danah boyd is quite clear that teens use social media by default rather than design. Teenagers prefer to spend time together, face to face, but societal changes (e.g. schools outside their neighbourhoods, gated communities, stranger danger and curfew and loitering laws) make it difficult for them to “hang out”. They fill that gap with social media, connecting online to replace the preferred real life network.
According to Boyd:
“Teenagers go online to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. Social media — far from being the seductive Trojan horse — is a release valve, allowing youth to reclaim meaningful sociality as a tool for managing the pressures and limitations around them.”
Of course, teens aren’t the only group using social media to “reclaim meaningful sociality”. Educators use social media in significant and growing numbers. Twitter executive Brett Baker pronounced that “Educators are dominating the twitter-sphere” by posting 4.2 million education tweets/day.
UKEdChat Magazine’s “extensive research on how teachers are interacting with twitter” characterized edutweeps as “…engaged, generous, innovative…(and) desperately keen to share and develop resources and classroom ideas”. These are progressive educators seeking alternatives to traditional professional networks. They are also “reclaiming meaningful sociality” by engaging on social media. There are certainly many different kinds of people discussing education on twitter, but the majority are teachers.
Recently however, this demographic has started to shift. Edutwitter’s meritocratic “space” where progressive education ideas are shared and discussed, has attracted a new group of educators. An avalanche of school leaders (principals and supervisory officers) are jumping onto edutwitter, fuelled by PD workshops and blog posts encouraging them to develop an online Personal Learning Network (PLN). The sharing of ideas and discussion on twitter will, hopefully, lead them to transform their schools.
While this may be true, in the process, this recent influx of school leaders onto edutwitter is changing how teachers are using the space. Tweets that express an unpopular opinion, or are critical of the Status Quo, suddenly have a new audience, and a new set of consequences. Teachers are now under greater scrutiny for their online activities, and are increasingly asked to ensure their tweets are in line with what their school leaders approve.
A teacher explained to me that they’d been called into a meeting with supervisory staff and asked to defend a tweet they’d made about a board policy, which was taken out of context. Teachers have taken down tweets after meetings with supervisory officers who didn’t like what they were posting, and they’re strongly encouraged to ensure that their tweets reflect favourably on the school or the school board.
Such examples are increasingly common. So much so that increasing numbers of teachers choose to tweet anonymously (@PoeticDevicesX, @OntarioTeacher3, @Laurel_S83). Several teachers confirmed that they started tweeting as themselves, but after “pushback” from administrators who didn’t like what they were tweeting, chose to tweet anonymously rather than hurt their career.
In response to this pressure some teacher PLNs have gone “underground”. The PLN is active, and functions in the same way, but instead discussion take place on private messaging networks or though or group DMs. The discussion and sharing continues, but in a private space, where the risk of saying “the wrong thing” is eliminated.
After the revelations of student social media monitoring by school testing agencies in the US, many teachers wonder if their social media activity is being actively monitored by their schools. UKEdChat Magazine found that many teachers are concerned about this, and recent revelations that a local school board secretly spied on an educator for months shows how far some school boards are prepared to go. Whether teacher social media is actively monitored or not, the fact that teachers are worried that they might be monitored, indicates the chilling effect on teacher expression.
What are the long-term consequences of this shift for educators who use twitter? The original early adopters of social media might give us a clue.
Teens sought out social media in an effort to “reclaim meaningful sociality”, and like educators their social media space was changed by an influx of authority figures. In their case, adults. What effect did that have?
When parents, grandparents and uncles started showing up on Facebook teens started leaving in droves. They didn’t leave social media completely, however. They either found ways to hide their identity or moved to other more private networks. We’re starting to see both of these happen on edutwitter.
In their efforts to transform schools, those pushing school leaders onto twitter may be killing “the goose that laid the golden egg“. The quality that makes edutwitter a forum for progressive thought in education is the meritocratic culture. Anyone, teachers, parents, students, etc. can freely share their ideas, thoughts and opinions without fear.
If school leaders want to leverage edutwitter’s culture, they must ensure that they can participate without undermining. They need to be willing to join the discussion as equals and put aside their administrative roles. If they don’t, they may soon find that they are simply talking to each other, and everyone else has left.