I thought I would put my essay up on here: a way of exploring my twitter and plurk obsession. I have already submitted it so I hope there's nothing I wish I hadn't said. It will be in two parts.
The number of educators microblogging has recently escalated and is “becoming serious in informal learning”. (Costa, p. 8) Microblogging is “a variant of blogging which allows users to quickly post short messages on the web for others to access.” (Costa, p. 2) Twitter is the most popular platform for microblogging. (Java, p.1) This essay attempts to explore this phenomenon through the heuristic of the concept of communities of practice in order to understand this use. It looks at whether microblogging by educators, and specifically the formation of groups of educators on Twitter, can be thought of as communities of practice, and whether the learning constructed by these groups can be thought of as professional development. (See glossary at end of the paper for unfamiliar words associated with microblogging)
The effectiveness of traditional teacher professional development has been questioned in recent times: “research substantiates... the ineffectiveness of the all-too-common one-shot workshop” (Klonsky, 2003). This is true especially in the context of new requirements for ongoing professional learning by state mandated institutions (e.g. the Victorian Institute of Teaching). Traditional professional development is characterised by one-off days where, despite research into learning, teachers are subjected to transmission based teaching methods from a speaker or presenter who “delivers” a presentation. This knowledge is then expected to transform practice in the classroom. This traditional teacher professional development, despite being ineffective, is also expensive of time and money, and questions are naturally raised about better ways to achieve ongoing learning in the fast moving field of education. "Investing in professional learning is the key to ensuring that schools become learning communities where teachers work together, learn from each other and share best practice on effective teaching and learning." (Office of School Education, 2005)
Networks in education are highlighted in government policy on professional development for educators: “It is only through the collective work of teachers and by creating a shared professional knowledge that sustained school improvement will be secured.” (Office of School Education, 2005) and Hans van Aalst demonstrates that “networking is a powerful tool for improvement” for an organisation’s culture (van Aalst, p. 40). He shows that communities of practice are a type of network with all the value that networks provide: provision of links and interaction, some self-management and the creation and use of knowledge. He also shows that networking, a fundamentally human activity, can be enhanced by electronic means (van Aalst, p. 33). But it is as a community of practice that the network that I will be exploring, that is microblogging educators, will be under the spotlight.
PART ONE: communities of practice
The heuristic of communities of practice has allowed us to see valuable situated learning in the daily lives of learners. Moreover, in the discourse of the reform of education and school improvement it is taking its place as a strategy to be employed. Caldwell (p. 18) goes so far as to say that the concept of communities of practice is “moving from a rather comfortable and frequently informal approach to the sharing of professional knowledge to a strategy that is central to success in the transformation of schools.” But how could it work to transform schools and why choose this particular lens to look at a phenomenon that many have dismissed as navel gazing and a waste of time?
The concept of communities of practice is valuable among educational researchers when we take account of the number of studies that reference it. Hildreth (p. xi) states that the concept has a much broader impact than it did ten years ago when Wenger published his influential monograph of the same name. (Wenger, 1998). This is because it can help explain and predict aspects of social learning among educators. Examining the practice of educators involved in microblogging through the heuristic of communities of practice can help us see this practice in a new light and add legitimacy to the practice, if it is seen to result in knowledge construction and sharing. According to Hildreth (p. ix) the term has moved beyond Lave and Wenger’s original use for social learning in communities whereby “newcomers to a community learn from old timers as they are allowed to undertake more and more tasks in the community and gradually move to full participation.” (Lave, 1991) Membership of communities of practice “allows teachers to collaborate, to develop new knowledge and to develop and learn about new resources” (Hildreth, p. x) as “the sharing and developing of knowledge are key activities of a community of practice.” (Hildreth, p. xii)
What are the essential elements of a community of practice? In his examination of a group of medical claims processors in an insurance company, Etienne Wenger (1998) solidified his understanding of the term. For the current exploration it is essential that some key terms be understood. Wenger emphasises that the theory of communities of practice is a learning theory, developing his earlier view with Jean Lave, of situated learning, learning that is an outcome of participation, that is engaged in and passed on from generation to generation (The term ‘generation’ as used by Wenger (1998) refers to the trajectory that newcomers go through on their way to being full members of the community and eventually leaving the community.) Jonassen expresses this view clearly: “Learning results naturally from becoming a participating member of a community of practice.” (p. 117). Communities of practice can be defined as “self-reproducing, emergent and evolving entities that frequently extend beyond organizational structures”. This attempt at a definition by Schlager and Fusco (2003) quoted in Koch (p. 3) is helpful as these authors’ research into communities of practice among educators, specifically Tapped In a community of which I have been a member for many years. Their definition resonates with my own experience.
Along with this trademark evolving structure, Wenger (1998) had defined three important terms, and these terms will be important in the later evaluation of microblogging communities of educators. They are mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire. These three attributes are key ways to differentiate communities of practice from teams or groups. Mutual engagement is Wenger’s term for the common endeavour which constitutes the practice of the community. Mutual engagement consists of the actions that members are engaged in whose “meanings they negotiate with one another.” (Wenger, p. 73) Being present to other members and able to interact are key to mutual engagement; being included and a feeling of belonging are also part of this. Mutual engagement necessitates community maintenance. An example of this in the claims processors community was the member who supplied snacks to share with other members at the workplace. Mutual engagement does not imply homogeneity; rather diversity is fine and can be enhanced by mutual engagement (Wenger, p. 76) This will become significant in Part 2. Mutual engagement is essential for the development of joint enterprise.
The joint enterprise that constitutes the practice of a community of practice is, according to Wenger, a negotiated, collective process (Wenger, p. 80). In many cases of communities of practice studied for this paper (see reference list), the enterprise is owned by the participants, despite being a part of the workplace with the language of “bosses”, “demands”, and “work hours”. As highlighted by Kimble (2008a) there is an internal motivation to being involved, pointing to the importance of learning as part of the formation of identity. Membership is voluntary and a community often grows informally around a need (Kimble, 2008a p. xi). Even so, the context of the participants has a “pervasive influence” (Wenger, p. 79) and is part of the drive towards finding solutions for problems and constructing learning that helps develop participants’ “inventive resourcefulness” (Wenger, p. 80). As members go about their joint enterprise in their mutual engagement, they develop what Wenger calls a shared repertoire. (p. 82).
The shared repertoire includes “knowledge, beliefs and suppositions” as well as “local jargon, nicknames or locale specific common ground” (Kimble, 2008a, p. xii) as part of a collection of resources for negotiating meaning” (Wenger, p. 82). This collection of resources can include “routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols and actions” (Wenger, p. 83) that have become part of the practice. In this exploration of microblogging we will see many of these (see also Appendix 1: List of Twitter Resources).
Participation and reification are also key concepts for the understanding of communities of practice. In Wenger’s view, participation and reification are components of learning through the collaborative negotiation of meaning among members. Participation gives individuals experiences which they remember to a greater or lesser extent and these memories are subject to interpretation and the construal of meaning. Reification “produces forms that persist” (Wenger, p. 88) and this process “compels us to negotiate their meaning” each time they are used (Wenger, p. 89). Both participation and reification are modes of existence to help shape the future of a community of practice. This rich seam will be mined more fully when we come to look at microblogging educations in Part 2 in the community called by some the “edutwittersphere”. (See also Appendix 1: Reification)
Wenger goes on to elaborate how these elements make up what he sees as learning, through remembering, forgetting and interpretation across a community. “Learning is not just a matter of competence but a matter of the experience of meaning as well” (p. 263), and this has to do with the negotiation of identity. “Education… concerns the opening of identities – exploring new ways of being (p. 263). A major topic of interaction among the microblogging educators is how we are to redefine education and schools for the 21st century.
Brokering is another important concept, and it explains how teachers being members of communities of practice outside their workplace are able to influence the workplaces with the learning created. Traditional professional development often takes place outside the school and almost always outside the classroom, and the learning needs to be brought back to the workplace. A microblogging educator bringing the learning to the school or workplace is acting as a broker. A broker will understand a problem or situation in the workplace through their experience in a different community of practice and be able to influence the practice among colleagues at the workplace. As Wenger affirms, “[b]rokering is a common feature of the relation of a community of practice with the outside” (p. 109).
Social Capital is a term (borrowed from sociology) for the “concrete personal relationships and networks of relations… in generating trust, in establishing expectations, and in creating and reinforcing norms.” (Lesser, p. 126) It is not hard to see how this fits into the theory of communities of practice with its understanding of mutual engagement and joint enterprise. In this sense the learning that results from this participation in community and the trust that is engendered through the participation is a part of this social capital. The learning does not reside in the heads of the individuals per se, but in the network of relations that make up the community of practice. The recognition of such social capital means that these “communities can be supported… to benefit the members of the communities and the organisation as a whole” (Lesser, p. 126).
Coming back to where we started when first defining communities of practice (p. 2), we remember that communities of practice are not static but subject to evolution (Hildreth, p. xii). In Part two of this paper we will see how microblogging is evolving and new tools and conventions are being adopted.
A very important aspect in evaluating a group to see if it is in fact a community of practice is the relationships it engenders. Kimble 2008a emphasises that “informal relationships form based on trust and confidence (p. xii). We will see that the community of educators that is forming on Twitter “fulfils the human desire for interaction” (McInnerney, p. 73), overcomes isolation, engenders a sense of belonging in a joint enterprise. Thus it is a source of influence, learning and identity.