Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.

References

Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.

Managing a rotation curation Twitter account: My week hosting @EduTweetOz

source: gettyimages

source: gettyimages

This week I’m experiencing my first time in the host chair of a rotation curation, or #RoCur, account.

I have followed @EduTweetOz for some time and noticed how different educators seem to breeze through the host chair. I’d never considered the thought they may have had to put into hosting. But once I was invited and then appointed for a week, I felt a greater responsibility than just doing what I do with my personal account, @debsnet. Was what I did and said in my personal account appropriate in a shared account? Surely I couldn’t just dip in and out as I saw fit, jumping down rabbit holes and leaping off on tangents, as whims arose? I felt I needed to have some clarity for myself in terms of how I would approach an account that is not my own; I’m just slipping on the robes for a week.

I was also aware that I needed to manage my time and wellbeing during the week, while honouring the account administrators, the @EduTweetOz community and the commitment I made to hosting. This week I am doing my usual working (teaching! marking! reports! planning for 2017!) and parenting, plus copy editing a textbook, reviewing an academic paper for an international journal and co-authoring a book chapter. So for me, planning how I would approach the account was as much about protecting my mental and physical health in a busy week as it was trying to do a good job. I didn’t want to feel anxious and guilty for letting the account down.

The thing is, there isn’t a clear set of protocols or measures for what doing a good job of hosting @EduTweetOz might be. The host is given carte blanche to manage the account for a week as they see fit. How do the administrators or followers measure a host’s success? Number of new followers? Number of tweets per day? Amount of engagement from others? Tone? Humour? Enthusiasm? Availability? Responsiveness?

Know thy purpose

In the uncertainty that comes with the freedom to do as I saw fit, I set myself my own purpose for the week. I was hoping to engage educators in discussion, and also highlight some of those voices in social media that I rely on in my own personal learning network. What a great opportunity to share with others the value of educators, academics and thinkers who energise and buoy me.

I’ve also been happy to add some of my favourite educators to those followed by the @EduTweetOz account. These were people I think will bring a richness to the community and the account’s timeline.

Be prepared

I knew I wouldn’t manage this week well without a plan, especially considering my multiple commitments. So before my week on the account began, I sat down and scoped it out. To what topics might I draw attention? Which tweeters’ and bloggers’ thinking could I share? My plan was loose but it gave me a sense of direction and I knew I wouldn’t run out of steam or ideas as the week wore on.

I decided to ask a question per day and made up a (regrettably long) hashtag to trace the conversations: #EduTweetOzSlowChat. I pre-prepared slides for each question and scheduled the daily question to be tweeted out each day at 4am Perth time, which is 7am Melbourne/Sydney time.

Scheduling those questions for when I am sleeping allayed some of my worries about being unavailable during the East coast mornings when much of the country is up and ready to engage. Each morning this week, by the time I wake up on the West coast I already have tweets to respond to on the account.

Consider voice

In my own Twitter account I am comfortable with my voice, the way I ‘speak’ and communicate. While I was absolutely comfortable with being myself during my @EduTweetOz week, I also felt a different sense of obligation to the account administrators. Is my authentic social media voice appropriate in an account administrated by others and on which I am a guest? Can I say exactly what I want in precisely the way I want? To what extent do I need to be tactful or restrained?

On my second day I found myself in amongst a lot of humour and parody, and I was wondering if it was ok to indulge in that, or if it might be seen as flippant, and if that mattered, or to whom it mattered (oh, the overthinking!). I found myself, in the first couple of days, hyper aware of what others might think. I have found my groove, though, and settled into it.

Different educators have different styles: friendly, supportive, provocative, intellectual, colloquial, personal, academic. That’s the beauty of a #RoCur account. @EduTweetOz sets this diversity up nicely by posting an interview with the week’s host as a kind of introduction; here’s mine.

Engage with community             

I was aware of the opportunity and responsibility that comes with 10K+ followers, more than double the amount of followers I have on my personal account. I know that if I magnify voices, accounts or tweets across the week, they will have some reach. On what basis am I making decisions about what to project into the Twitterverse from this account to which I briefly have the keys?

I decided to retweet most responses to the account, in order to amplify the conversations being had in that space, and as a mark of respect and appreciation. Most people have been applying the @EduTweetOz Twitter handle to their own tweets for real dialogue rather than blatant self-promotion.

So far, I’ve been pleased with my daily chat questions as a way to begin conversation. Interestingly, my first daily question was the most positive, and has received the least response. The questions that have been around more controversial or complex issues have incited the most community engagement.

I also attempted my first Twitter poll, which is still open for voting at time of writing. I figured that with a large, diverse following, I could canvas a range of community opinion. The options I offered in the poll were crowd-sourced, emerging from the day’s responses to my question around what causes educators to feel skeptical or despairing about education.

………………………………………………..

I still have a couple of days left of hosting the @EduTweetOz account this week. I’m enjoying the foray into a different social media experience. In addition to my own reflections, I can recommend this post that Aaron Davis wrote after he hosted the account last month. Both of us reflect that a rotation curation account comes with ethical decision making and an opportunity to give back to the village.

Meanwhile, I’m here all week. Try the veal.

5 things I learned in 2015

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. ~ Socrates

Epiphanies and moments of clarity can be simple and, on reflection, obvious. The following list of ‘5 things I learned in 2015’ may seem like statements of the bleeding obvious. They are nothing new, and yet this year I’ve seen new refractions from, and noticed more minute details of, these simple truths. They have been affirmed for me this year through my experiences of being and becoming. Of teaching, leading, parenting, coaching, being coached, researching and writing.

local café wisdom

local café wisdom

1. Doing many things at once can work, but it’s also important to take breaks.

In the last few years I’ve been working 0.8 of a teaching and leadership job at a school, parenting two pre-schoolers and working on my PhD (now submitted – woot!). While I always had a sense that this was working for me in its strange busy way, it wasn’t until my first writing retreat this year that I understood how much. On my retreat, I found it difficult to stay on my one task – editing the PhD thesis draft – for a full weekend. I realised that my routine of intense short bursts of PhD, in among the other many things in my life, worked for me. These short, regular, time-constrained bursts of energetic PhD work were intensive and focused. They felt like an indulgence, some intellectual ‘me-time’ in which I could luxuriate, a brain-bending haven from my other responsibilities. It helped me to love my PhD, while also appreciating the specialness of my teaching, leading and parenting roles.

Yet, as I discovered, relentless busyness is not sustainable. Breaks are required. Real, curl-your-toes-in-the-sand, unplug, breathe deeply and love abundantly kind of breaks. Nourishment for wellbeing. Care for self and others. Time to breathe.

2. Welcome resistance & engage in respectful disagreement.

On my blog, which is now 16 months old, as in Twitter and in my professional life, I have been becoming more comfortable with, and encouraging of, disagreement, although I prefer dissent to be served in a respectful, articulate and reasoned manner. And I prefer disruption which emerges from deep purpose, rather than trendy buzzwordification. Last year I completed the Adaptive Schools Foundation course, which champions graceful disagreement as a key element of high-performing groups. I’ve written a few blog posts which err on the side of controversial. I’ve engaged in Twitter debate. I’ve experienced my first peer review comments from academic journals, and attempted to take critique as an opportunity to strengthen my work. And in my role leading and implementing a school coaching initiative for teachers, I have welcomed the contributions of those who are resistant to the change.

I’ve found those individuals who might be dismissed as ‘resistors’ or negative voices, to be important ones worthy of close listening. I find myself asking those who disagree to take the time to explain their view to me. I listen intently, wondering, ‘What can I learn here? How might this help me to make what we’re doing better, stronger, and meaningful for a wider range of people?’

I am reminded of this line of Richard Bach’s from his novella Illusions:

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

It is often in engaging with those who disagree with us, that we are taken to new places in our own thinking, helped to consider alternate perspectives, or are able to find solutions which we may otherwise not have reached.

3. Trust individuals. Believe in their capacity. Choose empowerment.

Punitive accountability measures which promote fear and compliance can only undermine teachers’ and school leaders’ professions, identities and practices. Through my experiences of coaching, my PhD research into school leadership and organisational change, and my observations of systems of teacher evaluation around the world, I have become increasingly convinced of the need to focus on empowerment and growth, through support and trust. It’s the belief upon which my school’s coaching model is based.

4. Connections with others are powerful.

We know that connecting with others is powerful. One of my ‘three words’ for 2015 was ‘sharing’ and another was ‘presence’, both words which speak of connecting with others and being present in relationships.

This year, not only have my personal and face-to-face professional relationships been impactful, but so have connections I have made online. For the first time this year, I began to meet ‘in real life’ individuals I’ve connected with on Twitter and through my blog. Catching up over drinks, breakfast or the conference room had been a seamless transition from tweet, blog post or Voxer message, to in-person banter, support and inspiration. I’ve engaged in wonderful blogging conversations. I’ve become bewitched with the potential of our interconnectedness and the ways in which technology might help us grow support networks and knowledge webs.

5. Teeny regular steps add up to a long journey.

My PhD was the thing that brought home this truth to me. Over three years I plugged away with little step after little step, finding stolen moments of doctoral time in the cracks in my days and nights. Regular, persistent effort. Sometimes forward; sometimes back; but maintaining forward momentum. And then I looked back along the path I’d walked and found that it added up to a thesis. So my big lesson was, just put one foot in front of the other. Keep going!

sunset, Gnarabup

sunset, Gnarabup

Webs & chrysalises: Metaphors for learning & connection

Naomi Barnes, in her recent article in the digital journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, writes that “we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualised as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful.” She refers to the unanticipated blogging conversation, sparked by Steve Wheeler’s #blimage (blog+ image) challenge, that she, Helen Kara and I became involved in as we voluntarily responded to each other, layering our ideas and connecting our words.

My own experience of learning is non-linear and rhizomatic. The findings of my PhD were that this is an experience shared by individuals, groups and organisations; learning happens in surprising ways, in unexpected places. I agree with Naomi that embracing non-linear randomness might lead us to interesting places of knowledge collaboration, reimagining and production (although I do think we should acknowledge our sources of inspiration).

I mentioned in my blog post (part of the above-mentioned blogversation) on the spider-web connectivity of networked learning that metaphors, including of the spider’s web, emerged from my participants as ways to explain and explore their understanding of their professional selves, roles and relationships.

As it edges towards summer here in Australia, at home I recently found a redback spider (latrodectus hasseltii for the arachnid nerds), an Australian relative of the American black widow spider. The redback female is venomous, formidable and self-sufficient. Her web is messy. Males live on the periphery, eating her scraps. And after mating, she eats them, storing the sperm for later.

I’ve felt a little recently like a web-weaving spider. My PhD thesis is submitted, and suddenly, papers, journal articles and conference presentations are materialising. My PhD work has formed a web which widens and thickens, and in which these prey are being caught. The learning I’ve been doing from the network of scholars with whom I connect on Twitter and in the blogosphere has continued to take me to new thinking and into interesting conversations.

Now, I don’t see myself as a poisonous, man-eating widow spider, but I like that the redback is autonomous, a beacon of feminine power. I like that her web is messy and functional, not pretty and symmetrical. As well as the weaving of the physical web, the species itself has spread its tendrils out from Australia to reach New Zealand, Japan and Belgium. She has even made it into two DC comics as a supervillain who fights Robin. Unexpected places. Unpredictable influence.

The other insect creature I’ve recently been reflecting upon is the chrysalised caterpillar-butterfly. After I submitted my thesis, I wrote the following title in a Word document and saved it: “Emerging from the chrysalis: PhD as transformative learning.” It was a blog idea for later, after proper completion, maybe. I was remembering a post I had read which argued that the PhD is not a transformative experience, but a thing to be done, a process to be completed, a means to an end. This wasn’t my experience so I thought it might be worth writing about.

And then I set the November #HDRblog15 challenge, and Kathryn Davies wrote this post about the life of a butterfly as a metaphor for the cycle of the PhD. Kathryn explores the chrysalis-PhD metaphor so thoroughly and thoughtfully, my own post idea seemed redundant. Yet my experience was affirmed by reading Kathryn’s. For me the PhD was transformative. I began my doctorate as someone who hadn’t written an academic paper or dissertation for 14 years. I was a vulnerable, soft-bellied slow-moving academic creature, my newness shiny and green. Over the course of the PhD, it has changed the way I think, the way I write and the way I read. It has changed how I perceive my identity, how I behave and how I respond. Some of these feelings I’ve written about, including a crisis of scholarly confidence, taking flight in the discussion chapter, and on being (or identifying as) a writer. And while I’ve recently said that I feel frozen in examination limbo, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I’m quietly growing, wriggling inside and pushing at the edges of my PhChrysalis, still a neophyte but transformed by my PhD journey.

So, I offer out to the blogoverse another post, another moment of my thinking suspended in time, another layer, another thread, another voice, another tendril reaching out to others. To be ignored, observed or grasped.

What’s in a shape? Why I don’t *heart* the Twitter heart

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. ~ John Berger, Ways of Seeing

I've resorted to making my own gold star out of hacked up Post-Its

I’ve resorted to making my own gold star out of hacked up Post-Its

The Twitterverse exploded yesterday with an update to the ‘favourite’ icon. Where there has always been a gold star, with the words “you favourited this” or “@soandso favourited this”, suddenly there was a red heart. A glaringly red heart, like a gaping wound carved into the blue skin of Twitter.

I’m mourning the loss of the gold star and all that its presence in my Twitter world represented. I’ll start by explaining how I used the Twitter gold star.

  • It was a bookmark. “I want to find this again so I’m saving it” or “I’m saving this to read later.”
  • It was a thank you for a comment or share.
  • It was a log of conversations and comments to which I wanted to return.
  • It was a LOL or a high five. “Hilarious!” or “haha good one.”
  • It was a like. “Good share / nice post /effective point,” usually followed by a retweet. But it wasn’t just a like.

As well as being reminiscent of award stickers from school days, the gold star, in conjunction with its description as a ‘favourite’, was a nuanced symbol of Twitter communication.

And now it’s been replaced with a glib red heart. Superficial. Facile. Flippant. Lacking in nuance. These strings of blood-red hearts in my feed make me feel like I must be in some kind of sappy, thoughtless feeling-saturated love-in.

I don’t mind giving a bit of heart love while watching a Periscope broadcast. I don’t mind the practice of likes on Facebook and Instagram. In these worlds, a user can ‘like’ something in a transient way, and then forget about it. Click. Forget. Liking works for me because on Facebook I’m engaging about my non-work non-academic life. On Twitter I’m often engaging in discussion on education, research, politics, parenting or work. As a point of difference, Twitter gives us a record of those things we’ve favourited (or now, ‘liked’) meaning that the star/heart favourite/like is a way of curating a feed of personalised information. This is a good thing.

The change in language is a change in purpose. ‘Liking’ a post is different to ‘favouriting’ it. Do I want to *star* a confronting article, an opposing viewpoint or a harrowing news story? Maybe. Would I want to *heart* it? No.

Twitter says the star was confusing to newcomers. It was versatile.

Twitter says the heart is more expressive. It is less expressive and more one-dimensional.

Twitter says the heart is a universal cross-cultural symbol. Yes. Of love. Twitter isn’t about love for all its users. I don’t follow celebrities, unless you count edu-gurus and academic-crushes. So I don’t want to dole out ‘likes’ or ‘hearts’.

Those of us who use Twitter as a professional and intellectual tool have been left without one of our favourite aspects of that tool; the ability to keep a log of those things which interest, intrigue or provoke us, without necessarily ‘liking’ them.

To some, Twitter’s new attempt to engage and build its user base might be a simple change of shape and colour, but shapes and colours carry meanings. A gold star is a symbol of quality. A red heart is a symbol of emotion. I love Twitter but want to engage with ideas in that space, not spew out feelings.

Bring back my gold star.

Why I love Twitter & I hope it has a future

beautiful illustration of Pacific Giant Octopus by Sandy Pell @SandyCanvas Retrieved http://pellvetica.com/west-coast-wildlife-illustrations/

beautiful illustration of Pacific Giant Octopus by Sandy Pell @SandyCanvas
Retrieved http://pellvetica.com/west-coast-wildlife-illustrations/

The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what makes it so powerful. ~ Jonathan Zittrain (quoted here)

Twitter is a gargantuan, wild, slippery creature, although its 316 million users don’t look so big compared to Facebook’s 1.5 billion. The comparison makes it look more like a small and enthusiastic party, but still one marginally bigger than that of Instagram and Google+, both currently at 3 million users.

While my last post questioned how the education community might ‘do’ education Twitter chats better – and was critical of some of the ways Twitter and its users shape interactions – the fact remains that I love Twitter.

I get a lot of my news on Twitter, often before it’s on the news. Partly, that’s because I tend not to watch the news as I don’t want my three year old and five year old to see it. Mostly, I get exposure to a wide range of views on education and research from educators and academics around the world. Some of these views inspire me and provoke my thinking. Others disappoint or enrage me. I get to geek out on Twitter about things that my friends, family and even colleagues might not care about.

I participate in education Twitter chats, which can sometimes feel like traveling at speed down a raging river, in a downpour. I don’t try to keep up with everything that comes through my Twitter feed. I dip in. I dip out. I take long soaks. I take breaks. I engage with what crosses my path and takes my fancy, without FOMO (fear of missing out) on what I might miss.

I’ve had Twitter discussions and resulting blog conversations. I’ve met people first on Twitter, then in person. I’ve collaborated with my Twitter PLN (personal learning network) on Voxer. I’ve connected with a community of MOOC (massive open online course) participants on Twitter, through the course hashtag and during live Periscope broadcasts. I’ve joined with fellow Twitteratti to launch the #educoachOC monthly Twitter chat. I’ve enjoyed the web of connectivity to people and ideas.

Twitter can be a bespoke news service, individualised professional learning, a vortex of distraction, a cheer squad and a firing squad. It can be connecting with fellow-somethings (for me, fellow Australians, fellow PhD students, fellow educators, fellow parents, fellow lovers of X, Y and Z). There’s a hashtag for everything from the general and global (#acwri) to the specific (#academicswithcats) and local (#aussieED), and the inane (#geekpickuplines).

I’m often surprised and delighted by the kindness on Twitter. I’ve had esteemed academics take time to offer me advice in tweets. And in the last few weeks I’ve had a couple of incredible offers from people I’ve never met. One offered to proof read my PhD thesis (and this was someone who has completed their PhD, so knew the enormity of what that meant) and one offered to help me if I ever wanted to conceptualise my thesis as a book. Here was generosity possible because of a global open platform of sharing, co-learning and hashtags like #WeAreBetterTogether.

Today is 21 October 2015, the day predicted by 1980s movie Back to the Future as having hoverboards (where’s mine?), flying DeLorean time machines, ubiquitous screens, self-tying shoe-laces, self-drying jackets, thumbprint recognition and holograms. What the film didn’t predict was a world of constant connectedness, citizen journalism and the hierarchical flattening of Twitter where journalists, politicians, celebrities and activists interact with anyone in the world with a smartphone.

In the last few months there have been articles which have celebrated the messy convolution of Twitter, positioned Twitter as an uncontrolled platform of abuse, and questioned the future of Twitter as an unmarketable commodity as “there’s no money in free speech” or in being the world’s independent newsroom. With freedom of speech comes the good and the bad of humanity. My personal experience, which is shaped by who I follow and how I use Twitter, is consistent with the first article: Twitter is unwieldy, messy, individualised and wonderful. I hope by some social media miracle, Twitter is allowed to remain unkempt, untamed and uncontrolled.

So Twitter is like a giant, slippery octopus which is constantly writhing and growing new tentacles. On one hand, why try to restrain it and wrestle it into a box? On the other, what if the octopus is flailing and sinking? What could another iteration of Twitter look like? What might a Google takeover do to the Twitterverse? Clean it up and make it more user friendly? Or transform it into an assembly line of cookie cutter news and views? Like the fax machine in Back to the Future is it a technology which we think has a place in our future, but really doesn’t? Just hold on while I post this to my Myspace account …

Reflecting on education Twitter chats

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

Chats can fall prey to … a lack of meaningful connections (with people or ideas), superficial conversations, and a lack of some sort of closure.

If mismanaged, preplanned chats can sometimes feel contrived. Better planned and executed, they might have the feel of a productive town hall meeting.

But like a town hall meeting, people can shout, speak without actually having conversations, or be lost in a crowd. You leave such a meeting asking yourself what just happened or if anything useful took place.

Sometimes the best conversations are the ones that are neither fast or slow. They are spontaneous and come from a place of honesty or concern.

Dr Ashley Tan in his September 2014 blog post

In the education world of Twitter, hashtag chats are ubiquitous and, for many, an important way to connect with other educators. I’ve talked before about how Twitter is a kind of writing and thinking practice, helping me to distil and crystallise my thinking. I participate in Twitter chats for a few reasons. In these forums, people interested in things I’m interested in are likely to be on the airwaves at the same time; I can find a tribe of sorts. I can connect with new and familiar voices in the Twitterverse.

Many chats are scheduled weekly, and happen over the course of an hour, with either one question, or more usually, a series of questions scheduled throughout the hour. There are also ‘slow chats’ which pose one question and allow those from different time zones to engage in discussion across a day or a week. I approach different chats in different ways. Sometimes I immerse myself in the chat. Sometimes I dip in and out. Sometimes I end up in a side chat having tangential conversations with people whose thinking is coalescing with mine in that moment.

You can find a schedule of the global range of education Twitter hashtag chats here.

As Greg Ashman notes in his post today, Twitter chats can connect us with fellow geeks, even when we’re feeling isolated in our own contexts. He also points out that chats often don’t allow participants to engage in the assumptions underlying their questions. In a chat we were both lightly engaged in today, there were, for instance, attempts by some participants to explore the situated, nuanced nature of the topic. There didn’t seem to me to be a clear understanding of what participants meant by the topic, or why or in what ways they felt it was important. At times it felt like people putting sticky notes up on a wall; comments were being placed alongside each other, but they were disparate and not based in the same conversation or on a foundation of common understanding.

I’d agree that often chats deal with complex concepts and unclarified terms, and sometimes they can descend into a superficial cacophony of noise where people are talking but not listening, learning or questioning. Sometimes when I have questioned the use of a term or the premise of a chat question, I’ve been engaged with by others, but I’ve also been ignored or dismissed.

Sometimes, Twitter chats can produce an echo chamber of like-minded people high-fiving each other. In some ways, this feels good, as Twitter is a place many find solidarity and support. In my participation in the PhD Twitter community, it is often moral support that I’ve sought out in times of academic struggle or isolation. But while dissent is hard in 140 characters – and can easily come across as abrasive or attacking, rather than gently provocative or inquiringly questioning – I hope for robust, rather than cursory or jargonistic, discussion from educators. Yet difficult in 140 characters.

Personally, I’ve found a solution of sorts in this blog. I use it to expand my thinking and explain it to others in more depth than even a series of tweets would allow. Blogging opens up the education conversations we have, widening and deepening debate. We can disagree more gracefully if we have more words in which to do it. I’ve really enjoyed those times in which I’ve been engaged in a conversation with other bloggers, as we build on and respond to each other.

More recently, I’ve experienced Twitter chats from the organiser side. A couple of months ago, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell, Jon Andrews and I launched the monthly #educoachOC chat, one intended to start a conversation around coaching in education at an Oceanic-friendly timezone. My co-moderators are educators I initially met on Twitter, and now our common interests have developed into this collaboration.

After collaborating using tools such as email, Google docs, Voxer, Twitter messaging and Trillo, we planned our approach and our questions for the first chat. We also launched a blog as a home base; we wanted to make our approach clear and our thinking explicit.

The #educoachOC team learned a lot from our first chat. We reflected on how we found the chat as moderators, how we felt the conversation went between participants, and also used a Google survey to allow participants to give us feedback. In that first go, we had too many questions, which left it feeling a little disjointed at times as people jumped off interesting threads of conversation to answer the next question. One participant said they felt as though they had been coached through the chat; that we had modelled coaching through our questioning and format. One said that most contributors were pulling in the same direction and that it would be interesting if opponents of the approach challenged one another. A major reflection from that first chat was around the clarity of terms. We found participants were all talking about coaching, but seemed to have different understandings of what that meant.

In our second chat, we reduced the amount of questions and focused the chat around clarifying the group’s understanding of coaching. We were keen to build a shared understanding amongst this online community. We prefaced the chat with a blog post outlining the contestations and confusions, and some useful resources. It worked better, we reflected, and we’ll continue to collaborate and refine our approach and format. In that second chat (there’s only been two so far), we were trending in Australia, at the same time as #qanda. While we certainly didn’t intend to be a trending hashtag, that was a reflection of the level of discussion and participants’ engagement in the topic and with each other. It felt much more like a conversation which allowed us to deeply explore a topic and some of its complexities.

I think the education Twitter community does wonderful, exciting things, including through Twitter chats, in which I am immersed. But I do think we can be reflective and critical about how we run these chats, how we participate in them and how we use other media such as blogs, podcasts, Periscope and Voxer to take our conversations further, deeper and towards rigorous and elegant debate.