Why Do I Want To Study For A Doctorate?

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Cambridge University


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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After school age, why should anyone want to further their knowledge?

On Friday 20th April 2018, I attended Cambridge University for an interview to begin a part-time doctorate in education. I met with my two supervisors and in principle, my application to commence a doctorate at Cambridge University from September 2018 has been accepted. This post captures the reasons behind why I want to study for a doctorate in education and I share my research proposal/application below.

Firstly, I’ve put this off for 12 years since completing my masters in semiotics and design at Central St. Martins, University of Arts London (2006). I now feel I have the space and resources to be able to do this. Secondly, reading this, you will want to know the details and the reasons behind the research topic. I never thought for a moment I would want to turn my teaching career into a teaching qualification per se, but it appears to now be an obvious choice ten years after my last qualification, making the natural link to my work and interest in social media and education policy.

For those who know me well enough, you will understand ‘why social media?’ and ‘why education policy?’ For those of you who don’t know me personally, but may have read some of the 1,000+ blogs I have written on Teacher Toolkit or one of the 3 books I have written, you will know that writing about teaching (using social media) has become my passion and that another 80,000 words won’t put me off – all this and with book number four in process!

Anyway, success is what you make it and if you cannot find the time, you need to make time. So, this is what I intend to do for the next four or five years of my life, sharing my journey here and on social media. If you have 10 minutes, you can read my research proposal in full below.

How is social media (Twitter) used to influence education policy?


During the last decade, educators have been using social media for dialogue, professional development, and increasingly, to challenge the status quo. Examples of online dialogue are evident in forums constructed by hashtags, technically known as a back channel. Examples include #UKedchat, #SLTchat, #WomenED in England, #aussieED in Australia, #edchatMENA in the Middle East and North Africa and #edcamp, #EduColor and #EdTech in the United States of America to cite just a small example.

Online conversations are spawning into micro-backchannels for a specific niche, resulting in professional development opportunities and meetings (IRL) In Real Life; popular examples such as ResearchED in the U.K. which now reach out across the world. Teacher-conferences, dubbed as TeachMeets and EdCamps, etched alongside formal and commercial conferences are increasingly curated from online-networks, often generated by teachers in every pocket of the education community in all corners of the globe. This online professional networking is offering individuals, particularly educators on Twitter to develop, widen and enrich the context in which they work.

To offer an obvious case study, using Twitter has led myself to establishing one of the largest online teacher audiences in the U.K. to not only support and challenge dialogue, but to influence it, including connections with Members of Parliament (MPs) and Secretary of State ministers.

The Research Context

Within this research, I would like to uncover if and when ‘teacher-voice’ has influenced policy, or cite examples in which a U-turn has been made at government level due to online activism.

Academic research from Rutgers University examined the characteristics of social activity and patterns of communication on Twitter; a prominent example of the emerging class of communication systems called ‘social awareness streams.’ This research aimed to acquire an understanding of the type of content shared by individuals, with the main objective to identify different types of user activity, specifically focusing on message content and its relationship to patterns of use. Rutgers used content from over 350 Twitter users, applying coding and quantitative analysis to provide an understanding of the activity of individuals on the network. The analysis suggested two common types of user behaviour in terms of:

  • the content of the posted messages
  • exposed differences between users in respect to these activities.

Four dominant categories were provided in the analysis – Information Sharing (IS) – 22% of messages were coded in that category; Opinions and Complaints (OC), statements (RT) and “me now” (ME). The latter dominated the dataset (showing that, indeed, “it’s all about me” for much of the time). As in education, Twitter users represent two different types of “content camps” – the majority of users focus on the “self” and a smaller set of users are driven more by sharing information. Analysing my growth, I would evaluate my use of Twitter as ‘information sharing’ which today, has led to one of the largest teacher-led audiences which influence teacher pedagogy, if not shapes the political debate on occasion.


This research will highlight how Twitter is being used in a range of jurisdictions by educators to influence the debate on education in a local context, but more specifically understand the quantifiable reasons why and how Twitter has been used intentionally (or not) to shape education policy. As each case study reinforces or challenges the headline hypothesis, this research will highlight the hallmarks and characteristics of online activism, including what formula, if any, that constitutes as evidence of any single tweet as a ground-swelling source of public opinion which has influenced education policy at a national level.

A subsidiary objective of this study is to understand this knowledge, perhaps offer a pragmatic solution, that a new social media epoch for communicating, advertising and influencing opinion and education policy is here to stay and is gradually being understood by educators and policymakers.

The contribution that your work will make to the field

The rise of Twitter services has contributed to the altering of many people’s communication patterns and social interaction. Over a decade ago, educators created user profiles on social media platforms such as Twitter, without really knowing what it was for or how they would use these forums.

Social Research Theory

According to Rutgers University, their research concluded that users benefit from social learning and are influenced by the activity of others they observe on the service. The findings suggested that users in the ‘information sharing’ group tend to be more conversational, posting mentions and replies to other users, and are more embedded in social interaction on Twitter, having more social contacts. One hypothesis is that informers (those who provide information that helps others) prove more “interesting”, attract followers, and therefore make more use of Twitter’s social functions. Another is that an increased amount of followers encourages users to post additional (informative) content. On the contrary, a me-informer, someone who simply looks to gain attention from little investment, shares ‘status updates all about me’.

The immediacy of Twitter means that we now expect instant feedback from policy makers and hold them to account; welcome to online activism for the humble teacher. The rise of the socially connected teacher has provided everyone a forum to share what was once considered an idea, perhaps dismissed by a line-manager, an opportunity to connect and enrich their pedagogy. With the social media era upon us, who knows what the next 20 or 30 years will look like for education. What will web 3.0 offer teachers, or Twitter? With hashtags now part and parcel of our everyday lives, socially connected educators are not just a teacher, they are now resource-shop owners, publishers, event managers and writers. Teachers are now networked to a web of hundreds of individuals – colleagues far beyond the school gates seeking ideas, support, new opportunities, reassurance and if teachers mobilise. Put simple, teachers can shape policy and influence ‘what works’ in the classroom, rather than being shaped by government preferences.

Throughout the research, four themes will be considered in terms of analysing and evaluating the impact Twitter has on democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. This research aims to demonstrate how these online connections can build and influence an education system and from underpinning these four themes, the research will question Twitter’s ability to provide a) impact on an individual’s professional development and b) influence on education policy. A number of intended OECD jurisdictions will be considered through the study, supported by qualitative and quantitative data, unorthodox methods such as actual Twitter messages, as well as a range of interviews, observations, social media data to analyse, understand and to demonstrate how educators are using Twitter to actively support and challenge the agenda for education in their local setting.


According to Twitter Power 3.0, today we “send more than 500 million tweets per day … and 6 billion hours of video content each month”. That’s a huge amount of conversation and opinion, now digitised. Before this epoch, teachers were restricted to connections with colleagues – largely, face-to-face or at best, with two or three others working in nearby schools. Today, a quick status update during a lesson is very much the future-focused teacher’s modus operandi.


Since 2008, I have been sharing content as Teacher Toolkit on various online platforms. Ten years later, after hours of engaging with others in forums, sharing resources and ideas, I have surpassed all my Twitter expectations. As I write, I am connected to a learning platform at the touch of a fingertip, with feedback offered at any given moment from the biggest staffroom in the world. This online hub can shape dialogue and challenge policy, and with this newfound transparency comes greater accountability. The humble classroom teacher can now generate a dialogue that trends across the UK. I can access immediate feedback from 250,000 colleagues on various platforms, quicker than I can secure any commentary in a workplace. This free online network provides support to thousands of teachers across the world. With one click, an informal conversation leads to a grassroots teacher-development event and sooner or later, the digital-savvy educator can curate 500 people, congregating into one room after working hours to share ideas and discuss how they can become a better teacher.


In 2011, with a specific focus on teaching, reflection and building up online relationships with other teachers, I started to understand and discover the potential of Twitter, observing a pedagogical-shift. The social-media generation began to out-date policy-makers, because thousands and thousands of educators were congregating online, using web-tools to consolidate beliefs and shift thought into personalised co-created professional development circles.

Two striking examples include a school TeachMeet; a social pop-up professional development event. There are now countless TeachMeets being curated by classroom teachers all over the UK, and internationally. A second and important example is from a small group of bloggers challenging OfSTED (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills in England) policy. Nicknamed ‘The Famous Five’ and the first of its kind, 5 bloggers were invited into OfSTED headquarters in London for a roundtable meeting to discuss workload, retention and policy updates, contributing to future policy by ‘sampling official documentation’ before being published to the profession. Today, this process of consulting teachers in some form is thankfully, more commonplace.


A decade later teachers are now sharing ideas far beyond their classroom walls. They can meet together on their terms and critique each other without fear of retribution or job loss. Teachers are engaging with others in multiple forums, sharing resources and ideas seeking research-informed views and pragmatic ideas, citing Twitter as evidence for new friendships, career moves and alternative income. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, demonstrating something today which is entirely normal and in some cases, shaping education policy.

In “The $100 Startup” by Chris Guillebeau, ‘skill transformation’ is highlighted as a renaissance for solopreneurship. Guillebeau says, “teachers are usually good at more than just teaching; they’re also good at things such as communication, adaptability, crowd control, lesson planning, and coordinating among different interest groups. Teaching is a noble career on its own, but these skills can also be put to good use in building online networks.” The word ‘teacherpreneur’, notably in the USA and South Korea, now with some educators gaining ‘celebrity status’ for their online profiles and ‘information-sharing’ via multiple downloadable mediums to offer resources for others have turned individual educators into teachers with large audiences that generate not just an income, but a form of influence.

However, it is not all positive. In recent years, a trend has begun to emerge where educators or even politicians engage in calling out other colleagues over their expressed views. Tribalism means that ad hominem attacks from like-minded educators are beginning to undermine the early benefits of supportive critique for the individual, driving some teachers away, perhaps to deliberately shape the dialogue and influence opinion.

Thankfully, organisations, politicians, schools and teachers are starting to recognise the benefits, but it’s certainly not apparent everywhere. The education community is still growing, with an estimated 5%-10% of the (1 million) education professionals using Twitter in England. Over the past 6 months I have been traveling the U.K. training over 4,000 teachers. It has become apparent that the online dialogue is isolated, albeit ahead of the dialogue on the ground. From audiences of 30 to 600, less than 5% of people in the room where I have delivered teacher-training are actively using Twitter, never mind for professional purposes; and online content, used to shape ideas and challenge policy is rarely understood by some who simply choose not to focus on social media for professional gain after working hours.

As a teaching community, a small minority have just discovered the power of collaboration. Bloggers, tweeters, vloggers (those who use video to diarise) can hold organisations, watchdogs and chief executives to account. And not just teachers – even student and parental views can go viral within minutes, with a simple ‘social share’ of a poorly written, error-filled, home school letter. It is clear, that were there has been mobilization, grassroots opinion is shaping policy.

How? The methodology and methods to be used in the study

This study will explore the use of Twitter in a range of countries; conducting field work on and offline with Twitter users, interviewing and analysing data from a range of educators – teachers, academics, students and parents in focus groups – to understand Twitter in its earliest forms, providing chronological examples of online activism which has thus shaped national policy in various jurisdictions, from democratic views of scholarship or status updates which actively shape policy.

At my disposal, I have over 192,000 Twitter users from all over the world who choose to follow my personal account. “In order to draw meaning from findings researchers necessarily find themselves engaged in subjective judgements (relativism). In this study major cognitive leaps involving reading something into the oral statement or Tweet of an individual [will] always be referred back to the originator for clarification/confirmation.”

Access to platforms such as Social Rank offer a wealth of data analysis and evaluative commentary, from demographics and profanity to keywords and biographical analysis. Social science research methods will include interviews with a range of teachers, politicians and celebrities who are actively influencing education policy from their online interactions. Surveys will be designed to collect a range of data to offer synthesis and evidence to evaluate what, why and how characteristics determine someone using Twitter to be ‘influential on policy’ and how this translates in reality. Observational research will also be cited from years of online engagement from direct connection in back channels (e.g #TTkitResearch) using empirical methods in natural and systematic settings.

The vast array of metrics available online, for example artificial intelligence, coding and algorithms, will enable a detailed appraisal and synthesis to take place throughout the research; including which to use or not. Ethical considerations such as anonymity will be considered. This will provide this research with the knowledge and skills required to determine how users interact online and how this interprets into advances in education policy.


As with all research, this is very much stage one of the process, so please be supporting and challenging with your critique and I look forward to updating you on my journey.

  1. Comm, J, Taylor D, Kawasaki G, Twitter Power 3.0 Wiley (2015)
  2. Guillebeau, C  The $100 Startup: Fire Your Boss, Do What You Love and Work Better To Live More (2015) Pan
  3. Naaman, M Boase, J & Chih-Hui L Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams, (2010)
  4. Documentary: You’re Soaking In It by Scott Harper
  5. Jefferis, T, Leading the conversation: The use of Twitter by school leaders for professional development as their careers progress.(2016)

14 thoughts on “Why Do I Want To Study For A Doctorate?

  1. I too want to complete a doctorate but I want to wait until my own children, currently aged 14 and 12, are at university themselves. As an educator, I believe, it’s part of our inherent need for ultimate self fulfilment. My initial degree and Masters were in my “single” I pressured days pre mortgage, husband and family. Now, like everything else, these come before my own needs. Juggling these with study last year threw up some interesting issues. Good luck with your adventure. I’ll be following your progress closely.

    1. Thanks Rachel. My son is 7 next month and my wife and I have just stepped out of the classroom this year (me 25 years / her 16 years)… we felt it was time to focus on what we have learnt by giving back to teaching in a different way and learning without the 9-5 pressures. It’ll still be a challenge, but looking forward to the journey and hoping it will open doors back into school and/or into HEI. Feel I know have the headspace to commit to an EdD even though first year freelancing comes with it’s challenges. You only live once …

  2. This looks great, Ross, and has the potential to inform our understanding of the benefits and challenges of social media at a critical point in its evolution. One piece of advice is to keep the aim of your research clear and simple. It is easier to expand out of a well defined ‘core’ than it is to harness or make sense of vast quantities of data, and well defined parameters will help keep the whole thing in check. I much look forward to following your progress.

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