Earlier this week I was engaged in a spatially interesting exchange, in which I was discussing the contents of a blog post with Chris, next to whom I sit here at SHU. The post, authored by Naomi Barnes, had been brought to my attention in a tweet by Aaron, made accessible by the url he had included. Knowing Chris’ interests and current writing, I thought the post might interest him, so I mentioned it … old school … the spoken word. He asked if I would forward the details, which I did by sending an email which contained only the url. Having read the post, he then tweeted his interest and thanked both me and Naomi … which then set in train a flurry of replies, retweets and likes. And one hat-tip.
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.
One of the smaller pieces of feedback I received questioned my use of the term “evangelicals,” in the context of a type of Twitter user that might be particularly interesting to include in my research. I’d neglected to define the term however, rendering it somewhat meaningless; so in this brief post let me now attempt to remedy that.
Based solely on my observations during my time on Twitter, I’ve noticed that people seem to regard the platform in a number of different ways. The following classification then, is purely my own interpretation of the attitudes people appear to exhibit.
These are the people who regularly trumpet the virtues of Twitter. They need no encouragement and are lavish in their praise, both on the Twitter platform and elsewhere. They are clear about the benefits they have found from being on Twitter and attempt to proselytise others.
Also clear about the gains they have enjoyed, this group will respond to prompts asking about their inclinations. When asked why they’re on Twitter the advocates provide detailed answers and have clearly reflected on how it has helped them. If someone is running a session in which they post a shout-out for how Twitter is helping people in their practice for example, the advocates will be quick to respond.
These people are on Twitter, know they get something from it, but probably would not go so far as to claim it as professional learning. They might pick up an odd resource here or there, or enjoy dialogue occasionally, but would never classify that as significant in their development.
Are either not on Twitter at all and view it with disdain, or do participate, but for nothing related to their professional life.
I also wondered whether there might be another group who actively campaign against Twitter, seeing it as a waste of time … or worse. A dangerous place governed by commercial ventures, where trolling is rife and data on your personal life will be harvested for financial gain.
Where might you place yourself within this classification? Perhaps there are groups I’ve missed? I suspect my own behaviour and attitude have shifted around over the years, though I don’t think (since joining Twitter) I’d consider my self an atheist any longer. Have I been converted?
Every tweet that flows past a user in their twitterstream has a number of action buttons appended to it. One of those icons took the form of star; this was the Favourite button. If you were so inclined, clicking on the star icon would indicate that you had favourited something; the star turned from grey to gold and the tweet you favourited would be stored in a list called, unsurprisingly, your Favourites. At any time in the future, clicking on your Favourites would allow you (and anyone else following you) to see a list of all the tweets you favourited. In addition, the person who’s tweet you favourited would receive some form of notification that one of their tweets had been favourited (how the notification occurred depended on their chosen settings).
The same all still applies now that favourites have become ‘likes.’ The functionality is all still the same; the only change is to the icon – from a star to a heart. Some feel the change is little more than cosmetic, although acknowledge that people might use the heart with a greater variety of intent, seeing it as providing greater flexibility than the star. Others see the heart as somewhat restrictive, constraining one’s actions to merely positive affirmation.
Introducing actor-network theory (ANT)
Wanting to test what I’ve been learning on ANT recently, this Twitter change provided an opportunity. A small step on the road to a better understanding. So I’m not looking here to produce a Grand Theory of how Twitter works from an ANT perspective, but to focus on one small aspect and see whether my interpretations are valid.
For a detailed explication of what ANT is, you need to look elsewhere; this post will be long enough! In short (if that’s even possible!), ANT encourages us to look beyond society composed of people, their culture(s) and interactions. The social is instead, associations enacted between humans and non-humans; where non-humans (objects, technology, texts, language, organisations) have parity of agency and should be discussed in the same terms – the principle of generalised symmetry (Callon, 1986). These sociomaterial associations constitute actor-networks; neither actors connected through networks, nor networks composed of connected actors. A melding, rather than a mixing; reminding me of lower school science where we discuss mixtures (easily formed, easily separated) as distinct from compounds where the components are inextricably linked. The analogy is far from perfect however, as actor-networks are in a constant state of formation and re-formation as they are continually performed.
There are many principles within ANT, but the one I want to bring to bear on our Twitter development is the distinction between two types of actors; mediators and intermediaries.
Intermediaries play a more passive role in actor-networks, maintaining the associations without being transformed, or transforming others. Mediators on the other hand “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry.” (Latour, 2005, p72). They actively engage others, recruit them, influence them, and seek to bring about change. Through mediators the actor-network is reinvigorated and regenerates.
ANT is often discussed in the abstract … and I don’t mean the bit at the front of an academic paper! Let me attempt a more concrete example situated in an educational context. Consider the actor-network formed when teachers are charged with delivering a new qualification; since I’m in England, let’s say a GCSE. For simplicity, we’ll leave out of our actor-network the governmental bodies, the documents they produce, the examinations boards which translate government policy into assessable curriculum and focus just on the teacher and what they work with. Originating from the National Curriculum Framework, a teacher is most likely to use a examination board ‘specification’ which sets out the curriculum to be covered and what and how that will be assessed. The specification document initially will be a mediator, charging the teacher to devise an appropriate teaching strategy for her students. This is often done by creating a scheme of work (SoW) – a document which maps out teaching approaches, resources, assessments, a timeline for delivery and so on. This becomes the working document; a mediator in it’s own right which continually influences the teacher’s actions and activities. In return however, she will also amend the SoW based on the way the activities work with her students; a little more time needed here, a different resource there. The teacher and SoW are mediators, but the specification is now relegated to the background and becomes an intermediary; neither capable of being altered, nor no longer influencing the teacher and the SoW, other than to provide the touchstone to which both will occasionally refer.
A ‘Like’ly Story
Twitter has an expectation of how people should use the ‘like’/favourite feature:
‘Likes’ are represented by a small heart. They are commonly used to show appreciation for a Tweet. You can see someone’s ‘likes’ by visiting their profile, and your ‘likes’ are also visible on your profile.
Favorites, represented by a small star icon next to a Tweet, are most commonly used when users like a Tweet. Favoriting a Tweet can let the original poster know that you liked their Tweet, or you can save the Tweet for later.
So Twitter has in one sense attempted to refocus the purpose of the ‘like’. The different semiotic associations of a star versus a heart perhaps go some way towards supporting that. More importantly, will people’s behaviour change as a result? Will the heart change the behaviour of those who have always used the favourite feature or will it be business as usual for them? Might the heart enrol some who never used favourites in the past to start doing so?
The beating heart
To begin to unpick some of what was mentioned in the previous section, it is worth mentioning that what Twitter intends for the ‘like’, and what users enact, might be very different. That was certainly true for favourites. Chris Lake and those who replied to his post have provided a number of different ways in which they use favourites:
- To like something; an upvote.
- To dislike something; sarcastic use.
- To bookmark something.
- As a note to self.
- To read later.
- To read something somewhere else; on a different device.
- To trigger something (IFTTT)
- As a read receipt; an acknowledgement that you’ve seen something.
- As a conversation stopper; to indicate that an exchange has run its course.
- To doff one’s cap; well-played sir.
- To flirt.
- To show support.
- To spread the word.
- To attract more followers.
- To build a personal brand; where tweets on a particular topic are curated to indicate something to others.
- To reflect one’s personality or interests.
- As a polling tool: favourite for this, retweet for that.
Rather than viewing the favourite (or ‘like’) button as an intermediary or mediator with only a single function – an indication that you like the tweet – the community of Twitter users have co-opted the button to serve their own needs. In some cases the button becomes a mediator, itself calling others to action (spreading the word, polling opinion, influencing others to follow or interact with the originator). In other cases it is an intermediary, simply holding information for future reference (as a bookmark), or in making a temporary connection (showing support).
With ANT however, we’re not yet finished. Although some people write in their bio profile that ‘favouriting (or RTing) is not necessarily an endorsement,’ thereby providing some small indication of their intent, that does not tell the whole story. We have only considered the button from the favouriter’s perspective, how is the action perceived by the originator of the tweet? What might mean something to the favouriter, might be interpreted completely differently by the recipient. Having different conceptions means that the notification one person receives may initiate one form of behaviour – “This person favourited my tweet. I’ll check them out and see if they’re worth following.” Which may mean they go on to follow the other person and thus reform their actor-networks as a result of the mediating effect of the favouriting. Alternately the recipient of the favourite may be perplexed by the favourite – “Why did they favourite that tweet?” Which may be either intriguing and lead to further action (favourite as mediator) or nothing more than a distraction and the actor-network of favourited tweet and favouriter extends no further. The favourite button in this instance acts only as an intermediary.
Can the ‘like’ button be interpreted in a similar way? That will depend on how people react to the change of icon. If one simply wanted to indicate ‘well done’ or ‘well said,’ does a heart symbol align with that sentiment? How will recipients of a heart view it? Might their action be different than if they had received a star and will that change the nature as either intermediary or mediator? What is clear is that people are currently seeking to reduce the likelihood of ambiguity or misinterpretation by ‘liking’ then following up with a clarifying tweet – ‘Hearted that because …’ Perhaps there’s an opportunity here while people are making their actions explicit, to better understand liking behaviour … at least until the dust settles.
So what did bringing an ANT perspective to the Twitter changes add? I suspect in this instance, not a great deal, and there are a couple of possible reasons. Firstly there’s my currently underdeveloped understanding and inexperience in using ANT. Hey! Everyone has to start somewhere! However, and perhaps more importantly, this situation might have had the ANT lens focused rather too narrowly on a single, tiny button. This post lacked the scope to go beyond that self-imposed limitation and consider the wider actor-networks within which the favourite/’like’ button acts. As an exercise in ANT-like thinking though, at least it got me off the start line.
Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. Power, action, and belief: A new sociology of knowledge, 32, 196-223.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. London: Oxford.