Busy as a … hashtag?

“Hashtag” by Kejava https://flickr.com/photos/14296351@N00/9741003119 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

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Sentiment … ality?

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

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To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd https://flickr.com/photos/benwerd/224640792 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

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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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Tootling along

When you approach your research with an actor-network sensibility, the one thing that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have absorbed through your reading, is to ‘follow the actors’. The principles in virtual or digital ethnographies similarly encourage you to follow connections and flows; an arguably much easier proposition in the online hyperlinked world than in the offline. It was these approaches that led me to #TootlingTuesday.

Using NVivo, I was working through my first coding pass of a corpus of tweets when a particular tweet caught my eye. A single click on the url of that tweet took me out of NVivo and into my browser so I had a better chance to see it in context. The tweeter’s bio suggested this might be someone I could benefit from following, so, following my usual algorithm, I did a quick check of their last few tweets to confirm that they tweeted interesting material. In their stream I spotted a reference to #TootlingTuesday which further piqued my interest. This was a hashtag I’d not come across before, so I clicked on it to initiate the Twitter search page. A scan through the returned tweets revealed them to mainly be celebrating or praising what others had done or said or shared. But I was keen to know more and see whether my interpretation was correct, so #TootlingTuesday next migrated into a Google search. Although the search results didn’t provide much background, one image which was returned helped a little:

(If you know the origin of this image, please let me know in the comments)

Different search engines were even less helpful, so unfortunately on the basis of the ten minutes I spent, somewhat ironicaIly, I’m therefore unable to credit the originator … or even the designer of the image. If I desperately needed to know, my next step would be to follow it up with some of the folks who’ve been using the hashtag.

When I reflected back, what was interesting was the way in which my actions had been influenced by the materiality within the environments. Initially a tweet appropriated my interests which took me to a person’s Twitter account, where I sought out the standard elements I always draw on; in this case the bio and the twitterstream. From a tweet within there, the #TootlingTuesday hashtag mobilised me into further action to seek its origins. I now needed to employ several search engines. Most of these acted only as intermediaries, briefly taking my inputs, but failing to transform them into anything more meaningful. Google images however became a mediator, serving up further information which transformed my knowledge and understanding of the hashtag – I was changed as a result of the output of the Google search. Are the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and I now part of each other’s actor-networks?

I find myself speculating on each of the transition points where that sequence of activity might have broken down after seeing the original tweet. If the person’s bio, or subsequently their twitterstream had not satisfied my criteria for sustaining interest (perhaps I ought to lay them out at some point?), or if I had not scrolled down sufficiently far, then I would not had seen the tweet containing the hashtag. If it had not been a Wednesday (i.e. just after Tuesday) then the tweet or one similar might have been too far back in the temporal flow of the stream. If the hashtag had not been of interest, or not a hyperlink through which I could immediately access Twitter’s search page and thereby instantly form an impression. If at least one search engine had been unable to provide a significant piece of the puzzle. Is it coincidence that these elements all lined up? Or serendipity? I wondered too about the ways in which other people are enrolled by the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and different paths they take and outcomes which result. Perhaps that’s all part of the richness and variety of learning experiences on Twitter … or anywhere else?

Finally in a more methodological reflection, one might assume that when dealing with a tweet corpus, you’ve left the field and are back in ‘the office’ analysing the data. In one sense that’s of course true, but in digital ethnography, you’re never more than a click away from being back in the field.

SM&Society Day 2: Academia

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28234738596 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

In the post break session,  four papers, each a work-in-progress, on the broad topic of social media in academia were given. I couldn’t help but notice two things: how they all drew from higher education contexts (perhaps that’s simply what ‘academia’ is) and how they were oriented towards the activities which lead to the production of data.

The first looked at the individual and collective factors contributing to use of social media by/in research teams. The second considered how imagined audience influenced social media participation. Next we heard how iSchool faculty members are connected by and participate in social media. Finally Sian Joel-Edgar explained the part played by social media in engineering student design teams.

Each seemed to be concerned, to different degrees, with what data were being produced. Additionally, how the data were produced, what the reasons for that were and in some cases, what outcomes there might be for the producers. All valuable information, but I was left wondering why the subjects (apologies for that term) might engage in the activity they do, and what the effects or impact might be on the recipients or audiences of their activity. Reflecting in this way helped me recognise and acknowledge my research philosophy which leans far more towards the interpretivist paradigm and exploring why a phenomenon is as it is, rather than what is occurring or how.

I know that conference attendees are largely from higher education contexts, but again I wonder where the studies are which, whilst still from educational contexts, focus their attention on different phases. The work is out there, but clearly not coming to the conference. Given what I said earlier, I’m pondering why that is? Are the topics presented in the conference from a higher educational context because that’s where conference audiences are from, or simply that’s where the researchers are? What (or where) are the audiences for research arising in different contexts? Now it’s occurred to me, I’ll be wanting to see whether that continues throughout the remainder of the conference.

SM&Society Day 1: Conceptual Challenges in Interdisciplinary Social Media Research

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28144230192 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Following welcomes and the opening address by Evelyn Ruppert to set the scene, the first day consisted of workshops.

Although billed as a workshop, the unforeseen absence of a key player meant this session became more of a panel discussion. With such esteemed and knowledgeable panellists as Evelyn Ruppert, Susan Halford and Les Carr, and chaired by Mark Carrigan, we were nevertheless unlikely to be short-changed.
Evelyn opened the batting, providing a brief history of ‘Big Data’ and how the term became accepted by and incorporated into the academy. The field of practices which address it are still emerging, but invariably demand a range of capabilities, hence the need for interdisciplinary teams. When the data are gathered, analysed and patterns begin to emerge, it is often the social scientist who helps to provide the interpretation. Whilst the computational or algorithmic elements of this often need to be black-boxed by the social researcher, perhaps the reverse might be true for a data scientist who is unaware of the social issues (even if unwittingly?). This then encouraged us to consider whether there is too much black-boxing and what the effects of this might be on our analyses.

Susan and Les shared what they learned from their interdisciplinary experiences of setting up Web Science doctoral and other programmes. The substantive theoretical commitment required in a venture of this sort can potentially generate an initial set of hurdles to overcome; people from different disciplines inevitably bring to the table very different ontologies and epistemologies. Computational specialists for example have a much narrower theoretical base from which to draw, but in addition to the multiplicity that social scientists have to contend with, there’s also the degree to which different theories may be applied depending on the questions asked. For many computational specialists, the work often ends with the user; for the social scientist, that is where it begins.

When opened to the floor, the discussion ranged far and wide, but the difficulty of attempting interdisciplinary work was made only too clear. In particular the significance of power imbalances between disciplines and how they may be competing for cultural capital within the academy. How some disciplines are blessed with apparently greater status historically because of the research publication processes or the ease with which they’re able to draw down funding for research. The silo mentality which then arises makes interdisciplinarity so much more difficult. This left me wondering whether there might be a case for addressing this at an earlier stage in the academy? At undergraduate level perhaps? I appreciate my naivety is doubtless getting the better of me, but I can’t help being taken back to my undergraduate years at the end of the 70s. Materials Science, the subject I chose, was very much the infant (interdisciplinary) sibling to the big brothers and sisters of metallurgy, ceramics and polymer science. I get the impression that, with the decline in heavy industry the UK has experienced in the intervening time, and the extent to which new composites have become significant, interdisciplinary Materials Science may have come of age. Perhaps other disciplines might have something to learn?

‘It takes a village’

flickr photo by mrkrndvs https://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/16604532555 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This post responds to a request from Aaron Davis  marking his impressive triple century of blog posts. The theme provides the title of this post and is one Aaron has returned to several times.

I’m currently working on an assignment for the Discourse and Linguistics module I recently completed. With that at the forefront of my mind, it’s hardly surprising that it colours this post. Without his permission, I wouldn’t dream of undertaking an analysis of Aaron’s blog, however there’s a feature on which he draws heavily, and which also speaks to the theme he provided – intertextuality (Kristeva, 1986).

Most of what we say or write we’ve heard or written before. Our social encounters and experiences, personal and professional, have shaped our thoughts. In turn this contributes to the knowledge from which we draw and the meanings we construct. When we make an observation or express an opinion, we do so using the words we have heard (or read) and the images we have previously seen. Sometimes we do this explicitly, making the source of those words clear by using quotation marks, or using other indicators. Often we are less aware of a specific source, but know that what we are saying belongs to a particular discourse, for example classroom practice or technology integration. This link between the text we’re producing and those which preceded it is called intertextuality. It also pays forward into those texts which succeed it and together this chain, or network of texts constitutes horizontal intertextuality. Vertical intertextuality links our text with the others written, not referenced or drawn from, but which work within the same discourse. Those texts may be in the same medium (blogs), the same mode (‘written’ text), or indeed be different media or modes.

Aaron assiduously references other posts he has written, helpfully drawing together themes across his work, indicating ways in which we might make meaning for ourselves. This is termed an intertextual collection, and because the overarching theme is centred on education (or perhaps more evocatively, learning), it could also be said to constitute disciplinary intertextuality. It is important to remember that when producing our own text, we not only reproduce the texts of others, but transform them. If I was teaching the origins of the Universe for Y9 students for example, I would need to turn the texts I have accessed over the years into one accessible to a 14 year old. Perhaps Aaron does similar work to this in ensuring his writings are accessible to a broad readership, but also to challenge our reading and understanding; pushing us to think afresh to produce our own texts. A presentation seen and heard at a conference would be transformed both by being summarised, and turned into a different mode of representation.

It would be remiss to comment on READWRITERESPOND without remarking on the obvious additional affordance that being on the Web provides and which extends intertextuality. Hypertext. Few educational bloggers I read are as intertextually prolific through hyperlinks as Aaron. Some hyperlinks are explicit and reference other texts dually, both through a quotation or title, and through the hyperlink markers of different coloured text and mouse-over supplementary information. Other links are implicit, using the markers alone, but hinting at where the hyperlink might lead through the words themselves. Hypertextuality extends the meaning potential of the post immeasurably. Although as readers we have some agency in how we read and make meaning from a text, we are nevertheless guided by the order the author has provided.With hypertext however, we have far more choice in how we construct our knowledge, by following links to other texts, and if we feel so inclined, beyond those too. Our learning chains or ‘traversals’ (Lemke, 2002) are as different and individual as we are.

By now, any discourse analysts having got this far will be screaming “What about the blog post header-image prompts?!” They are indeed significant in so many ways, but then I’d be into the realms of multimodality, hypermodality and the deep analysis I said at the outset it would be inappropriate to conduct. I will round off though by returning to the start, and back to Aaron’s prompt “It takes a village.” I’m still not sure I fully understand the implications, but my interpretation is that by working together cooperatively, we can achieve far more than individually. Intertextuality plays a central part in the social, cultural and historical processes which enable ‘villages’ to do what they do.

LEMKE, Jay L. (2002). Travels in hypermodality. [online]. Visual communication, 1 (3), 299-325.
KRISTEVA, Julia, and MOI, Toril (1986). The Kristeva reader. Blackwell.

Although there are no explicit citations to them within this post, given the topic, it’s perhaps important also to acknowledge the two authors that influenced it the most:

BAZERMAN, Charles (2004). Intertextuality: How texts rely on other texts. [online]. What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices, , 83-96.
FAIRCLOUGH, Norman (1992). Discourse and social change.


Sociomateriality … from someone who ‘knows.’

The SIoE’s ‘Critical Perspectives on Theory’ seminar series afforded me the opportunity of enjoying two superb talks on sociomateriality given by two outstanding speakers: Prof Tara Fenwick and Prof Cathy Burnett. Cathy’s research interests centre on literacy, so are slightly further away from my own research than Tara’s, which regularly explores professional learning.

It would be difficult to be unaware of Tara’s work if you read about professional learning in an educational context, and from a sociomaterial standpoint. Having one of the foremost writers on the topic was such a privilege and a treat.

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/27053191876 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I was grateful that she provided an overview of sociomateriality and the specific strands of research that contributed to the field. Although I’ve read work by most of the authors she mentioned, some more than others, I hadn’t yet pictured how their work was interrelated. Intermingled together but loosely connected, science and technology studies (STS), actor-network theory (ANT), cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), practice theory, complexity theory and posthumanism all have the common thread of materiality running through them. Other epistemologies tend to ignore the material aspects of social interactions, or barely acknowledge it whilst discussing context. As Tara discussed, materials prevent, permit and promote actions, bringing forth and performing certain knowledges over others. Materials might be practices, processes or objects brought together in heterogenous gatherings or assemblages. So, as she has said elsewhere, what sociomaterial approaches do is to:

…promote methods by which to recognise and trace the multifarious struggles, negotiations and accommodations whose effects constitute the ‘things’ in education: students, teachers, learning activities and spaces, knowledge representations such as texts, pedagogy, curriculum content, and so forth.

Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. and Sawchuk, P., 2015

It is precisely these elements which teachers’ professional learning negotiates, which would hopefully suggest that I’m on the right track by looking towards sociomateriality and ANT. I was interested to hear Tara mention Bruno Latour’s work in ANT more often than other authors like Michel Callon and David Law, which she explained by declaring an affinity for his work … and his humour! This was one of the important points I took away from her talk; that you choose the particular flavour of ANT or sociomateriality which aligns with your approach, research topic and your world view, then you go with that. Tara cautioned against the ‘Mush and Slush’ writings in which people reference bits and pieces from a host of different strands, and in so doing create an epistemological dog’s dinner (my interpretation!) with completely incompatible arguments. Each author and each approach does different things, so pick one and stick to them.

As things currently stand and following Tara’s advice, I’m leaning towards ANT (or After-ANT?)  as assembled by John Law and Annemarie Mol, specifically the notions of multiplicity and fluidity. In ‘Ontological Politics,’ Mol (1999) talks about reality as ‘done and enacted, rather than observed;’ multiple not because of perspective but performance. These ideas completely shifted my worldview, but importantly also spoke to my research and I’m hoping will begin to help me take a different approach.

Where Tara didn’t go in her talk was the nitty-gritty methods brought to bear during research endeavours employing a sociomaterial approach. This was understandable given the brief period she had and the themes she wanted to cover. Her writing (or at least that with which I have some experience) is often theoretically rich rather than methodologically, so offers only limited support. A post Tara wrote on the ProPEL site hinted at some of the techniques her doctoral students had recently used in three different studies. However, what was missing (indeed most writing on ANT generally is similarly sparse where discussions of methods are concerned) was the detail … which is where of course the devil is! Ethnographic approaches are fairly typically employed, but other than ‘follow the actors,’ what researchers actually do in order to follow them is incredibly thin on the ground. Whereas say, grounded theory approaches are well documented in the literature with clearly set out steps and processes, sociomaterial researchers have a much more sparse support structure on which to call. So it looks like I’m likely to be feeling my way … ‘a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler’ (Latour, 2005). Can one be both blind and myopic Monsieur Latour? I certainly feel both!


FENWICK, T., EDWARDS, R. and SAWCHUK, P., 2015. Emerging approaches to educational research: Tracing the socio-material. Routledge.
LATOUR, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social. [online]. London: Oxford, .
LAW, John (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge.
MOL, Annemarie (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.
MOL, Annemarie (1999). Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The sociological review, 47 (S1), 74-89.


Manufactured serendipity?

flickr photo by BBC Radio 4 https://flickr.com/photos/bbcradio4/4741887686 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I’m not sure why it was such a surprise that a mote of inspiration happened by me whilst out for a run this morning, but it was. As a distraction from the discomfort of running, I often listen to podcasts. Sometimes they’re related to my studies, so I get a mental as well as a physical workout. Sometimes they’re just enjoyable or informative; Radio 4 podcasts are wonderful here. If I’ve something I need to ponder at greater length, I’ll leave the mp3 player at home. But today was just meant to be some light relief courtesy of ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage,’ which joyfully brings science and humour together. The topic was serendipitous discovery in science and how some of the great discoveries have come about by what appears to be chance. Not particularly closely related to professional learning and Twitter one might think, but there’s always an angle if you look hard enough … or perhaps it was a serendipitous revelation?

The programme ranged across some interesting examples of serendipitous scientific discoveries (Perkin’s Mauve, Viagra and Post-It™ notes), but also considered some of the factors which might increase the likelihood of such a discovery being made. As (comedian) Lee Mack observed:

They can’t be completely chance discoveries can they, because I have never made any discoveries by chance, and you two seem to have a bit of a better chance than me. I mean, you are looking in the first place.

So in order to make that breakthrough, you need to position yourself to have a better chance to do so. And this set me thinking about my own area of study. I wouldn’t say for one minute that teachers are seeking a miraculous revelation when they use Twitter to learn professionally, however, the simple act of placing yourself in a position where learning (rather than discovery) can occur, might increase the chance that it will. Simon Singh shifted the perspective somewhat:

If you know what you’re looking for, you’re gonna go and find it. There are things that we know we need to know and then there are things we don’t know that we need to know. The things we don’t know that we need to know are the things that change the world.

I don’t think teachers (always) go on Twitter knowing what they’re looking for. That’s much more akin to professional development – a need is identified, a programme assembled and delivered, practice is changed, job done. That’s a solution for known knowns. Twitter can do that too; watch the timeline for a while and you’ll see plenty of people asking for assistance, ideas or advice. Perhaps there’s another aspect though and that some of the learning people say they get through Twitter helps with the ‘things we don’t know that we need to know?’ This might be where the serendipity comes in.

The sense in which we might position ourselves in a less formal setting to seek fresh insights to the challenges we face is not a new one. The guests talked of the histories of innovation at places like Bell Labs, Phillips and more recently and famously Google. The discoveries in these organisations often came about because they recognised the importance of providing space; space to play and space to talk with your peers. Professor Andrea Sella phrased it like this:

This idea of having your own private time, your own private space and the time to play is incredibly important. One thing that has happened in academia is the loss of common rooms for example. Places where people just kind of get together and talk about stuff. And out of those conversations, emerge new ideas that weren’t there before.

In the quest for ever improved efficiencies in education, perhaps we’re ‘knocking back’ the dough of serendipity; squeezing out the air and the breathing space we need to solve some of the challenges we face? In the last school in which I taught, the year after I left, an older building was flattened to make way for new facilities. In it had been the staffroom; it wasn’t replaced and I’m glad wasn’t there to experience the fallout. I wonder if Twitter might be a place where teachers go to talk and to play and that the talk and play lead to, or even constitute learning? As Professor Brian Cox observed when the discussion turned to grant funding:

So I suppose there’s that tension between directing the money to solve particular problems, but also allowing the play time which can lead to ultimately far more valuable discoveries in the longer term.

Once more I might interpret that as being similar to the juxtaposition between professional development, which addresses education’s ‘particular problems,’ and professional learning on Twitter leading to more valuable (but less predictable) outcomes further down the road.

Professional learning, my former life as a physics teacher and serendipitous discovery seemed to coalesce in a comment Lee Mack made when quizzed on why science hadn’t ignited his passion at school:

At school we used to do experiments to prove what we already knew. If a teacher had said to me ‘If I mix these two chemicals, do you know what’s going to happen? No? Neither do I!’ I would have been extremely interested very quickly.

Professional development addresses ‘what we already know’ (or want to know). As the teachers in Hustler et al’s (2003) research opined, CPD is driven more by national and school agendas than their personal need and interests. Being marginalised in this way is hardly likely to produce a thirst for discovery. Perhaps that’s why some teachers turn to Twitter? A place where you never know what the results of a visit might be? The hope for serendipity.

HUSTLER, David, et al. (2003). Teachers’ Perceptions of Continuing Professional Development. London, Department for Education and Skills. (429).



I know that teachers go to Twitter to talk; that’s already coming through from my pilot studies. I hadn’t considered though that serendipitous discovery might be a draw, or indeed that ‘play’ might be of significance. I thought I had a rare moment of insight. Err, no. When I started to research serendipity in the context of learning, it appears it’s already a ‘thing.’ In fact someone’s (Buchem, 2011) already thought about how this might apply for Twitter. Buchem proposes serendipitous learning as a subset of incidental learning (another ‘thing’ for me to check out!), and a form which is particularly engaging:

Gaining new insights or discovering interesting connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information are rewarding learning experiences which may generate important research ideas, transform current assumptions and encourage exploration and investigation leading to construction of new knowledge.

Its unpredictable and unstructured nature make serendipitous learning difficult to conceptualise, and Buchem advocates for further empirical research. Specifically we need research which describes ‘the actual processes of serendipitous learning and the nature of it outcomes.’

Looks like serendipitous learning might still be a fertile area for me to consider then. Then there’s the notion of play; wonder if that idea is taken?

BUCHEM, Ilona (2011). Serendipitous learning: Recognizing and fostering the potential of microblogging. [online]. Form@ re-open journal per la formazione in rete, 11 (74), 7-16.