Platform Education and the role of Twitter in professional learning

In this blog I speculatively replace the word “capitalism” with the word “education” to consider the effect of the platform economy on education. To conduct this theorising I bring to bear some alliteration. Six Ps of platform education briefly outlined in this blog are:

  1. Platforms
  2. Publics
  3. Profiles
  4. Produsers
  5. Professional expectations
  6. Policy

I also intend to consider performativity (7) which I believe underscores the other Ps of platform education, but will give performativity its own blog in order to have the space for unpacking. My previous blog begins this process if you are interested in reading ahead.

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Platforms

Generically, platforms provide a space that brings people together from multiple places. In education, we might call it a marketplace of ideas. Twitter connects teachers, academics, pracademics, authors, edupreneurs, leadership, policy makers, politicians, quality assurance bodies, and others interested in education.

Platform capitalism is most famously theorised by Nick Srnicek. Platform capitalism collectively refers to an economic outlook which embraces networked, on-demand service, big data, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, machine learning, and surveillance devices known as the Internet of Things (IoT). It is a capitalist business model which responds to the problems of the past in a targeted way. For example, technological advancement is closely associated with usefulness and algorithms conduct archaeological deep dives which provide instantaneous historical records as events occur so companies can respond to client needs.

According to Srnicek, the consequences of platform capitalism is that it requires buy-in to the demand for constant technological change. In order to improve services and cut costs, there is a push to transform what counts as education labour. Under this model the skills and intellectual expertise of teaching are transferred upwards to management, program providers,  and online organisational tools.

Such processes are well suited to understanding contemporary education due to the continued scaffolding of work through template proliferation and synthetic didactic bundles in the form of apps, formulated pedagogies, and curriculum packages.

The further semantics of “platform” also opens up other avenues for research, including the idea of who is given a political platform online and how that translates into the policy sphere. Consideration of publics is a way into consideration of the complexity of platform education.

Publics

The nature of what “public” has meant over the centuries has evolved through contestation. Habermas, probably the best known philosopher to write about the public sphere, defines it as something that is open to all allowing widespread and critical debate. Follow up critiques of Habermas, including Nancy Fraser, suggest that this definition is a veneer of social justice intention over a misunderstanding of access. In other words, who gets to be public and have a voice in debate is very much determined by privilege.

I contend, that while Twitter opens up public debate about education, the power dynamics which exist offline are still present online. There is a veneer of publicness because a wider diversity of peoples can access debate, but being heard, brought into the conversation and policy change are still three different things and an intersection at which policy researchers should begin to consider what digital sociology can bring to the table.

Profiles

Access to the transformative discourses in education have long been associated with authority and critical scholars have long questioned the credentialing of that authority.  Anonymity became common practice after the invention of the printing press, especially when authors wanted to distance themselves from what they wrote for political or class-based reasons. As time went on a considerable proportion of publications were anonymous and questions of authority arose, leading to the practice of credentialing expertise in prologues. The practice of both anonymity and authority signalling has followed those involved in education, whether academic or practice-based, onto social media.

Profiles are constructed as online identity work and social media advice is formulated for careful construction profiles. Part of this is the rising phenomenon of platform education, micro-credentialing. People can claim expertise with badges and hashtags presumably to lend gravitas or to signal a certain safe space.  But the performativity of authority signalling is not limited to profiles, but also through content creation.

Produsers

Web 2.0 has brought about a breakdown between the author and the reader in rhetorical consumptive communication. What remains has been dubbed by Axel Bruns as produsage (producer user). This term refers to the collaborative creation of online content and the process that social media affords to continually update and evaluate that content through comments, riffing, meme culture etc. In terms of Twitter, being able to capture a conversation about education that really has no true author would be a consumable text.

Likewise, the creation, sharing and consumption of classroom resources and experiences makes Twitter attractive to many educators. Hashtags become micro-platforms within the larger platform for produsers to share and chat. The collaborative capability is a double edged sword which makes Twitter both attractive and concerning for many educators. The rallying around an ideology or an approach can develop cliques and result in violence. However, like the complexity of seeing Twitter as a public platform, this is an offline phenomenon which has been amplified by the online world and thus platform education is also a place where professional expectations need consideration.

Professional Expectations

Educator’s use of social media is governed by professional expectations and regulations. Appropriate online conduct is written into employment contracts and of disciplinary action for inappropriate social media broadcasts are both rumoured and reported. The notion of platform education as a performative phenomenon is further strengthened by the online presence of departments of education, leadership and Quality Assurance Non-Government Organisations (QANGOs), like the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership who set professional standards. Consideration of who’s eyes are on a conversation is increasingly changing the dynamic of online conversations. What attracted people to Twitter may no longer exist. Huw Davies and his colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute noted that teenagers often “Friend” their parents on one social media platform and conduct their identity work elsewhere. I suggest that a similar phenomenon may be occuring on Twitter with the platform’s increasing professionalisation.

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Policy

So what could be some of the implications for policy makers, considering the performativity of platform education. There are three initial points to be taken from this:

  1. Platform education is here and there is no pragmatically viable way to avoid it. This means that policy makers must be more considerate of the ethical and sociological ramifications of requiring people to work on platforms. Platforms pose risks to anonymity and education is a industry where sensitive information is stored and shared through confidential pipelines. Principals and other policy makers must consider who the platform providers are, what their agenda might be, and whether that agenda aligns with the values of government funded education.
  2. Social media policy makers should be aware of the ebbs and flows of social media platforms and factor that into workload and human resourcing. The excitement and enthusiasm for platforms like Twitter, may have come too late to truly capitalise on their promised performativity capabilities. Furthermore, success in promoting work on social media takes time to network and build relationships and this reality should be factored into workload if a university believes social media should be a core part of engagement strategising.
  3. Policy makers must be aware of the effect of their presence on social media. While the platform may give the veneer of egalitarianism, the presence of education leadership on the platform means the offline power structures are still at play. However, it is also worth considering the transfer of power to people who may lack power in offline education spaces, but garner a huge online following and are shifting discourses both on and offline.

Platform education is an emerging field which needs more careful consideration. It needs to be a transdisciplinary effort because the layers of complexity are too many for individuals to carry in one academic lifetime. Social media research is not pop-cultural. It is a mechanism for understanding the very real performativity in platform education.

This blog is an organized version of a paper I presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education’s Annual Conference (2018). It was part of a symposium on the role of Twitter in education policy for the Politics and Policy Special Interest Group. 

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