from the population of educators to which I have access through Twitter, I now feel I might need to be more direct in my approach and as a consequence establish a set of criteria for choosing potential participants. Should I cover different phases of education, teachers from different disciplines, different geographic regions and educational systems, and perhaps even some from outside the classroom, but who have a particular interest in Twitter for professional development?

For the interview I naturally developed an interview protocol, but prepared nothing for the other methods; they were after all more open, but I wondered whether it might be wise to have a set of pre-prepared generic questions that I would like answering, even though I might not use them without adapting them in each set of circumstances. It might also help me see which aspects of my study are being answering in most detail and where the gaps are.

Although I didn’t perform a full analysis, I was grateful for the opportunity to test out NVivo and see what might be the best strategy for bringing together the different forms of data from different sources. This also encouraged me to think more carefully about my coding strategy and how I build that into my NVivo project.

It was only when I began to draw things together however, that the sociomaterial aspects of my research began to become apparent. Not those in the fieldwork and findings, but in my activities as a researcher. Choosing the twitter.com interface as my window on my field brought me to particular elements of data and led me to behave in a particular way in making field notes. I was also ‘tied’ to the desktop computer (and the desk!) in a way I wouldn’t normally be; how did those actors influence my actions? Reading back through my methodological comments, my frustration with the experience is clear, and how different this was from my usual, but less formal, wanderings in the field. This highlighted for me an area I’d not really considered – the emotional response to events as they unfold, and how that response might influence subsequent events or behaviour. After three fieldwork sessions, and trying a couple of tweaks to make them more fruitful, I later recognised that the interface did not suit my needs and as a result will use Tweetdeck for this kind of fieldwork – a different interface, with different materiality which will doubtless affect me (and the results?) in a different way. I also decided on a completely different method (more about that in a future post) which might provide insights on a part of the field, hidden from the ethnographer in these circumstances.


Kim, Y. (2011). The pilot study in qualitative inquiry identifying issues and learning lessons for culturally competent research. Qualitative Social Work, 10(2), 190-206.

King, K. P. (2011). Transformative Professional Development in Unlikely Places: Twitter as a Virtual Learning Community.

Van Teijlingen, E., & Hundley, V. (2001). The importance of pilot studies. Social Research Update. Issue 35.

Tracing the field

In the preceding post, I was casting around for a tool to trace and display the paths I take through ‘the field.’ My search came up short and it became apparent I would need one tool to record the places travelled and another to display those traversals. In my search for contenders, and looking for mind/concept mapping tools, I came across Draw.io. Although there are other similar more fully featured applications, they are often desktop-located or limited (in the free versions). Draw.io seemed to suit my needs, so I thought I’d give it a try with a few of short visits to the field to see how it functioned in context.Read More »

Is there a digital ethnographer’s Strava?

flickr photo by splorp https://flickr.com/photos/splorp/357376583 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

As I was rewriting my ethics submission and reviewing the methods I had used in my pilot study, I got to thinking about being ‘in the field.’ When I undertook more formal participant observation and made meticulous field notes, I wondered how they might be viewed as data. I also found myself wondering about the process itself and how effective it was in providing me with something from which to make meaning. I was convinced that I wasn’t following the actor-network theory exhortation to ‘follow the actors.’ With all that in mind, I felt I needed a better way to record, trace out and make visible the paths I was taking whilst in the field. Who or what were the actors I was following? Where did they go and what did they do?Read More »

I don’t believe in coincidences, but …

I’ve never made field notes before, let alone when participating in an online activity. I’ll say no more about what the online activity was since I’m already sufficiently troubled by ethical issues without giving myself another headache. In reality this was just an attempt to expose myself to a technique, not to capture any real data which might later find their way into an analysis. I’m nowhere near being in a position to begin capturing data yet; this was much more about trying out a method so I can see what the issues are and what I still have to learn.

This was prompted mainly by the video I watched last night by Graham Gibbs whose YouTube Channel is such a wonderful resource for those of us learning about research methods. Although I’ve read a little about participant observation, I’m far from being in a position to undertake a serious project. Nor have I yet read anything about making field notes, other than brief sections in books on ethnography.

So I thought I’d jump in at the deep end, enter a field and reflect on the experience. This post isn’t that reflection. I got distracted!

After the activity I looked back at my notes and wondered where to go next. What is the appropriate behaviour for an ethnographer making field notes? How does one make them? What should they look like? What post-processing should be undertaken? (I still have to watch the second part of Graham’s video, so I may yet find out) However, what I did of course was perform an online search. The second returned result immediately attracted my attention: ‘Writing live fieldnotes: towards a more open system’. Written by Tricia Wang, whose work I’ve come across before (but can’t find the post at the moment!), there was much here to think about in terms of how to go about making field notes, together with illustrations taken from a live situation. As I read through the post and viewed photo after photo that Tricia took as part of the field notes, I began to ponder the ethical issues. (Another area that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently. A blog post, or two, will follow). I wondered whether Tricia had made a submission to an ethical review board, as I’m about to do. Maybe she had some advice to offer, so I thought to perhaps ask a question through the comments. I scrolled down to the foot of the post only to find Sam Ladner had already beaten me to it. Tricia only briefly referred to consent in her post, so we perhaps didn’t have the full picture, but like Sam I too wondered about longevity and persistence and what happens if those captured in the images subsequently withdraw consent, as they’re entitled to do. Who is to say that the images won’t migrate elsewhere, beyond the confines of the research project; I’m pretty sure that a standard consent form wouldn’t legislate for that. However, I ought really to get to the point made in the title. In reply to Sam’s comment on ethics was no other than Tom Boellstorff, author of a book I’m reading right at this moment – ‘Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.’ AND replying to Tom was Annette Markham, an incredibly important author in the field of online ethnography and someone who has a more than passing interest in the ethical issues of online research.

I still never cease to be amazed at the ways in which we are interconnected by and through the Internet.

Connections, connections

flickr photo by GotCredit http://flickr.com/photos/jakerust/16659706488 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Catching up on a few podcasts today, I came across an edition of the Teachers’ Education Review in which an old online buddy and highly reflective educator, Aaron Davis was musing on Twitter. (You can listen in to Aaron’s piece by following the link and sliding forward to 24:11)

Aaron opened by noting that he often heard educators claim that ‘Every teacher needs to be on Twitter,’ but he questioned whether Twitter was the right answer? Is it really the best option for online professional development?

Although Twitter provided the opening for which seeded his personal learning network, it soon outlived its usefulness and he found other tools which better provided for his needs. Feedly in particular automatically aggregates content from multiple sources, allowing it to be easily skimmed and categorised for future reference. Diigo, a social bookmarking tool, provides another powerful way of curating information which can be shared amongst others and forge a developing resource upon which you can later draw. Several other tools were also mentioned, but Aaron observed that in the end, it came down to personal preference.

Another criticism leveled at Twitter, that Aaron echoed, is that it imposes limitations on the depth of dialogue possible. An alternative which provides greater freedom of expression is Voxer which, since it involves sharing audio, conveys a greater sense of humanity. Aaron also questioned a report “‘Follow’ Me: Networked Professional Learning for Teachers” (Holmes et al, 2013), wondering why it focused solely on Twitter, and ignored other platforms. What might prove more illuminating he argued is research into the impact of being connected, however that might be facilitated.

It’s interesting that although Twitter provided the point of entry, it’s shortcomings quickly became apparent for Aaron. Other tools afforded better ways to enable the learning opportunities and make the connections he was seeking.

There are a number of things that struck me in what Aaron had to say:

The limitations of Twitter as a medium for dialogue. This is a criticism I’ve heard many make and an interesting point I will need to interrogate further. What is a constriction for some in some ways is celebrated by others as a useful affordance.

The importance of connections and how different tools allow them to be made in different ways. This forefronts the  sociomateriality of the professional learning he undertakes and perhaps provides encouragement for me choosing actor-network theory as a methodological framework. It will allow me to ‘follow the actors’ Aaron references in the podcast and build up a picture of the extent of those assemblages and the part they play in professional learning.

It’s clear that although Twitter might be an entry point (both for individuals looking to learn professionally and for me commencing an ethnography), the boundaries of the ‘site’ are likely to be incredibly fluid and potentially elusive. Earlier today, I started Christine Hine’s new book ‘Ethnography for the Internet’ (2015) in which she proposes (p24) the idea:

…that ethnography can be focused on following connections, rather than being focused on a specific place.

It seems that both Aaron and Christine are guiding me in a particular direction.

Final thought. At around 08:30 I was reading the quote in the book, which had been written by Christine Hine months earlier presumably. An hour or so later I was listening to Aaron Davis from Australia on my mp3 player whilst I was out running alongside the Chesterfield canal (which can be checked on my gps tracking application). After a little mental processing, here I am committing thoughts to (digital) paper a few hours later. From there … where … when … who … how?

I wonder what an actor-network theory analysis would make of all that?

Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Holmes, K., Preston, G., Shaw, K., & Buchanan, R. (2013). ‘Follow’ Me: Networked Professional Learning for Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(12). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2013v38n12.4