Chapter 2: Hinterlands

Chapter 2 introductory graphic

Given the continuing references to the city through the flanography, titling what might normally be called the literature review as ‘Hinterlands’ seemed more appropriate. For a city the hinterland is the region surrounding it which sustains and supports it, but which is itself influenced by the city. Supporting and sustaining my study are the literatures which precede and inform it, but to which I hope my study will also contribute. I refer to hinterlands in the plural since they are not only the inscribed outcomes of previous research, but include the methods which were employed to bring them into being, but I shall discuss them at greater length in a later post.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 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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Interviewing the nonhumans

“Researching a Posthuman World” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Choosing to approach my research with a sociomaterial sensibility requires me to challenge the division between the human and material elements I encounter and with which I work. Since Twitter and the online world is highly mediated, it would be remiss, I’d argue, to fail to adequately account for the material actors. Bringing actor-network theory (ANT) to bear does not, however, mean that I should consider the social and then the material. Instead they are completely entangled and mutually constitutive (Fenwick, 2014), so what they are and what they do is not in isolation, but co-constituted. Herein lies somewhat of a dilemma, since at some points it might be necessary to talk about the effect of particular practice on a teacher or what a specific aspect of materiality (like a hashtag) achieves. What’s important though is not to forget that both of these are themselves actor-networks, or assemblages, and are also part of other actor-networks. For the purposes of analysis, it is sometimes necessary to narrow the focus to a single entity, provided we don’t forget the assemblage that is also being performed.

In the methods section of my thesis I’ve discussed the semi-structured in depth interviews, participant observation (as it is manifest in this context), the blog posts I read and the exchanges with their authors. In reviewing this section and how it fits into the thesis as a whole, it’s clear how anthropocentric my writing was. The transcripts, blogs and even tweets were the words of the human participants … but where was the materiality? To be fair, I hope I’ve managed to surface some of that as a result of my observations and ‘following the actors,’ but once more it’s the (my) human voice that is privileged. How then to do justice to the nonhumans? How to give them a voice?Read More »

Busy as a … hashtag?

“Hashtag” by Kejava is licensed under CC BY-NC

The hash (#) sign may only be a symbol, but when combined with a folksonomical tagword, it becomes one of the hardest working actors within the Twitter ecosystem.

It’s generally accepted that the origin of the hashtag can be traced back to a single tweet

Read More »

Dissonance between teachers’ beliefs and practice … and what that might cause

I was reading an edited collection over the weekend (Teachers Learning: Professional Development and Education, McLaughlin, 2012) and a connected pair of papers particularly struck a chord. Authored by Darlene Opfer and David Pedder, they discuss observations arising from the large-scale State of the Nation review of teacher CPD, and in which they explore teachers’ likelihood of change as a consequence of their orientation to learning. In particular, whether dissonance between teachers’ values and beliefs, and their experience and practice acts to stimulate or repress the need to undertake professional learning. This was precipitated by the observation that, though we know quite well now those features associated with effective professional development, we still find occasions where even when those features are present, some people don’t learn, yet at other times, in absence of those features some people still learn.

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Mess of methods

flickr photo by kara brugman shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Earlier today was the first reading group that I’ve convened. My Director of Studies suggested it might be useful to unpick themes I’ve been wrestling with, as exemplified through a particular text – After Method, John Law, 2004. The idea that three learned people would give up their time to discuss a text with me was a complete but delightful surprise. Discussing an entire book was unlikely to be manageable in the available time, so I settled on one particular chapter; the one that had proved most challenging for me.

Chapter 7, Imagination and Narrative, calls into question the Euro-American view of reality as ‘independent, prior, definite and singular.’ Law does this using the example of an Australian guidebook which presents Uluru/Ayers Rock in two ways: the single, definite, realist geological narrative, juxtaposed with the aboriginal Tjukurpas which recreate and retell the stories of Uluru, bringing it into being with each practical enactment. The chapter opens with, for me, a tough paragraph. Tough because of the language and vocabulary used:

Method assemblage is the process of enacting or crafting bundles of ramifying relations that condense presence and (therefore also) generate absence by shaping, mediating and separating these. (122)

What it then goes on to do, is to introduce the ideas which will be covered in the chapter, though I have one of my supervisors to thank for pointing that out. I’d (initially) found it too impenetrable. Law’s work, and the earlier chapters in the book explore and propose that different realities are created by different methods. It took a while for that to sink in. Not the realist, perspectival view that we see things differently depending on how we look at them (an epistemological view), but that the very nature of a reality is brought into being by the methods assemblage used to enact it. Ontological politics –

If realities are enacted, then reality is not in principle fixed or singular, and truth is no longer the only ground for accepting or rejecting a representation. The implication is that there are various possible reasons, including the political, for enacting one kind of reality rather than another, and that these grounds can in some measure be debated. (162)

This was somewhat of a bolt from the blue, forcing me as it did to reassess my ontological stance. Actually it would be more accurate to say that it made me think seriously about it in a way I hadn’t previously done. Now I reflect back, although I’ve usually claimed a constructivist epistemology, I think I’ve been doing that from a realist ontology, in which I assumed an independent, single, definite reality existing out-there. What the whole book, and this chapter in particular, helped me do was to see that reality can be multiple, vague, dependent and brought into being as it is enacted. Chapter 3, Multiple Worlds, in which Law described the research of Annemarie Mol on atherosclerosis really helped here.

Even as I write this I’m feeling queasy. Although I’m beginning to rationalise these things in my head, I’m not sure I’m yet in a place where I can articulate them in a lucid form for others to read. Is that because I’ve not yet developed the vocabulary and grammar to do that, or that my conceptions are still poorly formed? So what should my next steps be? Again I’m thankful to one of the group who suggested mapping what Law was saying onto an example which has more practical ramifications for me. In terms of my own research into professional learning through Twitter then, perhaps I need to reposition? Starting from what the world knows about professional development and professional learning, and seeing how that marries with what teachers are claiming for Twitter, might be framing things too realistically. A stance which views professional learning as single, prior, definite and independent. How might things appear if instead, the myriad of ways in which teachers use Twitter and other sociomaterial assemblages, were enacting different realities? Professional learning becomes multiple, dependent, messy and contingent on the methods used to enact it. Maybe that better reflects the reality (realities?) of professional learning with which I’m familiar?

There were other aspects to the ‘reading’ that also unsettled me. Some of the observations which were made, at the time seemed clear, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I fully understood. This I know to be one of my weaknesses; I struggle to process information quickly enough to follow and synthesise multiple strands of a discursive argument in real time. I need to take things away and allow them to ferment. Looking back, I now know I’m not sure about how ‘politics was absent’ from the chapter. I (now) know that politics can be viewed as the struggle for power, though am still not sure how the chapter failed to deal with that, or perhaps more importantly, why that matters. I know this is one of the criticisms generally leveled at actor-network theory, so getting a better understanding of this has to go onto my ‘To do’ list.

One concept that Law used with which we shared (varying degrees of) ambivalence was that of allegory. Here once more I have no more understanding than a vague recollection of allegory in a literary sense. Memories of ‘O’-level English Literature and Shakespeare drift back. I struggled to see why Law invokes allegory as being particularly helpful. Do different levels of meaning and symbolic representation link with multiple realities? As Law himself intimated, there is an inevitable tension in re-presenting an aboriginal re-creation in the Euro-American format of a visitor guide. Was that where he was going? More homework for me to resolve.

One of the outcomes from this chapter which should inform my thinking, if I find the methods assemblage approach useful, is how I might represent what I find. Is the traditional, linear, definite, singular format of a thesis appropriate if multiplicity, mess and ethereality are what emerge? Perhaps aboriginal Dreamtime or the Dreaming might be able to inform my research? Specifically it’s timeless-ness. One telling of the Dreaming is ‘what happened in the past and how things came to be, what’s happening now and what will come to be in the future.’

Crass though it might initially sound, could Twitter reality be better expressed through indigenous metaphysics? It does after all have this strange temporality which moves back and forth; is recreated and retold.

Aboriginal method assemblages enact a spatiality that is indissolubly linked with the Tjukurpa, the telling, the re-enacting, and the re-crafting of the stories of the ancestral beings – events which exist, as we have seen, in an eternal simultaneous past and present.

Can I legitimately, sensitively and respectfully borrow from a different culture? Much to ponder.

I’m fairly sure that whilst writing my research proposal over a year ago, aboriginal philosophy and spirituality wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.

Affordances … just one little word!

flickr photo by edoardocosta shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

At the last supervisory meeting whilst going over my RF1 submission, my supervisors asked me about one of the words I used – ‘Establish the features and affordances within Twitter that enable professional learning’ – wondering whether I realised that it was such a contested term. I didn’t! Nor had I appreciated how easily one could be undone by such a (notionally) simple term. One word, in one objective -> can of worms!

I was advised to contact someone in the University who had recently wrestled with the complexities of affordances as part of their research. I duly did and they were kind enough to both spare me a little time and to suggest a seminal paper, crucial in helping one to come to terms with this issue. In ‘The Problem with Affordances,’ Oliver takes us through the history and evolution of the term, critically examining the trajectories of development and ultimately suggesting that dropping the word might avoid the confusion and misuse which has arisen during its lifetime. This seemed somewhat defeatist; by all means be critical, but at least suggest alternatives or better options. Yet, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I too adopted Oliver’s dismissal approach and dropped the term by re-jigging that particular objective to allow me to submit my RF1. However, for me, that’s not the end of the story and I’d like to better understand it in order to make a more informed decision. I knew what affordance meant to me; I simply hadn’t appreciated that it meant a variety of things to different people, and as such had become problematic across a range of contexts.

A little history

Let me attempt to briefly summarise the story so far. James Gibson (1977, 1979) gave birth to the term ‘affordances’ whilst conducting work on animals’ visual perception. “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill.” (Gibson, 1979; 115). His view was rather positivist, seeing affordances as pre-existing within environments, independent of whether an individual perceives them, but nevertheless still related to the capabilities of the individual.

The term was appropriated by Donald Norman (1988), working in the field of design, who shifted the emphasis. He adopted a largely interpretivist standpoint in which “the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing.” Here we see the locus shifting from the object to the subject and how they perceive an object based on their past knowledge and experiences. In exploring affordances of technologies, Oliver contends that we have either the Gibsonian view of ‘technology as part of the environment’ and we abandon incorporating people’s minds, or we choose the ‘analytically ineffectual’ route of Norman which recognises ‘the cultural, constructive nature of learning.’

With those two streams of potential set in motion, McGrenere and Ho (2000) found that some people followed or attempted to build on the Gibsonian notion, others the Norman, some have tried to pull the two together and others used neither or failed to even define the term. They were working specifically the HCI community and in thinking about the design of objects attempted to clarify and extend the Gibson view by introducing and distinguishing between usability and usefulness “The usefulness of a design is determined by what the design affords.”

Also building from Gibson, Gaver (1991) proposed that ““Affordances, then, are properties of the world defined with respect to people’s interaction with it.” (my emphasis, to which I’ll return later). He develops the idea that  affordance and perception are independent of one another by offering different forms of affordance:

Adapted from: GAVER, William W. (1991). Technology affordances. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, ACM, 79-84.

He argues that ‘false affordances’ occur where people perceive an affordance, but where none actually exists and that ‘hidden’ affordances are where an affordance is present, but not perceived. However, I struggle to see the value of these distinctions; in neither case does an affordance effect change. I’d argue that an affordance is only meaningful if it results in an actioned outcome. If someone perceives an affordance where there is none, then no outcome results … so there was no affordance. If someone cannot perceive an affordance, once more there is no outcome, so there was no affordance. (I’ll pick this up later)

With the proliferation of computers and digital technologies appearing in education as the 21st century unfolded, affordances spread out from HCI to teaching & learning with ICTs. In synthesising some of the research across areas such as learning design, classroom activity, introduction of IWBs, software and the WWW, Hammond (2010; 211) identifies a consistent thread running through these studies; the interaction between user and tool. Affordance is not solely related to the tool or the person, but the interaction between the two. Helpfully, and unlike many other authors, in the spirit of attempting an agreed definition of affordance, Hammond concludes by offering his:

Affordance is the perception of a possibility of action (in the broad sense of thought as well as physical activity) provided by properties of, in this case, the computer plus software. These possibilities are shaped by past experience and context, may be conceptually sophisticated and may need to be signposted by peers and teachers. However, they may, drawing on intuition and deduction from user accounts, be ‘perceived directly’, and perception of actions can precede internal mental ordering. Perceptions of affordances can, and do, become habitual. Affordances arise because of real physical and symbolic properties of objects. Affordances provide both opportunities and  constraints. Affordances are always relative to something and, in the context of ICT, relative to desirable goals or strategies for teaching and learning. Affordances are often sequential and nested in time.

Building on Gibson, this definition attempts to be all encompassing, drawing together user (and their perception), tool, properties and the wider context within which they are set. I like the comprehensiveness and that it is forged within an educational setting, though can’t help feeling it is rather cumbersome. Maybe that’s necessary to avoid the accusation of shallowness?

From my (limited) perspective

In preparation for the meeting with my university friend and having only quickly read Oliver, I attempted to articulate what my limited understanding of affordance was. I started (as any physicist might) with the properties of the object; these are naturally occurring, measurable characteristics, like dimensions, mass, density, temperature, conductivity, transparency, topology. They are sometimes inherent and fixed, but can sometimes be altered. A tree has certain dimensions, but cutting it down allows us to alter them. The tensile and compressive strengths however are (largely) fixed. The possibility of intentionally changing an object involves some element of design and here is where features make an appearance. Features are aspects of an object designed to serve a specific purpose. They are hard-wired for that purpose, yet that may be closed, having a single intention, or open and offer multiple possibilities. An affordance however is what the object, property or feature allows you to do. They involve action, are open to interpretation and depend on the user. A single property or feature may provide multiple affordances, whilst a single affordance may require the assembly of several properties or features. Returning now to the offending objective in my RF1 which set this in motion – “Establish the features and affordances within Twitter that enable professional learning.” At that stage I hadn’t thought about properties, but based on what I’ve just said, since Twitter is a designed environment, it is features that will matter. What I would be looking for then is elements of the design which enable professional learning; those features might be general and include the ability to share information, to connect with other people and to view what they share, to participate using mobile technologies. Or they might be more specific like the 140 character limit, the profile, the retweet, the URL shortener. Others might view these as affordances, but for me they only become so when a user perceives a use and subsequently is able to commit an action … which ultimately leads to them (or someone else) learning professionally. For example, one feature of Twitter is the capability to embed a thumbnail video in a tweet. Let’s say a physics teacher finds a video which explains Newton’s third law and she chooses to share that through a tweet. The feature became an affordance when she knew she could share the video and chose to do so. Had she not known the feature existed (‘hidden’ in Gaver’s terms) or had she chosen not to share the video, then the feature remains just that and never becomes an affordance … for her … at that time.


When our physics teacher turned the feature into an affordance, that set in train a chain of events leading to multiple potential outcomes. Furthermore, using the same feature of video sharing, others might perceive and enact rather different affordances. This then presents an interesting possibility; that a feature might provide multiple affordances – different people, different intentions … and different enactments? The single video shared by our physics teacher becomes multiple when incorporated into different learning opportunities by different people. Alex may view the video and see an opportunity to teach Newton’s’ third in a different way; Bobbie may want to explore the ideas further so uses the video to stimulate discussion in a departmental meeting with colleagues. On the other hand, an English teacher may use the video sharing feature to share a poetry reading with his class, and subsequently reflect on the difference it made to his students’ learning compared with when he used to read the poems directly from the book.

That single feature, to be able to share videos, is used with different intentions, so provides different affordances. This results in multiple realities (de Laet & Mol, 2000), since the (single) video sharing feature affords different possibilities for both those who share videos and those who consume them. Might actor-network theory help me to untangle these interwoven threads?

When I was first prompted to think more carefully about affordances, I never anticipated I might need to draw on an ANT sensibility, but the fact that the two concepts seem to have something to contribute to one another is promising. Or should I be worried? I know my views are likely to leave me challenged, as Gibson was by Oliver, as providing only illustrative examples, rather than a definitive, all-encompassing means to define affordance. I’m also only too well aware that my understanding of ANT has a long way to go, but then I am only starting out at understanding what affordances and ANT, together and separately, might or might not mean for me.


Although lacking the awareness that affordances, as a term, carries baggage, at least I don’t appear to be alone. Papers like “The affordances of social media for inclusive urban communities” don’t even use the term beyond the title, let alone unpick it. Or “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications” which mentions it over forty times, but never defines it. Perhaps ‘affordances’ has indeed been rather too loosely accepted?

In addition to one of those occasional little insights, this episode also brought home to me how generous people often are in academia; keen to share their knowledge and help you develop your understanding. My friend needn’t have given up any of their precious time and could have rested at simply providing me with a link to the key paper. Instead they chose to sit down with me, listen to my naive and incoherent ramblings, yet remain patient and offer insights at appropriate times. How rewarding.


DE LAET, Marianne and MOL, Annemarie (2000). The Zimbabwe bush pump mechanics of a fluid technology. [online]. Social studies of science, 30 (2), 225-263.

GAVER, William W. (1991). Technology affordances. [online]. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, ACM, 79-84.

GIBSON, James J. (1977). The theory of affordances. [online]. Hilldale, USA, .

GIBSON, James J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition. [online]. Psychology Press.

HAMMOND, Michael (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? [online]. Education and information technologies, 15 (3), 205-217.

MCGRENERE, Joanna and HO, Wayne (2000). Affordances: Clarifying and evolving a concept. [online]. In: Graphics interface, 179-186.

NORMAN, Donald A. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. [online]. Basic books.

OLIVER, Martin (2005). The problem with affordance. [online]. E-learning and digital media, 2 (4), 402-413.

Search strategy

searching the literature
flickr photo by malik ml williams shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Yesterday’s workshop, ‘Literature searching for researchers’ delivered by members of our library team provided the kick in the pants I needed to fettle my approach to literature searching. Until now, I’ve never had any trouble finding literature; rather it’s more a case of finding ways to manage the vast quantities which have emerged. What became clear to me during the session however was that I need to develop a more systematic strategy; one which is planned, clearly articulated and open to scrutiny. I haven’t been worried that I’ll not have covered sufficient ground to bring the significant themes and important issues to the surface with my ad hoc, piecemeal literature searching. However, at this level, I need to be sure that there’s not something I might have missed which might come back to bite me during and future presentations I might give, or worse still, during a viva.

This post will begin the process of thinking about my strategy and documenting how that unfolds so I have a reference point to which I can return. This should be framed quite naturally by my area of research and the questions I want to answer. The main themes centre on teacher professional learning and Twitter, but this will be undertaken using an actor-network theory approach. In a loose way I’ve already begun that process when moments have arisen; if a particular article or reference within it caught my attention, I’d follow that up through our Library Gateway or using Google Scholar, then the search process would capture my attention for a while and I’d spend a brief period extending the parameters. However, I never documented those forays, so found myself repeating them, either intentionally in order to explore the areas more thoroughly, or unintentionally because I simply forgot that I’d done it previously. One thing the workshop helped with was how you might combine and adjust your search terms to return more meaningful results, achieve a greater breadth, or target a particular area more precisely. Importantly, you should then record your activity, both for your own needs, but also since it is sometimes a requirement that you provide details of your search strategy in work that you publish.

I’m no stranger to using boolean search terms, but again, being more strategic and thoughtful about combinations of search terms is likely to yield more reliable and valid results. Having established my starting point, I then need to establish the most appropriate databases and finally devote a good chunk of time to conducting the search thoroughly. By knowing in advance what the parameters of my search will be, I can ensure that the searches I conduct in different platforms will be consistent and that if I need to retrace my steps later, I can do so. Importantly this also speaks to some on the principles of research integrity; laying your research techniques open to scrutiny, but also making the steps you took clear to anyone who may wish to replicate or extend your research in the future.

Our Library Gateway search facility casts its net widely amongst other databases; a sort of meta-search if you will. This will provide the more general point of departure for the search expedition, but be followed up by more narrowly focused locations to hone in on the specifics. This means working down through multidisciplinary databases like Web of Science, Directory of Published Papers and Google Scholar; through databases more closely associated with my field of interest like ERIC, the British Education Index or filtered versions of targeted databases like ScienceDirect; then into specific journals like The Journal of Educational Research or the International Journal of Actor-Network Theory. Although often unpublished, another particularly useful source I’m keen not to neglect are theses and dissertations. I can search for these through EThOS or Proquest, not least because the final product of other peer’s labours will also help provide a sense of the standard and quality to which I ought to aspire.

Having now established where I’ll be roaming, I now need to consider for what I’ll be searching. My springboard will be the three themes of professional learning, Twitter and actor-network theory, so the search terms I’ll start with are:

  • “professional learning” OR “professional development” OR “CPD”
  • “twitter” OR “social media” OR “microblog*”
  • “actor network theory” OR “sociomaterial*” OR “ANT”

(I’ve not tried this yet, but since actor-network theory is commonly known by its acronym ANT, I need to allow for that, but am not sure whether I might end up with a lot of results discussing the Formicidae family!)

I’ll begin by combining all three sections with AND, then take each of the three pairs separately and finally each one individually. Undoubtedly as the searching and research unfolds, It’s likely that those terms will need adjusting, so where allowed, I’ll save the searches so I can simply update them in the future, rather than having to recreate them. Additionally, given that research is an ongoing process, and to avoid missing out on work published subsequent to my search, I’ll take advantage of the alerts feature that most of the aforementioned databases provide. This will email me details of newly produced work associated with those searches. An alternative that some databases provide is an RSS feed for your search; RSS is a technology I’ve been using fruitfully to keep informed for a long while now. Since I already have an RSS reader set up to bring me content from a variety of different areas, I could incorporate my research searching into that.

One strategy I’ve continually made use of is the snowballing technique where having found a particularly significant paper, you follow up the pertinent references contained within, then from those new sources do the same until you’re not unearthing any new materials. Another useful tip I learned in the workshop is citation searching. This involves deploying your usual search terms, but sorting the results (where the database allows) on the number of times cited. Hopefully the significant papers bubble to the top, then the ‘Cited by’ function can be used to spread out to related or connected research.

The final step is to document the research you have undertaken. This if for your own benefit to ensure you are not duplicating your efforts and retrace your steps; for your supervisors so they can keep track of your progress (and be able to highlight any areas for further development?); and for others who may wish to benefit from, or build on your research. The University of Leeds has produced some helpful guidance, including templates and examples of documents you could use.

So that’s it. Plan begun. Now for the execution …

Researching and Understanding Educational Networks

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Based on the Learning How to Learn project, this book explores the issues around how networks can help improve teacher learning and practice.

The authors seek to distinguish between communities, which are useful in knowledge creation, and networks which have the power to share knowledge more widely. The intent was to shed light on factors such as network technologies and infrastructure, policies and practices, teacher capability and confidence (in using networks), whether new forms of networking are driven by the demands for knowledge sharing and if new networking practices reflect current patterns of collaboration.

They employed a hybrid model of analysis, assembled using concepts/interpretations such as social network analysis (SNA), social capital, small worlds, actor-network theory (ANT) and in so doing, sought to determine whether it is appropriate to use networks as analytical tools or simply as metaphors. Participants in the project were invited to illustrate how they visualised the project-related networks in which they were involved. The diagrams generated provided the initial data for analysis. Despite being widely disparate in form, the illustrations lent themselves to being interpreted largely as ego-centric networks in which certain individuals are key. Although SNA would seem to be the most obvious lens to bring to bear, the authors drew from it only those terms and concepts which proved more informative, leaving behind the more quantitative elements which were felt to be less revealing.

After remarking on the network morphologies, one is then drawn to the main structural features of most networks; their nodes and links. In the participants’ maps, nodes weren’t always individuals and were sometimes groups or organisations (the Local Authority), or even roles (LA Advisor). Rather than using a quantitative approach where centrality, betweenness and degree are measures of how nodes control access to transfers between each other, a more qualitative approach was chosen, using those concepts merely as descriptive reference points. There were two types of actor/node which emerged as particularly significant: brokers and experts. Brokers bridge structural holes in networks, linking individuals or clusters between which connections don’t otherwise exist. Enjoying access to different information centres, brokers can be said to possess a ‘vision advantage’ (Burt, 2005) and are able to serve the following functions:

  • foster awareness of mutual interests between groups
  • facilitate the transfer of best practice
  • draw analogies between groups that may seem irrelevant to each other
  • synthesise elements from groups to generate new insights.

They are well-connected, have high social capital, build bridges, are sense-makers, translators and filters. Although brokers are invariably discussed as entities, it proves in fact that it is their relationships which prove more valuable and significant.

Experts are those with specific or advanced knowledge or capabilities. In the context of the project, they were referred to in terms of where they operated, the basis and nature of their expertise, their reputation and the impact they had. Experts were often members of the school staff, rather than being drawn from a wider pool, whether nationally or from other associated schools. However where advice is needed, the better connected the expert is to the whole network, the more valuable they are perceived to be. Consequently, these ‘expert’ nodes are actually being described as links.

Looking in turn now at the links between nodes. Firstly, three indicators of their strength drawn from the literature (physical nature, frequency and directionality of communication) proved rather challenging to evidence in the data and in fact strength was a somewhat inadequate dimension to attribute to links. Value on the other hand, in terms of quality, satisfaction, relevance and impact, were articulated much more clearly. Rather than a relationship, interaction might then be a more appropriate description for links. A line drawn on a concept map can represent a variety of interactional processes in which transactions take place, however, the outcomes of those transactions are more difficult to establish from a static network image.

A distinction needs to be drawn at some point between the formal and the informal aspects of these ideas. i.e. meetings between individuals and organisations with agendas and minutes, as opposed to chance encounters in corridors and school yards. Which interestingly touches on the idea of space as a contributory factor in support networks; some locations (again, both formal and informal) are valued and meaningful places through which interactions are enabled. Others might be restrictive or constraining.

When considering networks, it would be remiss to neglect the online world, however much of this study was conducted at a time prior to the widespread emergence of social media. Those instances where connections and networks were formed online, were largely through email, websites and to a lesser extent, videoconferencing. Rather than established offline networks simply transferring across to the online world, the study revealed a more complex relationship between the two. The maps the respondents drew were quite heterogenous, referring to both human and non-human actants, operating within online and offline spaces. Networking ignores any boundaries between the world mediated through technology and the one free from it.

The study drew heavily on SNA, although acknowledges that it is inadequate for explaining many of the features found in networks from educational contexts. Whilst it may inform our interpretations of structure of networks, groups within them and to some extent the connectives, it struggles when we need to consider educational issues other than mere exposure to other ideas. For example development and sharing of practice. To offer alternative explanations and insights, ANT is occasionally used, however this is never fully exploited. This is partly because ANT constitutes a methodology, rather than a theory, but also simply because ‘it does not provide easy guides to action.’ (And here I thought it was just me!) The authors do conclude however, in noting the absence of ANT studies which uncover teacher learning in knowledge creation networks, that ANT might offer an important approach. (Ah! So I’m not off the hook!)

Perhaps the message from the book can be distilled down to this; whilst the possibility of knowledge creation is adequately described within communities, where that knowledge needs to be shared beyond the community, then we have to turn to networks.


One point which stood out for me was when the authors contended that:

Even with the newest developments of Web 2.0, and the increase in use of social networking by teachers, the nature of teaching as a form of production does not lend itself to well to a role for ICT in knowledge creation and sharing in relation to practice. If teaching and learning were indeed transformed by ICT, as we have long been promised, then this might change its potential for teacher learning.

I wonder if their first point has been somewhat undermined more recently, with new technologies which are more conducive to the sharing and discussion of practice. The emergence of MOOCs and learning opportunities like the Khan Academy are revealing different pedagogical approaches which have sparked heated discussions and strong opinions. We also have tools with which teachers are more easily able to record and distribute (limited?) examples of their practice; screen-capture/sharing applications (Screencast-o-matic), apps like Explain Everything and whole-lesson capture/observation software. The second point above is perhaps still valid though?. The evidence to back up a claim of the transformative power of ICTs for teaching and learning remains less than conclusive and indicate they currently only deliver minimal gains. As Higgins et al (2012) noted:

It seems probable that more effective schools and teachers are more likely to use digital technologies more effectively than other schools.

So innovation can be found in pockets; perhaps then the improved capability to share what these individuals and schools are doing might begin to have more far-reaching effects.

Burt, R. S. (2005). Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. OUP Oxford.
Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., & Katsipataki, M. (2012). The impact of digital technology on learning: A summary for the education endowment foundation. (PDF) Durham, UK: Education Endowment Foundation and Durham University.

“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #2

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The E3 Internet

Hine sees the Internet manifest in three ways which are likely to challenge the ethnographer’s talents:

Embedded: rather than the separate domain associated with views of ‘cyberspace’ as a place where people ‘went’ and became part of a separate culture, another view is of the Internet embedded in and a natural part of people’s lives. The Internet can now travel with you, forming part of whatever experience you are enjoying. Here it is no longer a single cultural artefact, but different and multiple depending on the people using it. This shifts the focus for the ethnographer onto the people using it, the context within which that use is made and the practices that develop. The Internet both complements and is embedded in analogue media, whether being integrated in newsprint, referenced in urls on products bought in the supermarket or extending the lexicon of our dictionaries.

Embodied: The Internet is a place where we, as embodied social beings, can express ourselves in different ways. Early studies explored how people entered this new, virtual world, becoming disembodied and adopting dislocated alternative identities. Whilst this may still be true for some, we can now conceive of the Internet as sitting alongside, contributing to and enriching our embodied experience, rather than replacing it. Our Internet experiences run both in parallel to our offline experiences, but are consecutively interwoven with it and manifest in multiple ways. Social media provide us with the opportunity to present our embodied selves in different ways, rather than leaving the body behind to assume an alternative online identity (though some people in some circumstances still of course do that).

Everyday: Here the Internet is viewed as unremarkable, mundane and is no longer a distinct aspect of our lives. It challenges the ethnographer to tease out what has become hidden by being amalgamated into our daily existence and no longer on the surface. To find out what is some actually doing when they say they ‘Facebooked him’ requires us to reopen the black box. The ethnographer will need to coax from the participant how they achieved a remarkable act, whilst being unaware of the unremarkable means used to achieve it.

The consequence of these views is that our approach must leave behind the notion of online and offline, since the themes we explore will either traverse that boundary, or not even perceive its existence.