Collaboration, community building, participation, and sharing are key outcomes and drivers of social media use (Lemon, 2012). For higher education the collection of Internet websites, services, and practices that support these outcomes can be achieved through use of social networking. The parallels that can be drawn to Twitter to engage and motivate academics as teacher and their students to be more active learners (Hughes 2009) are just beginning to be reported on and researched. Active users are displaying interesting ways to collaborate and participate in the community that is established through Twitter. But as Junco, Heiberger & Loken (2010) comment, ‘despite the widespread use of social media…very little empirical evidence is available concerning the impact of social media use on student learning and engagement’ (p.1). Much of the literature centered on the higher education context mentions that Twitter attracts more interest-driven participation. As Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009b) have noted in their study with higher education learners, Twitter participation engaged the students in reflective dialogue about their subject area compared to other social networking mediums such as Facebook, which continue to be used more often for friendship-driven types of participation. Rodriguez (2011) has reported that using social media in classroom activities moves discussions and interactions that were once private and situated in the classroom to a more open space where others can contribute. While approaches Ramsden (2009) discusses sees Twitter use in large higher education classes to engage more interaction and discussions amongst the students to take away from more teacher centered pedagogical.
Virtual learning environments, multimedia and social networking tools are giving people unprecedented opportunity to download resources, discuss their ideas (Hillier 2009) and record their learning. Twitter is one such social media that allows a combination of personal publishing and communication with a new type of real-time publishing, allowing opportunities for immediate and anytime anywhere feedback (Lemon, 2012; Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009; Sinnappan & Zutshi 2011; Rodens, 2011). Participation in Twitter can be seen as a ‘learning opportunities’ (Wenger, White & Smith, 2009, p.9) and the richness that can be attained between the distinction of active and passive members are varied. It is about dialog – two way discussions bringing people together to discover and share information (Solis, 2008; Reuben, 2011).
In the context of Teacher Education this social media has been underutilized by institutions and academics as a way to support ongoing discussions about ideas, dialogue about what is possible, and inquiring into learning and teaching, connecting with others, preparing teachers for the profession, and sharing resources and pedagogical approaches (Barab, et al, 2001; Goos & Bennison, 2006; Redman & Mander, 2009; Foulger, et al, 2009; Balatti, et al, 2010). Currently, it would be common for some pre-service teachers (PSTs) to engage with Twitter on a personal level, but most report they don’t know what to do, with little or no idea of how to use this platform for professional engagement and development (Lemon, et al, 2012).
In the core course of Visual Arts situated in the Bachelor of Education programs at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, Year 2 students were beginning to identify and build their Personal Learning Network (PLN). The PSTs were invited to extend their professional networks and access to content via Twitter. This social media is seen as a digital access point to access ideas, opportunities, networks, and possibilities for learning and teaching and arts education in the role as teacher. This research project aimed to evaluate the use of Twitter to identify content, connections, and connectivity for extending PLNs for PSTs as well as impact in the Higher Education (HE) Visual Arts classroom. This post is not about providing and identifying ‘distinct classes of Twitter users and their behaviors, geographic growth patterns and current size of the network, and compare crawl results obtained under rate limiting constraints’ (Gill & Arlitt, 2008, p. 19), nor is it about a content analysis of Twitter (Humphreys, Gill, & Krishnamurthy, 2010). Rather it contributes to the low uptake in Twitter use in the higher education learning environment (Conole & Alevizou, 2010) and few empirically grounded studies documenting and evaluating use (McNeill, 2009). Focus throughout this post is the perspective of three PSTs who engaged in Twitter for their professional development.
In the second year core course of Visual Arts PSTs were invited to begin to identify and build their personal learning network (PLN). The invitation to participate was offered as a way to experience social media for professional use and to make connections to personal experiences with similar mediums. The PSTs were invited to participate in two ways, a) to extend their professional networks and b) as a digital access point to content. The concept was unfamiliar to many with only eight of the 151 PSTs having a Twitter account and in reality only three occasionally using Twitter for personal communication with friends. In regards to Twitter, the notion of introducing this social media was to consider it for professional interactions; to access ideas, opportunities, networks, and possibilities for education (learning and teaching and arts education). The collation of networks was the focus of this approach and it ran parallel to assessment tasks (pass or fail participation) and course content. The PSTs were encouraged to share ideas about weekly workshop themes and strategies as well as resources, work in progress and ideas for future learning and teaching opportunities. In this sense the aim was to create a sense of classroom community and familiarize students with both disciplinary and professional discourses (Briggs, 2008). Arts education was often the stimulus for content although it was seen more as a lead into exploring and problem solving active use of Twitter while also engaging with content on a professional level that related to the education profession and industry.
This research is a case study that utilizes qualitative methods of reflective notes and mind maps, field notes and observations of activity on Twitter through contributions to the class stream coded as #visarts2012. A connectivism paradigm informs the project. Analysis of intertextural narratives was thematic and based on social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) whereby the development of professional identity, values and behaviours (Higgs, 2010) were explored.
Case studies of PSTs using Twitter for the first time – sharing unique insights
The case studies shared in this post are representative of the total cohort of this study. Linda, Miranda and Suzanne (names changed) were selected to provide a snapshot of how the students as PSTs approached the invitation to participate in using Twitter to connect professional and to expand their personal learning networks. The case studies each introduce the students with their initial use of Twitter and sharing of content leading into challenges into highlights and interesting aspects.
Linda – “I have so much to share”
Linda entered the undergraduate classroom with openness to explore but some speculation about whether or not Twitter as another social media would be beneficial for her personally or professionally. As the semester progressed Linda shared, “I enjoyed it more than I thought – I’ve been much more aware of things I come across online (i.e.: Tumblr). I have a number of posts ‘liked’ on my Tumblr that I’ve been slowly tweeting about”. Throughout the semester Linda shared content on Twitter that was inspired by “a lot of different things…artists and exhibitions that I like, creative installations, relevant and irrelevance [ha!]…but it was all connected to opening up how I was viewing my world. I’ve also been posting about other education things, not just art”. Linda reflected regularly about her use of Twitter and she noticed that she was becoming more aware of her surroundings, observing art, artists, color, shape and texture in relation to visual arts but also connections to the bigger picture of learning and teaching and the education profession. What was being learnt in class content and then having to share this content via tweets that explicitly connected to thoughts and participation supported Linda to think metacognitively. Her self evaluation and self awareness about her own participation with content offered a layering with the sharing in the Twittersphere and supported Linda to extend her interaction with the visual arts content being addressed within her undergraduate studies. She was also aware of the content she was sharing and the blurring between professional and personal use of Twitter. Being a familiar user of other social media interfaces, the challenge for Linda was the sharing of appropriate content on Twitter, she wrote in one reflection “are you meant to be personal at all? Because I’ve been occasionally talking about other things (like losing my wallet L and then finding it! J)”
Twitter as a microblogging platform ‘enables a real-time interaction between users, using different devices, technologies and applications’ (Grosseck & Holotescu, 2008, p.1). Allowance is made for users to write up to a 140 character messages via the Internet, short message service (SMS), instant messaging clients, and by third party applications and interfaces. The limitations of Twitter for Linda came in the interfaces requirements. The challenge for Linda was that she found “limiting what I say to 140 characters” and to have to critically think about and reflect about what it is “I actually want to say”.
Linda had a pattern of content she would like to share, and the time to tweet but she did not have the technology to allow her to tweet in the moment. In dedicating time to tweet Linda expressed a challenge in how she could contribute to the online community and extend her network. For Linda her access to mobile technology that enabled immediate connections to Twitter was limiting her contributions. She often shared that she had “so much to say” but found herself writing thoughts down rather than sharing via Twitter at that moment in time as she didn’t have access to a computer or mobile device. The immediate connection via a mobile phone was of appeal to Linda but being a student meant her priorities in technology and resources were in other areas.
“Figuring out how to RT [retweet] and editing the post” required problem solving for Linda. Although a demonstration had occurring in class and the PSTs had taken on the role of peer teachers, Linda had missed the workshop that had focused on this aspect of Twitter. She expressed a want to “work it out as I go” and this exploration allowed her to challenge how she interacted with the interface as well as encouraged her to have conversations with peers to decode, share and elaborate as their use progressed throughout the semester.
Suzanne – “you really have to think about your profile”
Suzanne was another student who only had access to Twitter via a computer or borrowed tablet from a peer, as she reflected, “my mobile phone is not a priority for me, I quiet like not being connected all the time”. When tweeting Suzanne’s content was strongly connected to weekly course content and she used this as a guide to networking with others to follow and in content shared, commented on and retweeted. I have been spending time of an evening once I am at home and have finished work [part time work] to share about “new artists and art I have been finding. I like to share quotes that I relate to, and I have been communicating to others [peers also participating in Twitter for extension of PLN] about shared experiences for examples going to the National Gallery of Victoria [assessment task] and artworks we’ve seen”.
In a written reflection about interesting aspects of Twitter, Suzanne shared, “the more you use it, the more you enjoy it and are motivated to use it…its very easy to get into the habit of following”. Suzanne commented that engaging with Twitter professionally “made me think about language and words a lot…what do I actually want to say? What do I have to say? How can we efficiently express ourselves in such few words?” Her reflection about how she would create and maintain her professional identity through Twitter generated much thought for Suzanne. Not only did she critically think about the content she was sharing, and who she was connecting to, she also thought about her profile. Twitter made Suzanne think about her other social networking profiles and realized that the personal and professional online profile generate two very different courses of content, detail and connections to others, she reflected, “identity [is] stripped back to words, there are few photos, detail in profile, etc. in contrasts to Facebook”. This critical thinking about the online space was a significant shift for Suzanne and her PST peers.
Suzanne expressed challenges in being “nervous about posting too much” and of being “unsure what/how other people will judge my posts”. She said that this was paralleled to “not [feeling] confident with Twitter [as a] medium” and that previous interactions with social media had been with Facebook and for personal sharing where she hadn’t considered content so carefully”. Suzanne “worried posts seem continued – unnatural focus on just art” and that from people connecting with her on Twitter they might not realize her interactions in this space were being scaffolded through the Visual Arts course at university and that she wanted to approach her content with a more wider learning and teaching focus.
Miranda – “thousands of tweets to filter”
Miranda was able to connect with Twitter at home via a desktop computer and during class through a mobile phone. Miranda found using Twitter to connect professionally with the education industry rewarding essentially around the “discovering [of] networks I never knew about”. She wrote in her reflections that she considered an interesting aspect of Twitter to be “very helpful and resourceful as a teacher” and she “love[d] connecting with children illustrators as they are inspiring and insightful…and fascinated on their thoughts and ideas”. Content shared was once again modeled strongly by the guidance of weekly course themes. Being in the professional space of social media for sharing content, the modeling and scaffolding each week by peers and the teacher allowed for Miranda to think about her content and what she found comfortable in sharing. She reflected that “I have been sharing about what I’ve been doing in class, thoughts on the National Gallery of Victoria [excursion] and the arts space on professional practice [school placement] and at work”.
“Remembering to tweet about art experiences and what was around me” was a challenge for Miranda. She had noted that she had “kept storing images [on her mobile phone] but forgot to post later”. The shift to be able to think of content, verse her peers who struggled to think of professional content, was significant for Miranda. Her ability to be able to think of things to share became a model for her peers who could see her tweets in the class feed and use these as a model for their own tweets. Miranda also began to form her own pattern of thinking about content that would be appropriate to share via Twitter but had a tension between having access to technology that allowed to tweet in the moment, verses capturing a visual that could be tweeted but forgetting about the moment at a later stage. The development of a pattern for tweeting for Miranda never resolved during the course that engaged her in using Twitter, although she has set a goal to continue engaging with the social medium beyond the life of the course.
The challenge of “commenting on others work” was expressed by Miranda. “I keep scrolling and scrolling through the thousands of tweets and forget to go back and comment”. She went onto to reflect that, “thousands of tweets to filter through daily, [its] hard to sift through and read the majority”. Miranda’s visual literacy skills were challenged throughout the use of Twitter. She felt that as she connected with other users her feed of information increased and initially there was a self-imposed pressure to read everything. As time emerged the ability to scroll through and develop a pattern of interaction emerged for her where she felt more comfortable and not guilty in what she perceived as missing information or a great idea she could apply to the classroom.
The case studies shared focused primarily on the participants’ reflection on engaging with Twitter as a social media for personal learning and from a professional stance. Analysis of specific tweet content and patterns of interactions and networking was not the focus, rather the challenges, questions, interesting insights, and content in general. Through reflective narratives an insight was gained into the initial responses of the undergraduate students in their role as PSTs. What was significant in these case studies was that when PSTs are invited to engage with social media on a professional level the openness to explore, connection to content, and development of an online profile that is significantly different to personal profiles is considered carefully.
There was a significant shift in how online profiles and how the PSTs built and portrayed personal and professional identities. The interaction with Twitter was the first time all of the PSTs had considered a social media for professional networking and personal learning. They were encouraged to critically think about their profile, content and whom they connected with. The thinking required a very different way of working; for many students they hadn’t considered use let alone the layers associated to working in this space.
Time to tweet is often associated to dedicating a period of time to tweet or finding a pattern that works for an individual to tweet (Lemon, 2012). Another area to consider is the users want to tweet in tension with the lack of access to technology that allows for sharing content in the moment of thought or observation. The parallels to access and equity are interesting as assumptions are often made that university undergraduates have the latest mobile technology in terms of mobile phones or tablets. For a considerable number of current undergraduate students the mobile phone is not a priority in technology as most can’t afford to spend the money until absolutely necessary. The complications for use in the teacher education classroom is that live tweeting is not possible unless access can be given through a tablet, laptop or desktop computer, and these are not always available. The flexibility to tweet when one can does have to be associated to Twitter use in the higher education classroom.
Forming a pattern of when to tweet and when to access tweets was a significant contribution to individual students seeing themselves as being successful in their use of Twitter. All the three cases invited students to tweet during class time, two had inconsistent capabilities of doing this based on relying on borrowing mobile technology. Linda, Miranda and Suzanne all grappled with thinking of content to share but found access to technology or time a difficulty. All wanted to connect to networks in using Twitter at the end of their day to share observations, images and knowledge content but had to acknowledge that their busy schedules of studying and working part time often meant that the time of the day was so late that it was not always possible.
The content shared from a professional perspective relied heavily on the scaffolding and modeling of the teacher and the weekly themes for course content. This guidance gave those who were unsure how to engage with social media professionally assistance in carefully considering possibilities to share. The challenges to share professionally content, and not personal, was a challenge for the students and reflections noted the shift in this style of thinking in a social medium that had been so indoctrinated in sharing general observations about life. This shift was a significant contribution to the educating the students about the possibilities of using social media for professional networking and learning. Critical thinking and reflection about content is encouraged through the 140 character limitations of Twitter. Metacognitive thinking is closely associated to supporting PSTs to consider Twitter for professional use and encouraging relevant content to be shared. For some students though the process of thinking about professional content is difficult and has to be allowed to develop over time.
When to network and how to connect with others was an interesting challenge for the PSTs. Some guidance and recommendations were provided through teacher modeling with encouragement was provided to explore Twitter feeds and users profiles and to connect based on one’s own interest and development of networks. The Visual Art core course was used as an entry point however strong connections were made to the bigger picture of learning and teaching and also other fields of study. Students also expressed apprehension about commenting on others tweets and expressing an opinion that could be perceived as judgmental. Connections to constructive feedback and positive language were modeled to the PSTs over time in class but also through viewing others tweets to scaffold how it was possible to address these fears. The processing of information, often referred to as “information overload” was another challenge for the students, who felt they should read every tweet but soon realized the design of the Twitter feeds supported, and actually encouraged, scrolling through and connecting in and out of discussions, ideas and feeds.
Future directions will lead into looking carefully at the interactions, content and regularity shared to better understand how the PSTs engaged with Twitter. In moving forward, benefit will be gained in looking at the actual use of Twitter for PSTs in a professional role as many struggled with professional content to share without being scaffolded. Past experiences with other social media use and regular personal sharing created tensions for seeing possibilities for professional sharing. The shift was very difficult for many not only on content but also in use and language to describe usage. Although for this study the cohort participation was 100% as it was embedded within course and a participation assessment task, many PSTs didn’t engaged organically. The why of this needs further investigation, particularly around how PSTs perceive who is responsible and accountable for their development as professionals. For those engaging at a high level with Twitter, such as Linda, Miranda and Suzanne, what they did share and how they connected professionally is also of interest especially in understanding how PSTs can and could use this social media to support their study and experiences while becoming a teacher.
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