The Unknown World of Education Twitter

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By In Green Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1310971421 Kharkiv, Ukraine - 16 November 2018: close up girl hand using smartphone with Twitter app on the screen with a dark background


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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What is happening in the (online) teacher’s virtual staffroom?

As I submitted this article to Cambridge University, this article was published in The Guardian. This extract forms part of my first attempt at articulating my research methodology for my doctoral degree. You can read my submission in full on Research Gate…

Proposal: Developing Social Media Theories

The focus of my research is to understand the virtual staffroom, its habits, those participating and those who understand Twitter’s potential, including those who do not take part and why. Another aspect of this research will tackle how teachers are using Twitter for professional purposes to enhance their practice, to access research and to connect with new colleagues across the world, but more specifically, how, when and where online conversations have influenced educational policy.

A key question to be researched is ‘How is social media used by teachers?’ What does it mean to be digitally savvy? What is a teacher-prenuer? And what influence do they have over the virtual staff room?

A decade on…

Ten years on, I look online and see many more teachers in England now doing what the first cohort set out to achieve between 2006 and 2008. Any teacher can now access social media to connect and share their ideas; particularly to promote one’s own image or messaging.

‘The rise of individualism has made the notion of self-branding more popular. This, in turn, creates the illusion that anyone can be famous and hence become ostensibly successful.’ (Khamis et al, 2017).

For teachers, self-branding for some appears to be at odds with a teacher’s moral compass, promoting oneself and ideas rather than their school or pupils. In the earlier days of using Twitter, this brought much attention as well as evolving conceptual, practical and ethical issues and as Khamis, Ang and Welling outline in their celebrity studies paper, Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencer, 2017. 

‘This collaborative, dialogic space facilitates self-branding as attention-seeking users produce a public persona that is targeted and strategic (Kharmis et al., 2017)

Although the use of social media is targeted and strategic for some, many teachers have begun to use Twitter to share, to ‘lurk’ or to follow other people’s content. The social media tool is also a useful platform for individual teachers, some who may lack confidence and/or never be heard by their managers in employment, a platform in which to be heard and grow in confidence. A self-mediation of sorts, where they are in control and can follow their own structure from top-down accountability experienced at their place of work.

With this rise in followers, critique and trolling has very much been part and parcel of the exposure granted to ‘micro-celebrities’ who have self-branded through social media.

‘Occasionally, social media users circumvent [performance] through various tactics, such as decoy profiles, privacy settings or minimal disclosure of personal information’ (Marwick 2013b, p. 360).

The academic term for this is ‘context collusion‘. There are only 105 research articles published – just 41 when we consider ‘England’ and ‘education’.

Self-branding for individuals

Self-branding for everyone has become prevalent for the ordinary person, including teachers, beyond the typical definitions of ‘celebrity status’ and has given birth to the rise of ‘micro-celebrity’ status (Senft, M.T., 2001) which celebrates and amplifies those who are succeeding in the attention-seeking online world. For example, well-known faces within their field, including myself within British education. 

As far back as 2010, my own social media status outweighed government, unions and watchdog agencies within education, but as the trend has caught on, and organisations with dedicated social media teams, this pattern has been reset to traditional hierarchies. However, individuals can still influence the masses, particularly in a saturated market where a premium is now found in niche content. ‘In turn, the shift towards media convergence, as content flows across multiple channels with diverse access points accordingly, seemingly aids the (self-)branding process inasmuch as the narrative, the emotive and/or human pull of an effective brand’ (Khamis et al., 2017).

The attention economy

With teachers and organisations, such as the Department for Education and Ofsted now sharing daily content, ‘Sociological vacuity or validity, the ‘attention economy’ is by now an established reality for advertisers’ (Fairchild, C., 2007). Micro celebrities can now express their views and are the individual voice and face behind content rather than faceless brands and logos. People can now choose where and who they go to for sources of information and for teachers, they seek ideas and opinions from their peers, not from government officials. In my case, teachers have followed me for my ideas and resources to a point where my influence on many has positioned me to ‘micro-celebrity’ status and it is this following, which has since evolved to policy influence.

Neoliberalism and Individualism

Interestingly, with the rise of populism and social media being used as a tool for journalism, individuals can ‘be the first’ to break news stories as everyday technology in the hands of Joe Public captures photographs and images in an instant. ‘No longer does a person need to be familiar with complex coding languages or other technicalities to build websites, because virtually anyone can upload text, pictures and video instantly to a site from a personal computer or phone’ (Labrecque et al. 2011).

As a result, anyone can have their views, ideas and resources ‘go viral’, and with political division, more obvious and accessible online, the birth of neoliberal individualism is something worth exploring as part of my educational theory (expressed in the . full paper) into this research.

Authenticity versus traditional content…

On the flip side, for individuals who have established ‘micro-celebrity’ status, there is a challenge for those to sustain content and maintain an apparent profile. This is an interesting point which will need exploring, unpicking how individuals (including myself) balance their personal and professional views, alongside their employer and the Teachers’ Standards and professional obligations. In 2019, mental health is thankfully part of our daily conversations, so the illusion of always working, constantly being connected and producing endless content will soon be seen as a challenge for ‘micro-celebrities’ to balance in a period of time where ‘followers’ seek authenticity and niche content.

The challenge for content-creators is to not only support others’ wellbeing but their own with balanced and timely content. As Kharmis et al state, the micro-celebrity may be ‘disproportionately dependent on the vanity and ego of attention-seekers [that] fuels wider fears that social media underwrites an epidemic of self-obsession’ and perhaps an increasing ‘narcissistic society’.

You can access my full paper via my Research Gate profile and sign up to keep updated…

This excerpt forms part of my journey to articulate social media theories evolving within the education sector.

5 thoughts on “The Unknown World of Education Twitter

  1. I think this is absolutely fascinating Ross and it certainly is an area I have a great interest in too. I have just started my Masters course in pedagogy at a European university after 25 years in the classroom and I am very keen to develop my masters research into how twitter can be ignited for professionals here in Central Europe. It would be great to be a oart of your Doctorate research if possible.

  2. I think that when used appropriately, Twitter has the ability to be a great platform for professionals to use. One of the main reasons for this is the ability it has to connect you with such a broad range of people.

  3. Really interesting musings. These are things I have been pondering on for a long time myself. I have found twitter invaluable for resource and practice sharing over the last couple of years but you’re right there is definitely this conflict with standards and the employer’s obligations.

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