inTuition taster: Informal learning

Dr Lynne Taylerson explores the findings of her research into FE practitioners’ use of social media communities for informal professional learning.

Informal, social media-based learning dialogues were growing in participation and research interest before Covid-19 measures moved much FE learning and assessment, and teachers’ CPD, online. 

In ‘rhizomatic’ online spaces, knowledge is negotiated in a ‘collaborative learning experience’ and ‘community is curriculum’ (Cormier, 2008: p2). The form and impacts of teachers’ informal online dialogues are not well researched. The need to ‘make sense’ of them, to develop a ‘critical awareness’ of the nature of communities, is of increasing importance (Bergviken-Rensfeldt, Hillman and Selwyn, 2018: p247).

In line with the ethos of the ETF’s Practitioner Research Programme (PRP), I wanted my thesis to be accessible and reflective of Hammersley’s practitioner research principles, a partnership between researcher and researched, ‘realising educational ideals or outcomes’ rather than ‘simply producing knowledge’ (2012: p23). 

With this in mind, I developed a new model describing dialogues from teachers’ Twitter communities and used it as a focusing device, engaging practitioners in discussions about how they value informal online learning, inviting them to reflect and share their meaning-making.

Any research involving social media dialogues requires strong ethical underpinning. I rejected the use of direct Tweets or naming the communities investigated on the grounds of participant anonymity. Informed consent was obtained for use of quotes from interviews and focus groups as I explored the following: In what ways would topics addressed during dialogues in online educators’ networks be regarded as key development areas for FE teachers?

Netnography was a key method used in response to this question. Netnography is essentially ethnography applied to online contexts, data originating from digital imprints of natural, public conversations (Kozinets, 2010). A thematic analysis of threads from three significant teachers’ Twitter communities over a six-month period led to the development of this original model of the dialogues (see Figure 1).

Evidence of teachers engaging with the ETF’s Professional Standards during Twitter community dialogues suggests a positive response to this question on key development areas. 

‘Pedagogy lens’ dialogues focus on curriculum planning, learning strategies and resources, development of maths, English and digital skills and informed use of learning technology. Dialogues on meeting specific learner needs (of, for example, learners with SEND or ESOL), positive behaviour and learner journey stages (such as induction and exams) were also important. There is evidence of dialogues calling upon research on signature pedagogies and theories of motivation and cognition. 

‘Learning Community’ dialogues witness teachers building professional networks, collaborating to share CPD and networking opportunities, recommending reading and research to develop evidence-informed practice. There are supportive dialogues between teachers undergoing career or role changes and peers who have already navigated these experiences, including discussions of initial teaching qualifications, ATS, QTLS and postgraduate study. 

Perhaps a more unexpected outcome was the weight of dialogues around teachers’ values and core identity, exploring wider roles and advocating for learners. ‘Identity and Voice’ dialogues encompass social justice and mobility, learner and educator mental health, impacts of funding mechanisms and access for under-represented groups. 

Links are made between education and democratic participation, and there is encouragement of increased political awareness and activity by teachers and learners, locally and globally. A significant theme is advocacy for the positive impacts of FE beyond the world of work and the individual learner, extending to the family, the community, between generations and to wider society.

An important initial role for the 26 interview and focus group participants was member-checking of the three-lens model. Participants included teachers, teacher educators and managers, who spanned regular and occasional Twitter contributors and new and longstanding community users, and also engaged two community founder/moderators. 

Participants report that the three-lens model describes accurately their impressions
of dialogues in educators’ Twitter communities. Participants also engaged with the research question: How do FE teachers who participate in online educators’ networks consider that they are engaging in meaningful professional learning?

Participants report that they gain meaningful professional learning by engaging in discussions on pedagogy, sharing resources, reading and practical strategies and consulting peers on emerging challenges. They were ‘given practical ideas’, had existing ways of working ‘challenged’ and were ‘exposed to new thinking’. 

Teachers valued a break from ‘stuckness in organisational thinking’, using words including ‘mobilise’, ‘buoyancy’ and ‘connecting’ to describe Twitter community participation. They spoke of ‘contextualised’ discussions allowing them to ‘reclaim professionality’ to escape from ‘silo mentalities’ when a shortage of inter-organisation learning dialogues made work ‘very isolating’. 

Many were critical of compliance-focused, generic CPD they had undertaken that did not meet their learning needs, calling sessions on use of data systems or standardised documents ‘training, not learning’. Twitter communities give teachers an opportunity to set their own learning agenda, ask relevant questions, seek peers’ advice and engage in self-selected dialogues.

Though findings suggest that outcomes from Twitter community participation are largely positive, some interviewees encountered challenging behaviour described as ‘boisterous mansplaining’ or reported ‘highly engaged contributors’ getting ‘out of hand’. A moderator notes an occasional need to remind ‘those who kick off’ during animated dialogues that ‘teachers are role models’. 

Twitter community thread topics correspond well to professional development areas set out in the ETF’s Professional Standards, providing participants with challenging, contextualised, on-demand learning dialogues. Dialogues plant the seeds of new practice but Coffield (2017: p41) reminds us that ‘transformative change’ is a two-stage process. 

Educators’ dialogues ‘generate new knowledge among themselves’, provoking ‘new actions’. Collaboration must be actioned practically or teachers will be ‘sharing, but not implementing, good practice’ (ibid: xiii); a challenge, which brings us to a final, problematic research question: What evidence do educators report of any formal recognition of impact from informal online learning opportunities?

This research discovered little evidence that teachers document informal online dialogues in their CPD records or acknowledge them as a source of professional learning. 

A sole interviewee reports Twitter dialogues as CPD think-pieces for teacher education groups and acknowledges them to colleagues as sources of reading and resources. This is a ‘Catch 22’, in a sector which prizes immediate impact on learner outcomes as a requirement for teachers’ CPD. 

Further research is needed on the impact of informal learning dialogues, online and off. As Eraut notes (2004: p249), ongoing, spontaneous, informal learning is ‘largely invisible… taken for granted or not recognised’. I invite inTuition readers to respond to this research with their experiences of informal online learning via Twitter @realtimeedu.  

Dr Lynne Taylerson is a teacher educator, mentor and director of independent training provider Real Time Education. With the support of the ETF’s Practitioner Research Programme, Dr Taylerson has undertaken a PhD through SUNCETT at the University of Sunderland

References and further reading

  • Bergviken-Rensfeldt A, Hillman T and Selwyn N. (2018) Teachers ‘liking’ their work? BERJ 44(2): 230-250.
  • Coffield F. (2017) Will the Leopard Change Its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted. London: UCL IoE Press.
  • Cormier D. (2008) Rhizomatic education: community as curriculum. Innovate: Journal of Online Education 4(5): 2.
  • Eraut M. (2004) Informal learning in the workplace. Studies in Continuing Education 26(2): 247-273.
  • Hammersley M. (2012) Methodological Paradigms in Educational Research. London: BERA.
  • Kozinets RV. (2010) Netnography. Doing ethnographic research online. California: Sage.

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