“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #1

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One of the key texts for anyone considering an ethnographic study in which the Internet plays a role, has for a while now been Christine Hine’s ‘Virtual Ethnography,’ 2000. With few others covering this ground at the time, this book remained the ‘go to’ guide for some considerable while. However, the pace of change of the Internet and the ways we have come to accept and adopt it (and be influenced by what it offers) has meant that the themes covered (though still somewhat relevant) appear dated and are no longer comprehensive. Fortunately Hine has produced a completely new interpretation which extends what was learned earlier through more recent, relevant examples.

There was much in ‘Ethnography for the Internet’ (Hine, 2015) to inform the way I think about and approach my own study. In the following posts then, I’m going to attempt to summarise the main points that Hine covers, so that should I have the need return to them subsequently, I’ll have some point of reference. (Perhaps I should buy the book?)

Perhaps it’s sensible to open with a quick introduction to the reason why the book is needed. Ethnography is far from new, but the Internet as a place to conduct it, is. Multi-spatial with connections spanning geographic spaces which may be around the world or in the next room, the internet has both reach and interconnectivity at a scale never previously available. The latest technologies mean it can be accessed from almost anywhere, enabling us to  in effect take it with us wherever we roam. Our engagement with it can be short-term, fleeting, or long-lived & persistent, meaning temporarility is a property with particular significance. Participation might be intense or casual, viewed as a distinct activity or an integrated aspect of our everyday lives. This diversity and heterogeneity will require an ethnography which is both adaptable and flexible.

Turning to ethnography, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1983: 2) have it,

the ethnographer participates, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions; in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues with which he or she is concerned.

Hine challenges the view that some proffer in which the Internet is not amenable to an ethnographic approach. Prolonged exposure, participation, interaction and obtaining a first-hand understanding of how people live their lives is still possible within online spaces. The socially mediated communication facilitated through the Internet is part of people’s lives and should be studied, but we should neither forget nor ignore that this is interwoven within their offline world. This should not be viewed as a boundary between two places, but as an integrated whole where the ethnographer follows the connections wherever they lead. The challenge then is navigating this multiplicity of places of doings and being. Ethnography is however a flexible and adaptable approach, amenable to a changing landscape and shifting set of circumstances, where the ethnographer needs to be agile and and capable of making active choices

The changing Internet since Virtual Ethnography, where the notion of the virtual, as a form of other, lesser, more ephemeral, ‘not quite’ place, asks that we reposition our perspective. This book is about ethnography for the Internet; not of or through it.

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P., 1983, Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
Hine, C., 2000. Virtual ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.
Hine, C., 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Coincidence? Maybe

This morning I was revisiting Ethnography for the Internet by Christine Hine in order to make a few notes and write a post before I have to return it to the Library. After a couple of hours it was time for a run, so I grabbed my mp3 player and had a quick scan through a few of the podcasts I recently added. Since I’d not listened to any of the Digital Human podcasts by Aleks Krotowski for a while, I thought I’d check them out; I’d just added the whole of Series 7. I just clicked ‘play’ from  the first in the list and set off on my jaunt.

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A ten mile run takes me a while these days, so I easily reached the third clip long before I got back. It was called ‘Rear Window‘ and was about people watching. I perked up since the Alex was taking an anthropological or ethnological perspective and thought it might be quite pertinent to my studies. It was. Alex interviewed (all too briefly unfortunately) none other than Christine Hine, about people watching online; the places you might visit and what some of the implications are when compared with the offline (which had occupied most of the rest of the episode). The brevity of the clips Christine featured in meant I didn’t learn much that was new … except I now had a voice to accompany the texts I’ve read and the image from her University website. I write this (hopefully!) not from a creepy perspective, but in the sense that with each new information stream you access, you start to build up a better impression of a person if they are merely mediated through the online world. Hardly a ground-breaking insight I know, but it was interesting to consider some of the cases outlined in the programme; a street photographer, a voyeuristic author, a blogger who posts what he sees) all of whom added their own back stories to the people they viewed. Essentially they created characters. Now juxtapose that with what I’ll be attempting to do. Aiming for a meaningful interpretation of what I’m seeing; my version of reality, as opposed to the fictional, artificial accounts created by the storytellers. But in a sense, I too will be wanting to tell a story; the story that emerges from the data I capture. There’s a whole continuum between fact and fiction.

The coincidence? My podcast ‘library’ is built mainly from streams where technology, learning and education intersect, with an odd few like the Digital Human, that are loosely linked. I could have chosen any podcast from the fifty or so currently on my mp3 player. I had no idea what topics might come up in the Digital Human, and yet an author whose book on a topic unrelated to anything I’d normally listen to is talking about what I’d been reading barely an hour ago. I’m going to take it as a sign.

#Theorychat?

Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first ‘Group Reading.’ This is where a group selects a text in advance of the meeting, all read it it, then discuss their observations/reflections. This was a group interested in educational theory and the paper had been chosen, as is often the case, by someone who was finding it a challenge to interpret the propositions. The particular paper in question was The Long and the Short of It: Comments on Multiple Timescale Studies of Human Activity in which the author, Jay Lemke, is introducing and drawing from four other articles in the same journal and referencing the Ecosocial Model he is developing.

I was reassured to find I wasn’t the only one of the eight or so folks there who felt they hadn’t fully grasped what the author was offering. The group members were all researchers, but of widely varying experiences; some at the top of their profession and other just starting out on their journeys. They had chosen to come along, after 5.00 pm, to build a better understanding through communal discussion. This was an exercise in developing one’s knowledge and understanding by sharing with and learning from others. I was coming in as a newbie, seeking wisdom from those more experienced and capable than I, but prepared to offer the meagre, naive observations and interpretations I’d developed. Fortunately the atmosphere was incredibly friendly, convivial and most importantly supportive.

Although I can’t speak for other group members, I found this experience a particularly powerful one. I know  areas that I need to develop are those of linguistic rhetoric and critical interpretation. This group provided me with the opportunity to begin that process, and perhaps more importantly, to see, hear and experience how others approach those tasks. I gained from hearing incisive insights and tentative observations, whether from the more seasoned members or those earlier on the path. I’m certainly looking forward to the next one.

“Evaluating Professional Development” – Guskey

This was a book I selected to see whether the ways in which we evaluate professional development might have something to bring to the table for my study of professional learning. A post outlining how we distinguish between professional development (PD) and professional learning (PL) will be forthcoming as I move forward in my understanding. My back of a beermat, pencil sketch of that is currently that PD is formal, top-down, target-driven activities designed to improve the knowledge, skills and practice of educators. Professional learning on the other hand is less-formal, self-initiated (and serendipitous) learning events which achieve the same ends. Guskey defines PD as follows:

those processes and activities designed to enhance the professional knowledge, skills and attitudes of educators, so they might in turn improve the learning of students. …

True PD is a deliberate process, guided by a clear vision of purposes and planned goals.

As a designed process with a manifest sense of intent, this is where I currently see the distinction from PL, however concede that I have yet to fully explore how others conceive it. Guskey summarises some of the ways PD can be organised and helpfully outlines the advantages and shortcomings which I’ve brought together here:

Model Notes Advantages Shortcomings
Training A presenter or presenters share their ideas and expertise through a variety of activities Efficient, cost-effective.

All participants will have a shared knowledge base and common vocabulary.

Little choice or individualisation.

Difficult to accommodate different levels of prior knowledge and experience.

Needs supplementary follow-up activities.

Observation/Assessment Uses collegial observation to provide educators with feedback on their performance. Provides benefits for observer and observed.Helps break down the isolation of teaching. Demands significant time commitment.

Care needed in separating observation/assessment process from evaluation.

Involvement in a development/improvement process. Educators brought together to develop or review new curriculum, plan strategies or solve particular problems. Increases knowledge and skills, whilst enhancing collaborative methods.

Establishes new cross-interest communities.

Closely linked in personal contexts.

Generally restricted to a limited number of staff.

Tradition or persuasively-argued opinions can force the agenda.

Study groups Entire staff (in groups of 4 – 6) work together to solve common problems.

(Powerful for facilitating curricular and pedagogical innovations)

Bring focus and coherence to improvement efforts.

Reduce sense of isolation by leveraging learning communities.

Emphasise ongoing nature of PD.

Potential that forthright individuals might dominate.

Owing to demands of time, study groups can lapse into decision- rather than research-based decisions.

Inquiry/action research Solving problems and finding answers to pressing problems. Helps educators become more reflective practitioners and more systematic problem-solvers. Requires significant initiative from those involved.

Can also require substantial commitments of time.

Individually guided activities Educators determine their own individual professional development goals and then select activities to help them achieve them. Flexible.

Offer choice and individualisation.

Potential for ‘re-inventing the wheel.’

Few opportunities for collaboration.

Notions of shared mission can be lost.

Mentoring Pairing of an experienced, successful educator with a less experienced colleague to discuss goals, ideas and strategies. Highly individualised.

Benefits both of those involved.

Can forge highly productive, professional relationships.

May limit opportunities for broader collaboration and collegiality.

He also outlines some of the principal models of evaluation, but emphasises that they crucially involve ‘the systematic investigation of merit and worth.’ Building on Kirpatrick’s (1979) evaluation model, Guskey offers five critical levels of evaluation, which are hierarchically arranged:

  1. Participants’ reactions
  2. Participants’ Learning
  3. Organisation support and change
  4. Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills
  5. Student learning outcomes.

(Read more about these levels here)

Guskey also bemoans the fact that most evaluation of PD is currently done at Level 1, if at all and that it is rare indeed to find evaluations which move beyond Level 2.

These levels largely make sense to me, although I have some reservations about Level 3 and the organisational structures and practices which can have an impact on the professional learning. I’d argue that those ought to have been part of the process that took place in planning the professional development programme prior to commencement. After all what’s the point of, for example, improving your pedagogies to accommodate tablet technologies if your school doesn’t have, nor intends to acquire, said technologies?

I can see most of the aforementioned models of PD in certain aspects of (what I’m currently calling) professional learning, perhaps with the exceptions of observation and mentoring. What I see less of, and this may  be where my study comes in, is of evaluation. This could of course be because that evaluation is being undertaken away from where the learning is taking place, so remains hidden. What is sometimes more evident however is examples of self-reflection and, albeit based only on anecdotal evidence, I’d that some of that does take place at the higher levels. It will be interesting to see whether those impressions can be supported by more concrete evidence.

 

Guskey, T. (2000). Evaluating professional development. Thousand Oaks ; London: Corwin Press.

Kirkpatrick, D. (1979). Techniques for Evaluating Training Programs. Training and Development Journal, 33(6), 78.

Identity crisis?

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My naivety has once more gotten the better of me. A term which I have been encountering regularly in my reading has been ‘identity,’ and I’d failed to appreciate how big a deal this is for social scientists. I’d always assumed identity was a binary concept; the identity as a sense of ‘who I am’ versus that ‘which I portray’ to others. As I read I learn that there are in fact multiple manifestations including personal, social, collective, cultural, professional and others. In fact the identity of an individual can be considered both multiple and fluid. Fearon (1999) offers over a dozen definitions of identity pulled from a variety of sources, but then usefully distils them down into just two:

(a) a social category, defined by membership rules and allegedly characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or

(b) a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential

How does this relate to my research? At first, I wasn’t sure that it did. My experience of Twitter is that the majority of those I follow are who they say they are; I’ve met many of them in real life and the impression I have of them based on their online persona is invariably close to that I experience when face-to-face. Many people (including me) tweet under a pseudonym because their name was already taken or simply for amusement, however I do know of several accounts where people (they’re usually people behind the accounts, though not always!) are tweeting under an assumed identity, their true one being completely hidden. Sometimes this is because they want the freedom to say what they want without fear of reprisal from their employer, because they need to be hidden from their students, or simply because they wish to act out a different identity (this is a common behaviour in virtual worlds like online game environments, MUDs and MOOs).

This presents a problem for the online researcher. If someone is not who they purport to be, whether they’ve chosen a completely different identity or are simply playing slightly out of character, how can we ascribe any degree of veracity to anything they say? This issue is discussed in all the texts covering online research I’ve read so far, but its significance depends very much on the focus of the research being undertaken. Are you conducting research into the online environment itself? In which case the issue of identity performance may well be one of the concepts under scrutiny. Or are you seeking to investigate a particular phenomenon – how teenagers discuss eating disorders? With sensitive issues, it is understandable that someone might wish to conceal their identity, but does that mean we must treat what they say with a greater degree of circumspection? When what we are seeking relates to feelings and opinions, does it matter that that information comes from behind a pseudonym? There are those who argue that data gathered in the online world is of less value because of this potential lack of authenticity because of the missing facial and other cues we use to judge veracity, but who is to say that data gathered in face-to-face settings is some how more authentic? People also perform different identities in the offline world too; isn’t the persona you portray to your boss different than that you portray with your family?

I remain open-minded to discussions of these issues, but it has pressed me into reflecting on the ways that I judge the information others pass online. My starting point is the profile, bio or About Me section ; here is one place people people have an opportunity to perform an identity. What they write here provides an insight into that character; is it serious, playful, abrupt, business-like? Do they provide a profile pic and is a portrait photo, an activity they’re involved in, a cartoon or a logo? From there I’ll go on to read what they write and use the theme(s) they choose to discuss, their writing style and (though it shames me to say) their punctuation and grammar, to help form an impression. The question then is, how does that cause me to act? Do I click quickly away or do I pause, absorb and reflect? Do I bookmark it should I need to do so for future reference and to share with my social bookmarking service network? Am I sufficiently motivated to reply or inspired to write an additional post? Do feel the need to share it through social media channels? Add a comment/critique even?

I feel as though I’m now treading on the toes of actor-network theory before I’ve done it the courtesy of fully understanding it, but at least I’m far enough forward to appreciate that it might have something to say here. I’ve also begun to think that identity might be of greater significance than I originally thought.

Fearon, J.D., 1999. What is identity (as we now use the word)? Unpublished manuscript. https://www.stanford.edu/group/fearon-research/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/What-is-Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf

“Online Social Research”

This book draws together a collection of essays on online social research brought under three main themes: Methods, Issues and Ethics.

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Published in 2004, the areas researched are very contemporary to the era and include MUDs, MOOs Usenet, Forums. Whilst these still exist, it would be fair to say that things have moved on in the intervening decade. Social networking sites, mobile technologies and the ‘app’ infrastructure offer up an additional and rather different set of ecosystems to explore. These new spaces are environments to which people migrated, but perhaps more importantly have offered easier and more mainstream entry points for an increasing proportion of the population. Which all leaves me wondering about the majority of the literature I’ve encountered so far and how it can inform current research.

There are some universals the book covers which still apply; the differences and similarities between online and face-to-face ethnography; the extent to which the offline and online are blurring (a topic becoming increasingly significant); the importance of the approach the researcher uses when entering an online ‘field.’ The methods the authors employed during their studies at the turn of the century are still applicable now: online surveys/questionnaires, interviews, network analysis, discourse, text and language analysis. What we now have is a greater diversity of spaces where they might be applied, and arguably, a richer toolset to deploy.

Another area quite rightly discussed at length and still of importance, is that of ethics. I must confess to failing to appreciate how diverse and complex an area this is. Whilst the usual considerations of ethical behaviour have to be borne in mind, undertaking research online brings a multitude of additional concerns. It is possible to ‘lurk’ online in a way an offline ethnographer could never manage. How should a researcher disclose their intent? How can a researcher gain informed consent of the subjects under study if the study is in an environment with hundreds or thousands of participants? How much more difficult it is to anonymise data drawn from the online world … or even whether it is fair to do so. The legal issues of copyright and ownership of text (and multimedia) created online, which you might then wish to reproduce in your report. I have much work to do in this area.

As I move on from this book, I feel I need to seek out more recent research involving current online spaces. Are the methods currently being used the same as the ones we used ten years ago, or are newer, more effective options available?

“New Literacies” – part deux

In the last post I picked out a couple of the themes from New Literacies that immediately struck me. Here are a few other concepts in which I could also see parallels with professional learning.

Remix

to take cultural artifacts and combine and manipulate them into new kinds of creative blends.

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Here the authors discuss the art and craft associated with taking media such as text, imagery, audio, video and remixing it into new forms; a ‘New’ literacy practice they argue, made more accessible once the media are in digital form. I’d suggest that remixing is also a strand within professional learning, where a teacher identifies a potential resource or strategy, then individually or in association with colleagues, repurposes that for use in the context of her/his students’ learning. Strictly speaking that’s not remixing of course, however in order to and restructure it to make it appropriate for our students’ needs, we might break it down into its constituent parts, amend or append certain elements, then reassemble it for use, that is then indeed close to remixing. That may take our learning into new places, requiring us to appropriate new knowledge or skills. Analogue remixing might have involved taking clippings from new articles, pasting them onto a sheet, highlighting certain aspects (or redacting them), adding provocations, the photocopying the final product for sharing with students.

Everything is a Remix Remastered (2015 HD) from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Digital media offer a greater range of possibilities, but in addition to the pedagogical and content knowledge required to produce a useful resource, technical knowledge will also be required (Koehler & Mishra, 2009). Professional learning might then be manifest through remixing, or from the other direction, remixing may demand professional learning.

Ties and networks

Two interlinked ideas also caught my eye. Granovetter (1973, 1983) argues that individuals who have many weak ties have greater access to information than those who may have a few, strong ties. This is premised on the notion that those with whom we are strongly linked in our networks (friends) are likely to have access to the same sources of information as we were – we share similar ideas, values and opinions … and friends. Weaker ties (acquaintances) on the other hand are more likely to be less like us and therefore linked to different sources of information. In professional learning terms then, this implies that the more people we follow on Twitter, especially when we choose people with different backgrounds, the greater the range of information to which we have access. Of course it would be more prudent to seek a balance of stronger and weaker connections; those with whom we have little in common are less likely to be in a position to provide specific support appropriate to our needs; or we for them. Perhaps those weaker ties are the ones more likely to generate those serendipitous, unanticipated ideas which might reveal unexpected opportunities?

In a related topic, Welman et al (2006) see a shift from people belonging to groups with strong intra-personal links, to forming weaker connections through networked associations. The focus switches from the tightly-knit group to the loosely connected, networked individual, who has real-time access to an eclectic range of sources and resources.

Targeted social networking sites

Twitter and Facebook are general social networking sites in that they are not constructed on a particular theme or with a specific theme in mind. There are hundreds of social networking sites created for particular groups of people, whether expectant mothers, thrash metal aficionados, World of Warcraft players, the LGBT communities, baking buffs … or even those with an interest in education. Academia.Edu and Education World are just two examples. The question is, why have educators gravitated to a general social networking site like Twitter which caters for the masses and has features which in some senses seem to restrict, rather than encourage the free exchange of views. In a targeted educational SNS, surely it is easier to find and connect with people with whom you might learn; you would be aggregating around a common interest. That was one of the intriguing questions which set me out on this path to a PhD.

In conclusion, I just need to leave myself a reminder that there are some sigificant authors referred to in New Literacies (and other books I’ve read recently) whose work I need to explore further: John Seeley Brown (on social learning); Howard Rheingold (network awareness and virtual communities); James Paul Gee (affinity spaces); Jay Cross (informal learning). If a name keeps cropping up, it might be smart to pay it some attention.

Granovetter, M., 1983. The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological theory 1, 201–233.
Granovetter, M.S., 1973. The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology 1360–1380.
Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., 2008. Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52, 22–33. doi:10.1598/JAAL.52.1.3
Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60-70.
Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Boase, J., Chen, W., Hampton, K., Díaz, I., Miyata, K., 2003. The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 8, 0–0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2003.tb00216.x

“New Literacies”

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At first glance this topic appears only loosely related to my area of study, however it seems to be one of the seminal works referenced by any text that deals with the online social world. Not one to miss it seems … and so it proved. (In fact to paraphrase Victor Kiam (ca 1970) I liked it so much, I bought the book!)

The notion of ‘literacy,’ or ‘literacies’ to be more precise, in the context of technologies occupies a complex and contested discussion space. As that is (currently) less pertinent to my study, I’ll set it to one side for the moment to focus on other topics covered which clearly were more closely linked. Where I could see an immediate parallel was through the discussion of literacy practices.

Practice a routinised type of activity that consists of several interconnected elements: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, things and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge.

(as defined by Reckwitz (2002: 250)

It’s easy to see how closely related this is with professional learning, which can be considered a form of practice. A distinction is then made made between literacy practices which may not be wholly observable, to literacy events which are. Events arise from practices and are shaped by them. We use literacy events as an entry point through which to begin to analyse literacy practices. I can see an analogy with professional learning, which may be less visible as a practice, but which we may begin to analyse through observing professional learning events.

I was also struck by the way in which the authors propose the notion of ‘New’ through a transition from one social-economic-technological paradigm to another. From a modern to a postmodern worldview in which ‘elements of an earlier state of affairs are carried over and reshaped to become parts of new configurations’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2012). Again the analogy with professional learning is palpable; when online social media became available, perhaps professional learning was offered the opportunity to transition to the postmodern? In this table, Lankshear & Knobel (ibid) offer several continua through which the transition can be made, which despite their central theme of literacies, I can immediately see how they could relate to professional learning through social media:

Modern/industrial paradigm Postmodern/post-industrial/knowledge society paradigm
Singular/Uniform Multiple
Centred De-centred
Monolithic Dispersed, modular
Enclosed/Bounded Open/Unbounded
Localized/Concentrated Distributed
Stable/Fixed Dynamic/Fluid/Flexible
Linear Non-linear
‘Push’-oriented ‘Pull’-oriented
Individualized Joint/Collaborative/Collective

Professional learning can be de-centred, dispersed, dynamic, non-linear and ‘pull’-oriented. However whilst this shift towards what Lankshear and Knobel offer as postmodern is indeed possible through social media, what are the consequences? Is professional learning through social media, like literacies, ‘New’? Will the frameworks used to analyse professional learning in the modern, still be appropriate for the postmodern? Although I can see I’m beginning to get well ahead of myself here, at least it’s served to highlight the need to think carefully about the appropriateness of the frameworks I’ll eventually settle on.

More on New Literacies the next post.

Lankshear, C., Knobel, M., 2012. “New” literacies: technologies and values. Teknokultura. Revista de Cultura Digital y Movimientos Sociales 9, 45–71.

“Theories of Professional Learning”

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Aimed at teacher educators, this guide is intended to support those involved in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) by providing a critical overview of some theories of professional learning that influence ITE. Those chosen include some with which I’m acquainted (experiential learning, pedagogical content knowledge, communities of practice), some I’ve merely heard of (cultural history activity theory) and other which are new to me (clinical practice models, craft knowledge and apprentice models). Although the title offers us ‘Theories’, we clearly have some models in here, though in describing learning, perhaps they perform similar functions? (What precisely is the difference between a theory and a model anyway? My feeling is that the former provides a more robust description/explanation of a set of circumstances, supported by systematically gained empirical evidence)

As the author points out, the different theories can be classified according to their focus:

  • On the individual mental processes which learners use or the social context within which the learning occurs.
  • How we learn or what we need to learn.
  • Those driven by empirical evidence and those built from theoretical models.

Might another distinction be the degree to which the learning is externally mandated by our circumstances (professional development?) or internally driven as a result of our passion and desire for self-improvement (professional learning?). In each chapter Philpott considers the implications of each theory for ITE and in some instances we see a degree of tension where the theory has arisen to explain an informal situation (e.g. communities of practice), but is being deployed to design learning opportunities. All of which encourages me to ruminate whether theories/models which have descriptive or explanatory power can be used to design learning.

The one chapter I didn’t mention above is that given over to the work of Michael Eraut and how people learn in workplace settings. Eraut sees the knowledge that people bring to their professional practice being formed from different constituent parts which are developed in different ways. One significant aspect of this is how knowledge is transferred between practitioners and the circumstances needed to facilitate that. This might have something to offer in interrogating what is happening when teachers say they’re learning from each other on Twitter. I definitely want to follow up the Eraut references and explore his work more deeply. (Anyone who uses wave-particle duality as an analogy for knowledge has to be worth reading!)

In bringing the book to a close, the author acknowledges how complex a process professional learning is and contends that

To maximise the value of professional learning opportunities, we need to carefully design them and actively facilitate them.

Which generated in me a degree of tension I need to resolve. I have always associated professional learning as a less formal, more user-driven process, so when I see opportunities being designed or facilitated, that feels to me more like professional development. Either this is a manifestation of a bias I need to acknowledge, or I need greater clarity in distinguishing between professional learning and professional development … or the most likely scenario, I misinterpreted what Philpott is saying!

Philpott, C., 2014. Theories of Professional Learning: A Critical Guide for Teacher Educators. Critical Publishing Ltd, Northwich.

Language Online

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Barton and Lee (2013) contend that if social scientists are conducting research online, an understanding of language is essential. Although they are approaching the field from a linguistic perspective and examining how language is enacted online, I was keen to see if they offered anything to my study.

With social practices increasingly moving online, including that of professional learning, new forms of language and literacy practices are emerging, suited to these new social spaces. The texts which support those practices lose the rigidity they had when offline and are now much more time- and space-dependent. In becoming more dynamic, interlinked with one another and more (or should that be less?) ephemeral, their materiality is transformed. In this less concrete form, greater agency is afforded to different readers, who may perceive the text in different ways and consequently be prompted into different actions. Sharing a resource online in a particular way might prompt one reader to ‘like’ it, another to ‘retweet’ it, someone to write a blog post critiquing it and yet another to remix it for use with their students. Or it may pass completely unacknowledged. Consequently, approaching learning (professional learning in my case) through the lens of language practice would could offer new viewpoints.

The context within which the research was conducted was international and multi-lingual. The focus for much of the research was translingual practices and language switching in social media sites. What kinds of practice do users exhibit when posting to those sites and why do they make those choices. Although the lens was linguistic, the methods employed are similar to the methods I’m (currently) proposing – dissecting and interrogating the affordances and constraints of the platforms, exploration of user-generated content and interviews with a sample of users. Although I’m unlikely to be dealing with language switching, I wonder if there is a parallel as I look at professional learning? Do people switch practices or behaviours as they move from one environment to another (perhaps in response to different audiences?), or indeed from online to offline and back? Which presupposes that people still acknowledge and on- offline boundary; perhaps that is beginning to blur?

I was interested by the concept of ‘situated language ecology’ of users and how that shapes language choice. It is influenced by geographical, educational, linguistic, social and cultural backgrounds. Could there be a ‘situated (professional) learning ecology’ influenced by similar criteria;

  • geographical – what effects do location have? Nation, region, rural, urban etc.
  • educational – personal, in the sense of an individual’s educational history.
  • educational – institutional, as determined by the place of work. Sector, phase, specialism etc.
  • cultural – within the department, school, subject discipline
  • social – family and friends.

What impact do these factors have on one’s disposition towards professional learning?

Another area of study of which I’d had little previous experience, but am becoming increasingly aware of its significance, is that of identity. The authors state that ‘identity online is multi-faceted and fluid,’ implying that identities might be a more appropriate phase. Use of nicknames or handles can be considered an ‘extension of the self.’ Rather than looking at this intrinsically however, I wonder what effects this projection of the self has on those perceiving it? Are people seeking online connections at all influenced by the identities they perceive and what effects might those choices have on the diversity of their network?

My attention was really caught be the assertion that the new affordances provided by the online world encourage reflection, whether of one’s own actions or that of others. Although that chimes with my own views, I’m only too well aware that at the moment, I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support that. I’m also aware that the literature on professional development is rife with references to reflection and reflexivity. So that opens a potential avenue for exploration – online spaces encourage reflection (arguably); reflection is a crucial part of professional learning (some say); so where do the two intersect, if indeed they do at all?

Observations

  • Given the nature of the enquiry which informed the research within this book, it’s no surprise that the research subjects formed a multinational sample. It prompted me to realise that my sample will be chosen from the English-speaking world, as my French, German And Dutch language skills stretch little further than getting a return train ticket … and even my sample draw in from those nationalities I’d be stuck with a (western) eurocentric bias(?). Which prompted me to reflect further on what other restrictions will inevitably influence my choice of population.
  • The authors assert that the most effective online interviewing platform is the one that is readily available on the site which forms the stage for the research. When conducting interviews from their sample of Flickr participants for example, those interviews took place within the commenting feature in Flickr itself (subject to the usual ethical safeguards). I’d simply assumed that I’d conduct my interviews face-to-face in an online conferencing environment; a more conventional format. Which prompted me to consider what, if any, other spaces might be suitable. Surely one couldn’t conduct an online interview in the restricted short-form that Twitter provides?! Hmm.

 

Barton, D., Lee, C., 2013. Language online: investigating digital texts and practices. Routledge.