Discourses, power and communities: exploring the impacts of social media technologies on the theory and practices of informal learning
This paper sets out an investigation of the social practices and community-forming activities associated with professional development activities in social media environments. While claims are made on the non-hierarchical nature of these social media and informal learning environments (Bingham and Conner 2010) yet, as with any social practice, they include issues of power relations (Huzzard 2004). This study, therefore, focuses on the emergence and evolution of power relations within open online environments for learning. The study explores how competing projections of power emerge and are “processed” in a specific digital social learning environment to impact on community creation through collaborative meaning-making actions. The study examines whether such informal learning environments are sites for “restrictive” or for “expansive” learning reflecting similar discursive power relations specific to those found in other, more formal, learning environments (Fuller & Unwin 2004).
The study research site is a regular open Twitter “chat” event for those working in or interested in learning and development as a profession. The use of social media to enable collaborative and peer-to-peer professional development activities has become increasingly common in recent years (McCulloch, et al 2011; Bingham and Conner 2010). Twitter is described as (Lerman & Ghosh 2010):
… a popular social networking site that allows registered users to post and read short (at most 140 characters) text messages, which may contain URLs to online content, usually shortened by a URL shortening service such as bit.ly or tinyurl. A user can also retweet or comment on another user’s post…
The events examined in this study were selected at random and took place in October 2009 and January 2010. The events involved respectively 54 ‘participants’ (N=54) in the former and 72 participants (N=72) for the latter Each participant has been anonymised as far as possible (Androutsopoulos 2008; Eysenbach & Till 2001) in agreement with the event facilitators. During the event, on October 2009, 922 tweets were made in the archived transcript giving an average of 10.2 tweets per minute. In the event of January 2010, 773 tweets were made at an average of 8.6 tweets per minute.
The research approach makes use of Actor Network Theory as a socio-material and practice based framework operationalised through case-orientated research design using Discourse Analysis. Actor Network Theory (ANT) (Latour 2005) provides a “lens” for the interpretation of the discursive data. Given my focus on interactive digital environments that can be labelled as Web 2.0, a practice-based approach that is concerned with the complex interrelations between people, artefacts, language, collaboration and control seemed appropriate (Nicolini et al 2003; Guzman 2009; Geiger 2009).
The discursive events sampled for the research were analysed in terms of the discourse structure (Belnap & Withers 2008). The analysis of structure captures practices associated with attempts to capture the conversational ‘floors’ (Simpson 2005) and initiate processes of translation and enrolment into specific networks during the discussion event. Networks evolve as actors seek the support of others by translating the perspectives of others and enrolling them into the network (Mitev 2009). Thus, it was found that even participants adopted specific interpretations of workplace “performance” that were treated as “givens” not to be examined by members of the even community. Alternative viewpoints appeared to be either ignored by the wider community of explicitly dismissed rather than examined and discussed. The Kirkpatrick approach to evaluation was flatly rejected to the extent that merely mentioning the model triggered indirect ridicule from participants arguably as a mechanism to block any discussion of why the model was deemed so inadequate. In other words, these particular stances became part of the interpretive repertoires (Eriksson & Kovalainen (2008) of this particular community. Therefore, clear indicators of attempts to assemble a discursive community could be seen through the identification and reinforcement of particular discursive stances among the participants. This also appeared to involve highlighting perspectives that differentiate members from ‘others’ outwith the community (Bragd et al 2008). The term “management” was used negatively on a regular basis as a means of distinguishing “them” from the event participants, as “they” would not accept the embedded discursive stances of the community. So, these social media environments appear to mirror Billet’s (2004) findings on workplace learning in terms of the tensions identified between established figures and newer participants as well as between perceived different institutionalised interests. Yet this process was volatile and unstable as other important concepts such as “business” or “learning” were treated as being far-from-stable notions and central to key discussions during the events.
It was also found that the event with the greater number of examples of practices of translation and enrolment also involved clearer examples of assertions or recognition of authority status. In particular, mythopoesis with authorisation (Fairclough 2003, p100), seeking legitimisation through quoting of authority figures could be seen in the use of retweeting. Translation and enrolment practices seemed to occur more where participants engaged in vertical questioning (Fahy et al 2001) suggesting an expectation of a “correct” answer from an authority figure. Where horizontal questioning, implying an expectation of multiple viewpoints from across the “community”, little translation and enrolment appeared to occur. Thus concepts such as Legitimate Peripheral Participation and the Zone of Proximal Development (Lave & Wenger 1991) did not appear to be applicable and the recognition of expertise authority itself appeared to be highly volatile and unstable. The findings of the study do appear to have implications for practitioners in terms of the design and facilitation of specific interventions to support knowledge creating and knowledge exchanging outcomes.
The study also draws on the notion of symmetry in ANT to explore the impact of non-human elements may actively ‘participate’ in the shaping of the discussion event (Fenwick & Edwards 2010). For example, the way that Twitter applications aggregate, organise and present Twitter ‘streams’, arguably shape how Twitter chats are structured and “consumed” as well as contributing to the inclusive and exclusive nature of the discussion exchanges and sequences (Fox 2005).
This study found that such social media micro-blogging platforms used for open and informal learning interactions show high levels of instability and volatility as a result of the nature of the technology that undermines distinctions between information producers, distributors and consumers (Androutsopoulos 2008; Pata 2009) and thus notions of authoritative knowledge creators. But these network or community-forming learning events remain social practices with specific power relations operating within them. They are not as ad hoc or informal and unstructured as these events are often described but are structured by the nature of the social media technologies used and by particular power and interests. As with workplace learning in general, these social media environments for professional development are socially constructed and regulated learning spaces (Billet 2004, 320). Furthermore, this study suggests that human interactions as well as non-human technologies and textual materials combine in shaping these power relations.
The study has implications for practitioners in terms of the design and facilitation of learning interventions using social media technologies. In addition, this study does also point to the usefulness and challenges of ANT as a research framework for the study of social interactions in social media environments for learning. However, this is a small-scale research study of two specific discursive events and so the methods, findings and conclusions would benefit from further testing over a wider and deeper range of research sites.
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