Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Experience of Developing Twitter-Based Communities of Practice in Higher Education

Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Experience of Developing Twitter-Based Communities of Practice in Higher Education

Article excerpt


Over the recent years there has been a significant shift in people's usage of computers. Once, the personal computer was seen as a tool for the preparation of documents and searching the Internet. Interaction with others was mainly via email. Now interaction is, for many, the primary purpose of their desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone. The computing device provides an entry into the world of social media. The types of interaction and the systems used for it have often been aggregated into the notion of web 2.0 (O'Reilly 2005). In higher education, there have been many attempts to apply social media to directly support teaching and for other purposes (Conole and Alevizo 2010). One possibility is to use social media itself to bring together academic staff as they come to terms with the implications of social media for their pedagogy. This is the aspect we concentrate on in this article.

In higher education institutions, the take up of new forms of technology for teaching and learning is often led by a few innovators, first exploring the technology and then introducing it into practice. They act, formally or informally, as a focus for that introduction as they help others to follow in their footsteps. In doing this, they themselves seek support as they improve their expertise, but in their own institutions there may be few who can provide this. So they try to share the experience of those with a similar role in other institutions. Traditionally this has been done through face-to-face meetings such as conferences. Now the widespread use of social media provides many opportunities for the exchange of ideas and information. The two blended together is a strong combination.

Here, we explore the utility of social media for this purpose within a framework that has two elements. First, there is the extent to which the technology facilitates and promotes interaction. Of particular interest is whether it can be used as the basis of attempts to build a community of practitioners, those who share a common interest and wish to exchange ideas and their experience. This issue may be explored with the well-established concept of a Community of Practice (CoP) (Wenger 1998), described in more detail below. Second, the practitioners who are promoting the use of digital technology within their institutions may be thought of as technology stewards (Wenger, White, and Smith 2009), defined as "people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs, and enough experience with or interest in technology to take leadership in addressing those needs". An alternative, and more accurate, designation would be digital steward , thus taking the focus away from the technology itself.

A related issue is the nature of the technology underpinning a community. Asynchronous communication by email is now taken for granted and other forms of asynchronous communication such as the forum, wiki and blog are also being used in higher education (HE) for teaching and staff development. There is a particular focus on the use of providers external to the institution such as Facebook and Twitter. More specialised types of communication such as the sharing of bookmarks and syndication are also readily available. A discussion of the issues that arise in the use of such systems can be found at Franklin and van Harmelen (2007). The case study presented here used the Twitter microblogging service.

Subsequent sections consider various manifestations of the idea of a CoP, as a way for someone in HE to enhance their capability to promote technology in teaching through professional development via social media. Results are then presented of a case study of an attempt to initiate and develop a community of practitioners by the use of a social media tool.

Background to the investigation

The term CoP was first used by Lave and Wenger (1991) and achieved wider currency through Wenger's later book (1998). …

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