To tweet or not to tweet

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Picture from http://www.flickr.com/photos/woofer_kyyiv/3581392721/

As a result of a workshop facilitated by Etienne Wenger, a co-edited book is being produced by Wenger et al., (Wenger, E; Fenton-O’Creevy, M.; Hutchinson, S. and Kubiak, C. Learning in Landscapes of Practice). Mark Fenton-O’Creevy and I have a section in there on some interesting encounters on the use of web 2.0 technologies. The central theme was the differing views held by researchers on adopting more open practices. We decided to structure the piece along two extreme lines; me in terms of ‘yey let’s go open’ and Mark as ‘angry of Newport’ ;-) Here it is (a shortened version will appear in the book):

Setting the scene

Two boundary encounters around the use and role of technology are told through the lenses of two different participants who both attended two meetings held a few months apart.

The first setting was the first meeting of a EU-funded project. The meeting took place over two days in Barcelona in March 2009. It was the first time that many of the partners had met, although there had been various interactions prior to the. The project was an ambitious one crossing multiple research fields and hence the team was by nature very diverse and the approach to be adopted needed to be interdisciplinary in nature.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to get to know (and trust) each other and to develop a shared understanding of what the project was about and a plan of action for the first few months’ activities. A lot of the meeting was taken-up with sharing background expertise and exploration of what this could contribute to the project. As often happens in these contexts there was a tendency to lapse into monologue mode, and reverting to local professional discourses. However the project had a built in evaluation framework which explicit aimed to try and break down these boundaries and work towards more explicit shared consensus. One of the activities that was designed to facilitate this was where the group brainstormed the various research questions associated with the substantive workpackages (2-6) and then these were shared and refined via post it notes and then onto an electronic mindmapping tool.

The project used a number of standard tools for communication and sharing of information. A project mailing list was set up by the project manager and was as the main mechanism for communication with the partners. Information related to the project was stored on a project wiki and more public facing information was put on a project website. The meeting took place in a standard boardroom style room, with a data projector and wifi. About 15 people attended the meeting, with representatives from all of the 6 partners. Most had laptops. For some when they arrived ensuring they secured a power socket and access to the internet was a priority. Others were less concerned with having access.  Two of the team members were users of Twitter, some other members were beginning to explore the use of this tool. Similarly some members’ blogged on a regular basis, others didn’t. Likewise there was a mix in terms of experience of using wikis, one of the sites for example used wikis as their primary collaboration tool in research projects.

The second example was a two-day meeting associated with the production of this book. It bought together a diverse range of individuals all with a shared interest in understanding their professional practice and identity. It included people involved in academia (academics, tutors, students) but also those from other professions (such as the Health sector, Art and Business). The workshop used social learning theory as a theoretical basis and had Etienne as the overall workshop facilitator. The workshop was hosted in a hotel, which had good wifi access and a blog and wiki had been set up prior to the event. Both were password protected and hence only accessible to those involved in the workshop.

 

Gráinne’s story

A number of social media tools have become a standard part of my practice in recent years. I have been blogging for three years now and a member of Twitter since 2008. I have a Facebook account, and am in a number of professional networks such as linked in and academia.edu. I am comfortable within these environments, but don’t see myself as a technological evangelist per se. In part I feel participation and experimentation with these tools is an important means of making informed choice about their relevance to my practice. I have experimented with and adapted the mix I use, personally appropriating them to my preferred way of working and my professional needs. 

I recount here my recollection of two instances of boundary encounters around the use and role of technology in the meetings described above. I had met some of the project members involved in the EU-funded meeting before but didn’t know any of them very well. I wanted to use the meeting to get to know the others better,  and have a clear sense of the project and my role in it. As always my laptop was by my side; I feel professionally incomplete without my laptop to record thoughts, make notes, find relevant prior work or access the Internet. Therefore my priority on arriving at the meeting was to a) find a power socket, and b) get access to the wifi.

During the meeting I used the laptop in a number of ways, i) to take notes on what was happening during the meeting (an important mechanism for me in terms of remaining engaged), and ii) looking at papers related to the meeting or accessing links mentioned during presentations or discussions. However in addition I was also multitasking to some extent – checking dreaded email periodically and also Twitter. I use Twitter in a number of ways i) to keep connected to a broader community of researchers, ii) as a learner of Spanish to practice the language and seek help, iii) to disseminate information or seek discussions about research I am doing ‘Here is a blog post I have written on X’, ‘here is a draft paper I am writing, I welcome thoughts’, ‘Does anyone have any good references on X’, iv) to promote research more generally – projects I am involved with, interesting researcher or papers I have come across etc., v) to participate in online discussions – both through playful banter or more formal academic discourse.

I have developed my own distinctive ‘digital voice’ (through Twitter, my blog and other interactions in online spaces), which is a mixture of light-hearted personal reflections and more serious academic statements.  I have found being part of the broader web 2.0 community enormously beneficially both personally and professionally. I pride myself on being careful about what I say and feel I have a good understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate. I see participation in these spaces as being of enormous value and being part of the process of how technologies can mediate towards a distributed, collective improvement of our knowledge base.

I was aware that at the meeting two or three other people used or looked at Twitter occasionally, but didn’t know whether the remainder of the group did. I didn’t think about this explicitly at the time but on reflection I think I was subconsciously aware that it was unlikely that the rest of the group were using Twitter. I sent a number of fairly innocuous tweets about the meeting (see figure). The purpose of the tweets was threefold i) as a means of conveying to those who were following me where I was and what I was doing (a number of people had said in the past they found it interesting hearing abut the various projects I was involved with and the things I was doing, ii) as a means of promoting the project and saying ‘hey there is this interesting project that is worth watching’), iii) as a personal reflection on the topics being discussed at the meeting and iv) partly as maybe an invite to others in the team in case they wanted to engage in some form of Twitter backchannel as part of the meeting. The tweets all seemed to be fairly neutral comments and in honestly I didn’t think twice about sending them, I didn’t foresee that anyone could or would object to them.

Soon after, Mark commented on the fact that I was tweeting, saying something light hearted like ‘Oh I see you’ve started tweeting about the meeting Grainne’. This sparked off, what became at some points, a heated conversation in the group. Firstly, some people didn’t know what Twitter was, secondly there was concern that what was being discussed in what they considered to be a ‘private’, closed space was being shared openly with a broader audience, without either agreement or consultation. I was surprised that such simple, innocuous comments could spark such a reaction. I felt irritated by the ‘outraged from Newport’ attitude. A sense of depressing déjà vu came over me. ‘Here we go again’, I thought, ‘someone spouting off about the “evils of technology” when they haven’t got a clue what they are talking about’…. Analogies of ‘calculators leading to kids being unable to do mental arithmetic’, the dangers of the ‘viral spread of txt speech’ and the ‘insidious transformation of our kids into ‘wired zombies’ connected to a sinister worldwide gaming cult of World of Warcraft’ came to mind. Whilst I listened to what felt like uninformed arguments, given with academic pompousness, I despaired at even knowing where to begin in terms of arguing back.

I tried to placate by explaining what I had published, but nonetheless the damage was done. We seem to have reached an impasse in terms of my view that I had a right to express my opinion about things, in whatever manner I wanted (within the realms of the norms of professionalisms, sensitivity and ethical considerations of course) and this draconian outmoded view of the world which had an imperialistic view that I had to seek permission to use my own voice, that the discourse around the project had to be agreed by some central committee before it could be released.

Not only did this seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it seemed singularly uninformed and ignorant. A common ‘outraged of Newport’ reaction to the use of any technologies starts something like ‘ What is X, I’ve never heard of X, I don’t know what it is…’ and then some diatribe about personal infringements, or lack of time to engage. What this surfaces is the deep-seated techno-fear, which translates into an overarching hostility towards the technology and how it is being used. There is an air of superiority. I guess part of me felt more broadly disheartened because this kind of reaction is one that I come across again and again in my role as professor of e-learning. Whilst trying to help academics get a better understanding of what technologies can do and how they might be used, I feel a sense of dismay at the gap between their understanding (or lack of it) and what the technologies can do. At times I also feel that rather than try and bridge that gap or critically address this and then come to some informed judgement, instead more often than not the reaction is to ‘discredit the technology’ to come up with a long winded academic polemic about the problem of technology’.

A few months later Mark and I were at a very different meeting, a two-day professional practice workshop, which bought together a wide spectrum of professionals not just from academia but also the Health profession, Arts and Business. The workshop has a closed wiki and blog space, however I also set up an ‘open’ space on the cloudworks social networking space which linked to the closed spaces. The event had a ‘social reporter’ who’s role was to encourage people to participate and contribute to the blog and wiki, but it was clear to me early on in the meeting that the majority of people attending did not use these technologies routinely, if at all. The very fact that both the blog and wiki were ‘closed’ seemed somewhat of a misnomer to me. However a smattering of attendees did Twitter and we soon agreed on a hashtag for the meeting. A relaxed Twitter backchannel evolved with some fairly lightweight banter (see below). ‘Barnstorm’ who I had interacted with via Twitter before came up and introduced himself, and as I had done before I felt that strange experience of meeting someone face-to-face for the first time who you already feel as if you know because of your interactions online. There was a slight sense of shared camaraderie, of belonging and a connection, which I didn’t feel in the same way with others in the room.

Not surprisingly the blog and wiki spaces didn’t really work, despite being pushed a number of times by the social reporter. I sensed a growing unease generally about the perceived subversive role these technologies were or might be playing. Some, however, used the opportunity to try and get a better understanding of the technologies. A number of people asked me about Twitter for example, what it was and how it could be used and I found myself in the strange position of having a number of people peering over my shoulder and watching what and when I was tweeting. I sent a Tweet out on the second day about the long, and to my mind torturous, discussion about what role the blog and wiki might play in taking the work forward. There were lots of concerns raised about who would see them, how would they be controlled, managed, maintained. I felt an increasing sense of frustration that we were wasting a lot of time and that the conversation was based around ignorance; that a lot of the questions were just simply irrelevant if you actually understood how these new technologies worked. I argued afterwards that ‘pandora’s box had been well and truly open’ and that these technologies were here and here to stay. If an individual chooses not to use them that is fine, for whatever personal reasons, but that they should at least make that decision based on evidence, understanding rather than ignorance. Instead it felt to me that too often this outrage came from a lack of understanding, indeed an arrogant lack of willingness to engage. Technologies were being painted as the ‘bad guys’/the troublesome teenagers as opposed to the ‘old guard’/wise parents who knew best. I guess for me at the heart of this was a frustration around this lack of knowledge coupled with arrogance.

Mark’s Story

Unlike Grainne, I am not a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Educational Technology mafia.  I am more of a visitor to this world. I ‘get’ the technology, use a number of the tools but the use of social networking tools is not a core part of my practice and some of the practices and assumptions of people who inhabit this world seem quite strange to me.  I had recently begun to explore Twitter, primarily passively following a few people such as Grainne who I knew to be active users. I do recall the discussions that Grainne refers to but for me there was a different flavour to the debate.  In the case of the Barcelona meeting, the main concerns seemed to revolve not around technologies and fears about what people did not understand but around a perceived breach of trust.  Many in the room saw the early formative stages of figuring out what we will do (in this very trans-disciplinary project) as unsuitable for public exposure. They wished to try out ideas without fear of being accountable (yet) to their own community of practice for the quality of those ideas and certainly without fear of being held accountable to other communities (including a rather bureaucratic funding organisation with an already demonstrated tendency to misinterpret carelessly formulated language). A number of colleagues voiced the view that they were highly committed to disseminating ideas widely and engaging in dialogue with other interested parties, but at a later stage, under their own control. The realisation that a member of the group was in active conversation about the content of the meeting with unidentified outsiders raised anxieties. These anxieties were about the safety of the space in which we were all taking risks; risks of moving outside the boundaries of our respective subject expertise.

In the case of the professional practice workshop, again I recall the same discussions but again had a different perspective. By this time I had begun, tentatively, to post on Twitter as well as follow others. I posted a small number of tweets at the workshop - the following gives a flavour.

 

08:57:14  Just starting OU PBPL Landscapes of practice workshop and realising I have not done my homework! #oulop09 http://twitpic.com/94shc

09:17:05  @yandim did you bring an apple for teacher as well #oulop09 (yandim had just boasted that he had done his homework)

11:51:07  @gconole #oulop09 experience matters but experience ~= learning?

There was a highly mixed group at this workshop who ranged from practitioners such as childminders to schools inspectors to engineering professors. The range of familiarity with tools such as Twitter, blogs and wiki’s also varied widely. In this workshop we engaged in a good deal of mutual story telling as we considered our experiences of crossing boundaries in our working worlds. Inevitably much of this story-telling was autobiographical and for some touched on points of personal vulnerability. The tools we used and the social reporting approach provided a powerful support to capturing this rich material. However, they raised anxieties among some participants. As in the research meeting a primary concern seemed to be about the open or closed nature of our discussions and work and the right of the individual to restrict access to their stories until they were comfortable that they were in a form that could be exposed to the outside world. On participant, for example, was telling a story of failure in a teaching role and was quite critical of the role played by colleagues in the school she had worked at. She, not unreasonably, wanted to be sure any publicly presented story disguised the identity of the school and made sure her store of failure was placed in its context of a highly successful teaching career. Some participants from the worlds of social work and nursing brought their own assumptions about practices of confidentiality and informed consent. Others were feeling their way to effective participation in what at times became a quite intense discussion and feared being seen as ignorant or stupid. Most of us had to move beyond the comfortable boundaries of our own regimes of competence and risk incompetence as we engaged with the experience of people from very different fields. In this setting, questions of privacy and control became very important to people.

In both meetings it seemed to me that, for Grainne and others from her field, there was an assumption that technologies such as Twitter, blogs and wikis came bundled with a set of social practices in which openness and transparency were core assumptions. Her message was that as you take these technologies up you are entering as a participant in my community and you need to adopt our practices. For me this raises some important questions about whether any particular community of practice ‘owns’ these technologies. Were we entering into Grainne’s community or were we starting to struggle with developing different practices more suitable for a different context? 

Still friends?

As we talked, and argued, together about our different perceptions of these two meetings we began to speculate about the wider relevance of what we were learning.  Certainly the kind of cross-boundary collaboration represented in these meetings is often difficult. These tensions created by bringing people together who identify with and feel accountable to different practice communities are common.  The goodwill which brings a group together can often mask significant differences in assumptions, ways of thinking and use of language.  However, there also seem to be some issues that were specifically to do with the challenges posed by developing common practices around the use of social media. We began to wonder if  there are clues here to explain the problems the educational technology community have had in bringing about any genuine transformation of the educational practices of other practitioners in education.  Often this challenge is framed in terms of the need to transfer learning from the Ed Tech community to other (more backward?) education practitioners. It may be that insufficient attention is being paid to whether  practices that work for the educational technology work for other communities? We may need more attention to supporting practitioners outside the Ed Tech community to construct their own different practices around the use of social media. This problem of practice transfer may be, ironically, exacerbated by the increasing professionalization of education technology work . As Beetham, Jones and Gornall (2001) note, the first generation of established Ed Tech professionals had most often made a move from other areas of educational practice. However the new generation of  ”new specialists” have often been trained and socialised in the world of educational technology from the start of their careers. This parallels Eraut’s (xxxx) account of the way in which practice focused academic groups such as nursing and social work educators have become, over time, increasingly separated from the practitioner communities they seek to educate. The boundary between these communities becomes all the more problematic because it is frequently not recognised.

Wenger defines a ‘body of knowledge’ as ‘the CoP that contribute to the continued vitality, application and evolution of the practice’ (Wenger, 2010). For the Ed Tech community, new social media such as Twitter are important communication channels to enable this to happen and it acts as an important mediating artefact to dynamic develop and refine that body of knowledge. Ed Tech research is now truly distributed and global.

Focusing on the project team encounter described above, this is a good example of the importance and role of boundary crossing in interdisciplinary research contexts. In a recent detailed review of interdisciplinarity in Technology-Enhanced Learning, Conole et al. (2010) found that the development of shared meaning and understanding was a key criterion for interdisciplinary research.  

Wenger (2010) also states that ‘Learning is not merely the acquisition of knowledge, it is the becoming of a person who inhabits the landscapes with an identity that is socially and dynamically constructed.’ For those of us who have embraced new social media, they have transformed and shaped our practice; they have changed the way in which we communicate and connect with others, the way in which knowledge is shared and shaped.  Indeed in the Ed Tec landscape of practice it is becoming increasingly important to participate in these new forms of social media as a means of being accountability to that community. Non-participation would mean that ones voice is not heard.

Part of the nature of different landscapes and practices and boundary crossing is that it is never possible to get true consensus. Some people belong in a particular Community of Practice, others don’t. This is evident in the two stories told in this chapter; different communities have different views on the use of social media and the degree to which they are comfortable about adopting open practices. We should not be concerned by this, but instead we should celebrate this diversity of practices and different modes of developing communities of practices and shaping practice.

 

References

Beetham, H., Jones, S. and Gornall, L. (2001) Career development of learning technology staff: scoping study final report. JISC committee for awareness, liason and training programme. (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/reports/2001/cdssfinalreport.aspx)

Conole, G., Scanlon, E., Mundin, P. and Farrow, R. (2010), Interdisciplinary research; findings from the Technology-Enhanced Learning research programme, TLRP TEL commentary, available from http://www.tlrp.org/tel/capacity/about-interdisciplinarity/

Wenger (2010), Learning in a landscape of practice

6 Responses to “To tweet or not to tweet”

  1. Terese Bird Says:

    Thanks for posting this compelling story, Grainne. It shows me the large differences in views and assumptions which the use of new tech reveals and defines. It looks to me that the tech does not so much create the differences as reveal them. The same is true with the OER, open content, open research movement, for which I have hope, but I also foresee more clashes of the type you describe here.

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Terese agree was an interesting experience! Mark and I are still friends ;-) It was a good opportunity to problematise and articulate the issues.

  3. David Smith Says:

    I suggest that the first issue to consider is the empowerment of social media, in 2011 there were some strident examples of how this form of technology can be used, the motivation and determination to use such communication aroused the global community because some of the telling issues were clearly portrayed. In the education context, social media has given learners a voice that bespeaks of learning ownership and amongst the chatter one finds evaluation of learning, suggestions for further learning with links or media to respond to. There is evidence from examining the technology use of university students and school students (Michael Wesch) that facebook, twitter and others have removed the passivity from learning and provide a medium for learning growth.
    My technology practice is one of using the tools to enhance my practice and part of that practice is communicaton and I use a variety of modes to reach people. I can empathise with Grainne about the response of people to the use of technology but I suggest it is not arrogance but more of a fear that is generated still from the comparison to print examples. Previously there were just one or two people who would write a response to a conference and that would perhaps have a limited circulation but with the use of open social media there is a much wider audience. The lack of understanding/knowledge about the use of technologies is still prevalent and inhibiting a wider uptake of technology solutions.
    There is no magic solution but perseverance, empathy and expectation. I have high expectations about technology use but these are always transparent and I work with people to heighten understanding. This approach is perhaps not institution friendly because it is not quick but has long term results. Finally, debate is beneficial because it will highlight differences, prompt discussion and maybe effect a greater understanding.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Hi David thanks for the insightful comments! I like your notion of ‘the empowerment of social media’ - think that captures a lot about the affordances and potential of new media. Also agree that behind the apparent arrogance (I was trying to take an extreme position remember!) is fear and also that we need to continue working with colleagues to show them the benefits….

  5. Judy Bloxham Says:

    Hi Grannine
    this certainly wasn’t evident at PELeCON 13, do you think this landscape is changing, or in line with what Jane Davis presented there is a rift between the resident and the visitor?

  6. Gráinne Says:

    I think different communities have different levels of comfort with social media. PELeCON attendees almost certainly comfortable with twitter etc. but other communities maybe not so…. Interesting that many of the really big names in our field don’t engage with social media…

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