• A theoretical framework for understanding learning. Main proponents George Siemens (2005) and Stephen Downes (2006)

Key principles of connectivism are:

  • the recognition that learning and knowledge resides in a ‘diversity of opinions’;
  • that learning is a process of recognising and connecting information sources or nodes;
  • that being able to distinguish between important and unimportant information is vital
  • that ‘currency’  (up-to-date knowledge) is the driver of this connectivist learning (Bell, 2010).

Activity theory 

  • Activity theory attempts to examine an individual in the context of an activity system, rather than separate from their surroundings.
  • The components (in Engstrom’s 1987 version of activity theory) which make up an activity system are  

–      Subject, an individual or group whose viewpoint is taken.

–      Object which is the goal of that individual or group in taking part in the activity.

–      Tools which mediate the activity e.g. books, computers etc.

–      Community who are the other participants in the activity system and share the same object.

–      Division of labour or dividing of tasks and roles amongst members of the community.

–      Rules or explicit and implicit norms that regulate people’s actions and interactions within the system.


Progress update

Been a long gap between my last blog entry and this one for various reasons. Over the summer I concentrated on collecting data in the form of archiving Tweets and I read through them regularly to see which themes and issues are emerging.  I also made a serious attempt to start my methodology section by going to my local university libraries – Sheffield Hallam and University of Sheffield and spending an afternoon in each.

Because my research is about Twitter and online communities I decided, in conjunction with my tutor that I would use ethnographic action research as my principle methodology.   Kozinet’s book “Netnography:Doing Ethnographic Research Online” is very readable and useful, in this respect so if anyone else is doing online ethnographic research it’s well worth a look.  Other texts worth looking at are Baym’s “Personal connections in the digital age” and since I intend to do some discourse analysis, Wetherell et al “Discourse as Data”.

I was up in Edinburgh for the festival in August and managed to have a face to face tutorial with my tutor, the upshot of which was that I would try to produce a social network analysis on one week’s worth of data by the end of September to see if this method of analysis would yield anything interesting.

This was certainly easier said than done.  Social network analysis is not a particularly straightforward methodology – quickly discovered that I didn’t have enough of the right kind of data. Information was needed about all the people the participants were in contact with, how often and in which contexts.  However,  with the data available, which was all the tweets for those participants for one week, tried using UCINET (Social Network Analysis tool) and Hyperresearch, with varying degrees of success.  I really, really need some training on UCINET so if anyone is familiar with it and could help me, I’d be very grateful.

Doing the analysis showed that this method could yield some very interesting information about the nature of the relationships in this Twitter community and help answer some of my research questions.  Next step is putting together a survey to gather some of the missing data.  Draft 1 was 50 questions so that was never going to happen!  After more feedback, cut it down to 32 questions.   Any fellow dissertation students out there willing to have me run them by you?  I’ll return the favour. Going to pre-test with two or three of the participants (only 29 in research group) and possibly the tutor as well.

Got a bit distracted with work and have only managed to do a low key monitoring activity on the ‘tweets’ of my research subjects.

Twitter Archiving Tools

The combination of different archiving tools I’m using are providing different sorts of data – interesting in different ways.

The ‘Archivist’ tool provides breakdowns of information like the top contributors, top urls, devices used to tweet etc on the hash tag I have provided for my research subjects.

Twapperkeeper is keeping a running list of all tweets on the straight #bgpgt hash tag but the course members are also using sub-tags such as #xxxxacc (accountability) and #xxxprac to differentiate different threads of discussion within the course hashtag. They also have social conversations which I am ‘curating’ on a list and by following course members as individuals.

I am using Tweetdoc to capture groups of tweets at certain intervals.

Roles in research

My role has become that of an ‘agent provocateur’. I like to throw in some new lines of thinking, ways of communicating or expand the group of contributors. This week I have suggested asking mentors to join the discussion, I have provided links to newspaper articles related to discussions about teacher dress codes and attempted to provoke a discussion of diversity by asking about the role of Muslim women and the veil in the classroom.
The tutor of the group has stepped up her role recently and is tweeting more frequently and in a slightly different manner. In a face-to-face discussion she had commented that we should try to keep the students on track and encourage them to restrict their comments to the academic topic set for that week.

Note tweets in screenshot are academic questions, references and topics for discussion.

I suggested that since the purpose of the research was to investigate and encourage the formation of a community of learning that social comments, bonding and disclosure might need to be encouraged, at least initially and that her role should also include some social comments and disclosure. I emailed her a research article (Johnson 2011) which had concluded that tutor self-disclosure was vital in such online communities.

Although neither my comments nor the article were responded to directly, tweets did seem to change in tone and content afterwards, I think to the benefit of her students.  Note the series of later tweets on the left – joke to student about profile picture, comment about blue hair.

She has responded very positively and directly to my tweets in the last week too.  I have tried not to duplicate her role as tutor and have backed off from making comments on the hash tag in the last week or so, allowing her to assert her lead.  I think my role should be to enhance or add value to her role – bring in extra expertise in terms of social media or cultural studies perspectives.

My role, as a researcher was something I hadn’t completely thought through in terms of levels of participation and intervention.  However, I had suspected, from past experience that I would feel tempted to support, offer help and encouragement and to ‘teach’ in the sense of prompting students to think about aspects and engage in debate with them.

This was exactly what happened. My first tweet was a welcome and a suggestion to the participant to help them begin to see the point of the tool.  I had remembered a phrase used by a colleague about an online forum being like ‘an empty room’ unless there was a presence there, to welcome and encourage newcomers. Since the tutor on the course was not ‘present’ at that time, I ‘assumed’ that role. I had already established a face-to-face presence or identity with the students, so they could identity this welcome with someone they knew, at this stage, at least as well as their tutor. The fact that I had identified myself as somewhat of an ‘expert’ in Twitter meant that they would look to me for help and reassurance.

Each student had been asked to email myself and the tutor with their Twitter name after their sign up.  Several people asked questions in these emails and several justified, joked or explained their choice of Twitter name to us. All questions were directed at me, which pushed me into the role of instructor, at least in the Twitter context.

The secondary role I assumed was that of academic guide. Their ‘tweeting topic’ was supposed to be openness in education but the initial tweets suggested they were unsure how to interpret this or on what level to respond.  I sent them links to a couple of blog posts on openness by a respected academic blogger called Prof Steve Wheeler at the University of Plymouth and this stimulated a stream of tweets.

After this initial prompt, the students lead the way with thinking about their chosen topic and one of the students engaged me directly in a one-to-one debate about the use of social media in education. Since this is my main research interest and occupation at the moment, I engaged in fully. I tried to draw the student out in terms of her level of interest, knowledge and thinking but also tried to create a relationship with her by disclosing little snippets of personal information.  Our interchange culminated in a really interesting comment about the nature of the interactions that were going on within the hash tag or community we were creating. She comments that ‘participation and continued support will be the key to success.  The suggestion was that the support would come from me.

The tweets over the next few days were a mix of social and academic comments. Students were engaging in disclosure in order to bond with each other. There were jokes, sympathy, offers of help etc.  These all led to a feeling that a ‘community’ was developing.

  • Offers of help
  • Jokes
  • Sympathy

The role of the official tutor of the PGCE course has been interesting.  She has been incredibly supportive and helpful in terms of the research and genuinely interested in terms of how it can help and support her students. However, she is a Twitter virgin and a little tentative about her role, I think.

After I emailed her to report on the progress of the students and asked her permission to pass on links and engage in academic debate with the students she sent out two bursts of Tweets, largely academic in nature. Her profile was markedly different to mine

It was an academic profile, her presence or persona was her public, academic identity, portrayed in a list of her qualifications and job roles. Although my profile also contained a list of my roles, they did not include my qualifications. My public persona, as portrayed here, was designed to attract followers who were fellow students, fellow teachers or people generally interested in e-learning.  The tutor’s profile was intended to reassure her students and other people about her credentials and her role as tutor in this public forum.

I will follow up this blog posting by thinking and writing something about the self-presentation, roles and personas being used here, drawing on the work of Goffman and Engstrom

Writing a blog

I introduced my research to my research subjects on Friday 13th May.  The context was a half hour slot in the Induction day of a cohort of flexi-course PGCE students at XXXCollege.  The tutor on the course had already planned how to integrate the use of Twitter as part of her Professional Practice and Issues module and I was able to set her task at the end of the presentation.

The students listened attentively but their facial expressions and body language suggested that some of them had a similar attitude to my own about being asked to use yet another method of logging or participating in learning.  I made a point of mentioning my own use of Twitter as a learning tool and my own initial resistance.  This caused some humour and students visibly relaxed – one asked me if I had shares in Twitter!

The presentation was a mix of explanation of research and background to the research and practical explanations of Twitter – particularly the use of hash tags and following.  I also posted a guide to getting started with Twitter on the VLE in the college. Students were set some explicit tasks – to sign onto Twitter, create a profile, find at least five people to ‘follow’, preferably from their course initially and to make an introductory tweet.  The follow-up task for the following week was to tweet about the concept of ‘openness in education’.

I presented myself as a cross between a fellow traveller (having once been on a PGCE course and a teacher for some years), an expert in technology and a tutor, albeit on another course but my tone was friendly and not academic in nature.
I asked everyone to read and sign the consent form for the research and arranged to pick them up later in the day.

Later that evening I logged onto Twitter and did a search on the hashtag I had proposed #xxxx to see if anyone had signed up.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that several people had done so.