26 October 2009

Twitter as [Teacher] Liberation Technology

based on my recent presentation at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) 2009 Midwest Conference at Kent State University...

If, as Foucault says, power is “neither given, nor exchanged, nor recovered, but rather exercised, and that it only exists in action" (Kelly 1994), then the powerlessness of many teachers in relation to their own professional development may be seen as a consequence of inaction – or more specifically – of the lack of a conceptual space which allows them freedom to act.

Foucault saw that the important thing to watch were the moves people make in what I call the "transaction space" between them (with all due thanks to Fendler 2010 for getting me to see this). But I think Gramsci helps me by letting me see the forces which "shape" that space - creating the rules of the game.

Teachers, throughout the world, work in fairly to completely isolated circumstances. Distance between schools and between schools and teacher-training universities, the required time to connect with other teachers or mentors, the issue of getting needed support/scaffolding ‘as needed,’ all create major impediments to ongoing and effective teacher training. And these problems create issues of teacher persistence, retention, and improvement throughout developing nations (Leach, Ahmed, Makalima, and Power 2005), and, without a doubt, in many developed nations as well.

The isolated teacher, locked in his/her classroom, limited to peer interaction during ever briefer lunch periods in even the largest schools (limited by lack of other teachers in smaller schools), finds themselves unable to find support for their professional development. The structure of their time, and the structure of their culture and national education system, limits the information flow - and thus the confidence experience - needed to challenge and doubt the apparent rules.

Information and Communication

Across all of our societies systems of information and communication can either be coercive or liberating. In education, and in teacher education, the systems used have tended toward the coercive: taught degrees with grades based in specific forms for content and delivery; discourse controlled by class-time and semester time schedules as well as by instructor and peer pressure; an emphasis in teacher preparation on classroom management strategies; administratively designed on-going professional development often based in political narratives; nationally-determined standards distributed as directives. All of these structures coerce certain behaviors from teachers and limit their opportunities to control the pedagogy within their own classrooms.

Since I joined Twitter in 2007 I have been participating in and observing a global network of teachers on the “real time” social networking system Twitter. Twitter is referred to as “real time” because “Tweets” appear in a continuous timed stream, and it is obviously a “social networking” system in that it tends to bring together affinity groups on-line. But unlike systems such as Facebook it does not require mutual “friending” to establish contact. Unless a user locks down his or her account, anyone can follow what that user is saying. Unlike professional social sites like Linked-In, no “credentials” need be established. But Twitter does allow groups to form – both permanently through mutual “follows” and temporarily through “hash tags” which connect a specific conversation. There is clearly a powerful attraction system here, as those who stick with Twitter long enough to discover their affinity groups are drawn into an ever widening orbit of global contact.

What I have watched - in action - is teachers from many nations now given the ability to form their own liberated learning network, sharing resources, ideas, frustrations, problems, research, even lesson plans without official filters, without limits constructed by others. And thus what I have watched is teachers from around the world finding that they are able to change the rules, to make different "plays," within the transaction space which defines their teaching practice.

Meeting, observing, even psychologically supported by this new affinity group, they have broken free from a thousand imagined and understood constraints, and are now able to utilize their own power.

Gramsci, Foucault, and Power Theory

In Gramscian terms, the power of SMS-length social networking is allowing strengthened bonds in the resistance to the status quo, it is allowing power within the structure of education to be utilized and focused in new ways. I am building here on the research in teacher support in sub-Saharan Africa produced by the DEEP Project at the Open University (UK), and a long conversation with the OU's Tom Power in the dining hall at Trinity College at CAL'07. There project gave teachers social networking tools (through SMS) and saw dramatic improvements in teachers' self-perceptions -and in their persistence and retention, even in completely isolated environments such as Western Cape Province. Now, an even free-er form of social networking, Twitter, with its minimal entry requirements and phone-based capabilities, is offering teachers a path to individual power through global organizing which provides not just knowledge but emotional and tactical support in the pursuit of effective educational change (Gramsci 1971, Shirky 2008, Open University 2005).

Foucault, in Chapter 2 of The Order of Things, talked about the powerful differences in similarities. "Convenience" - the proximity similarity, is often what binds teachers together. They share a workplace or an employer. Of course, if all in a group share the same constraints on action, those constraints tend to become invisible - they come "naturalized." But another form of Foucauldian similarity is "emulation." In emulation the similarity builds because we recognize a reflection. On Twitter, I will argue, we are freed from convenience similarity, and free to search for reflections which appear - in some way - familiar. We are free to find emulations. Teachers, in this case, with similar frustrations with the game as it is played. And that leads us to the possibility of Foucault's other two similarities: Analogy, our ability to recognize similar functions even if the form differs (a steering wheel, a horse's reins), and sympathy, the connection based on how we are affected by actions.

These shifts bring us back to Gramsci. Gramsci was not a traditional Marxist who sees power as one-directional and history as inevitable. Gramsci understood that power exists, and we either exercise it or not. In Peter Høeg's novel of inclusive education Borderliners one character describes a fantasy of potential power made real. He imagines a whole classroom of primary pupils working the tiny blades out of their pencil sharpeners and ganging up to kill the teacher through a thousand small cuts. Gruesome, yes, but a perfect demonstration of the powers which typically lie dormant in schools.

As I have watched Twitter (you can see a few representative Tweets in the PowerPoint above), I have watched this shift from potential to exercised power as teachers connect and free themselves from the "rules of the game" in their personal educational transaction spaces. With newly available observations of actions which have not been experienced before, which have bypassed the systems in which they operate, they are liberated to see things in new ways, to understand things in broader ways, and, essentially, to act in ways previously unforeseen.

It is powerful stuff. And it may indeed portend some radical changes in how education occurs, and how it is controlled.

- Ira Socol

Fendler, L. (2010) Michel Foucault. Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Kelly, M. (ed) (1994). Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought). MIT Press.

Leach, J., Ahmed, A., Makalima, S., and Power, T. (2005). DEEP Impact: An Investigation of the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Teacher Education in the Global South. Open University.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin.


Dan McGuire said...

Great work, Ira. This is the kind of foundational thinking needed to support the actuality of getting Twitter turned on in classrooms.

Tomaz Lasic said...

Good observations Ira. When enacted, the subversity, serendipity and 'rawness' of Twitter in space and time goes against the grain of a controlling mindset.

To me, it is these qualities (plus the technically uncomplicated task of participation) that have made Twitter probably the most useful e-tool on my professional toolbelt.

I do wonder though as the mainstreaming of Twitter continues with great speed, that these spaces will become again 'policed' by the hierarchical powers-that-be (you know, the ones that pay our mortgage). Selling liberation tools in a system that relies on often unquestioned 'loyalty' and compliance is a tough ask for many educators. Self-censorship to tweet the 'party approved' items then becomes a real prospect and undermines much of the 'liberation' you speak of for many teachers.

I understand the complexity and fallacy of what I am saying (eg 'party approved' items are not inherently bad by virtue of their label) - you'd probably say it is the transaction space that matters.

But geez it is nice when I can say "My Year 9s have just run me ragged" and know that somewhere out there a fellow teacher sees it and says to herself "I'm not alone" :D

Gotta go back to class, good post!

Tomaz (@lasic)

PS Recognised a few tweets in there... ;D