November.8.2021

How to bridge the teacher and academic divide online

By Steven Kolber and Keith Heggart

The Problem & the Proposal 

One of the most widely accepted facts in education is that teachers and academics often do not mix.  This hurts teachers engagement with research and its application in the classrooms. Social media, and Twitter especially, holds the potential to bring together teachers, academics, and others within shared spaces to develop collaborative approaches to research and to actively engage with it. Important within this is the idea of a pracademic: a person capable of working between and within the teaching profession and the world of research. As such individuals seem to hold the key to narrowing this gap. 

Social Media as ‘third space’

The concept of the pracademic is relevant when one considers the increasing expectations for teachers to be both research-based practitioners and data literate. Pracademics have relevance to improving education systems through their boundary-crossing expertise. But how might we better develop and cultivate these pracademics? Social media has an increasingly important role to play in this instance. As a small example, the number of practising teachers attending the Australian Association for Research in Education National Conference is likely low; this is not uncommon for educational conferences. For many teachers, engaging with research is a distant memory, connected more to their teacher training and university days than their current practice. We feel this requires urgent research attention.

Social Media and Teachers: The #AussieED example

There are many examples of social media mediated groups that support the development of pracademic identity. One example is #AussieED, perhaps the longest running education Twitter chat in the world, but certainly within Australia. This Sunday evening chat brings together educational thought leaders, academic study, and all manner of educational ideas in an intense, hour-long discussion open to all. Whilst not all Sunday chats are necessarily engaged with academic ideas or research on this forum, the openness of #AussieEd and its variety means that it serves as a significant and ever-changing professional learning opportunity for teachers, leading them to learn, as well as moving towards research engagement. 

#edureading

A contrasting approach is the #edureading group, which was started in 2018, by Steven Kolber. This group brings together educators – howsoever they might be defined – from around the world to discuss an academic article once per month. Participants are asked to read an article before the meeting and then post their reflections in the form of three short 3–5-minute responses on the educational video sharing platform FlipGrid. The group then assembles for an audio-based conversation on the ‘Twitter Spaces’ platform, and this discussion culminates in an hour long ‘Twitter Chat’ informed by the previous two fora’s shared ideas. The learning design of this group allows education-interested people from around the world to bring their own context and experience to the virtual table to speak back to educational research. As a result, we’ve established that this group provides a fertile space for pracademic generation and empowerment. 

TeachMeets

TeachMeets, which occur both online and face-to-face, trace their history to 2006 in Edinburgh, where teachers assembled in a pub to deliver short presentations to their peers. This model has continued to develop, drawing on distributed leadership models, it is known as a ‘guerrilla form of professional development’ entirely organised and run by teachers. This model runs counter to the populist and dominant form of professional learning that is increasingly reliant upon the sharing of edu-celebrities and expensive, money-making entrance fees laden with sponsors.    

Each of these three examples can carry differing levels of academic rigour depending on their membership, the topic being discussed and their direct engagement with research. But, if you are not familiar with any of these three forms, each is active and continuing and crucially, completely open to all interested participants. This runs counter to the dominant form of professional learning for teachers and academics, which is large-scale, paid lectures and workshops provided by a select group of experts. 

Our research

Our research, through an autoethnographic case study approach, showcases the way that Steven Kolber, a practicing teacher, and Keith Heggart an Early Career Researcher used these social media fora to develop our own ‘pracademic’ identities. For each of us, these spaces served as a ‘third space’ that was neither academy nor teaching but allowed for new identities and relationships to research to be developed.   

Findings 

We proposed five main features of these democratic fora that separates them from less-focussed, less-academic adjacent social media spaces. These features are rigour and depth which requires that members of these groups engage directly with academic research and discuss these ideas in connection to their personal contexts. Whilst personal experiences are crucial, one key feature is discussion beyond immediate cultural context, this means leveraging the nature of ‘context collapse’ in online spaces and the global possibility of educators coming together. This depth, rigour and discussion beyond one’s immediate cultural context is possible because of the free, accessibility of the tools where these groups are formed. Within these fora knowledge creation both individually and as a collective group is of the utmost importance, not simply reading and responding, but building new knowledge through the combined wisdom of these groups. The lowering of boundaries and the shedding of titles and hierarchies within these groups allows genuine and new forms of collaboration to occur. We feel that when each of these five features are present, that these spaces can effectively develop pracademics, unlocking a range of new potentials for educational improvement. 

Why does this matter? 

This is increasingly important, as recently published research from the Monash Q Project confirms the differing levels of engagement with research, noting especially the differences between teachers and leaders engagement with research within schools. Whilst for education researchers, the engagement with the profession of teaching is also a challenge where the expectations of ‘publish or perish’ and the precarity of many positions provide unique challenges.

Next steps

Though this research is a small-scale, auto ethnographic case study focussed on two educators across the teacher – academic divide, we believe it has real value for new ways of conceiving of professional learning. In addition, we believe the discussion of pracademics and their role for improving education is important and worthy of continued exploration. Whilst the challenge of locating, developing, and collaborating with these pracademics is explored, we believe social media is increasingly important for these processes. 

  • DOI 

https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-11-2020-0090

  • Article located on the Journal’s website

Education focused pracademics on twitter: building democratic fora | Emerald Insight

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at a Victorian public school, the founder of #edureading founder, secretary of Teachers Across Borders Australia and a proud member of @AEUvictoria. #aussieED Global Teacher Prize top 50 Finalist

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

5 thoughts on “How to bridge the teacher and academic divide online

  1. Hi Keith and Steve

    Thank you for foregrounding this important issue, re linking academics and teachers. Your initiatives are such a great resource. I just wanted to add, re the AARE conference, that previously our Special Interest Group (SIG) has offered bursaries for teachers to attend… but it is very difficult for them to get time off from school. Wondering if you have some ideas for how school leaders can value and support involvements in the kind of pracademic activities you describe. Will enjoy reading more of your findings!

  2. Keith Heggart says:

    HI Lucinda,
    Thank you for your kind words – they are appreciated. I think the crucial factor is, to be blunt, there’s got to be something that school leaders see their teachers/ schools getting from the exchange – and of course they have to actively invest in their staff’s professional learning. I have seen some interesting examples, where participation in Twitter Chats has replaced staff meetings, counted towards mandatory PD hours – even, in one forward thinking school, was part of a professional community development program and teachers received release time for involvement, organisation and sharing.

    One challenge is that often decisions of this nature, in some sectors, are taken well above the principal or school executive level, and so they have limited opportunity to emphasise the value of these kinds of participations.

  3. Chris Bigum says:

    Nice work. I’d be a little less enamoured with data and “research evidence” but documenting these third spaces and the use of what Ranciere called “the third thing” are, I think, important parts of the puzzle of idea capture, curation and re-negotiation. For me, the key questions are where do teachers and education academics get their ideas from? In particular, do teachers/academics wander outside their safe silos and draw on ideas from other intellectual spaces? If I was being pushy I’d also ask if not why not? 🙂

    From there it could get even more interesting. How do teachers/academics curate the resources they collect? How do they organise them and draw on them in their day to day work? Who are their go to people for particular ideas/ways of thinking and working?

    Your commentary on current “one size fits all” PD practices captures the current state of things well. So much of the PD logic in the academy and in schools appears stuck in an A4 mindset, i.e. ideas/information are scarce but “if you part with sufficient $ we can get you a guru to share all the secrets of the latest fad” (You wrote of these bovine excretory byproduct scams more kindly).

    I suspect there is a much broader set of practices to be mapped in respect of pracademic practices. Lurking, as Keith notes, is an important and I think much under-rated way to begin to learn about an idea space, to get access to mature insider forms of practice. It’s a safe way to operate and having “safe” spaces matters. I’ve found the free version of Slack a simple, safe platform more than useful in this respect.

    To me we live in an era in which there are many, many folk who curate ideas and share them. Having a set of what I like to think of as unpaid RAs is really valuable.

    Refreshing to see this kind of work well documented. We are taking baby steps exploring many of these different ways of working. It is important to document them and your autoethnographic approach works well.

    Not stated but I suspect an important element in this way of working with others with shared interests and curiosities is the sheer pleasure and fun of tinkering and perhaps slightly taming or domesticating “the new” and puzzling and playing with the familiar so it becomes something strange. Formal education is a treasure trove of practices that were developed for a specific purpose along time ago and the system has faithfully reproduced them for centuries even though the original circumstances that prompted their development no longer exist.

    Apologies for the disjointed response. Much more to say.

  4. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Chris,
    Not disjointed at all – just full of big ideas – and I found myself nodding in furious agreement with most of them. I was particularly drawn to two aspects: firstly, your description of the way the ‘game’ has changed and that resource/ idea/ materials are no longer scarce. This is something that David Wiley (and many others) have written about, widely, but I think some areas in education have been slow to embrace that. I do think there is a gradual movement in this direction – although there are challenges, too – sites like Teachers Pay Teachers spring to mind.

    The other idea was the notion of transdisciplinarity. I think in many ways, education in Australia is a particularly ‘wicked’ problem – despite whatever politicians might wish it to be – and making changes is a difficult, lengthy and arduous process. Yet, the idea of drawing concepts from other areas and applying them in education might offer some solutions – but the crucial part is that this needs to be done WITH educators, rather than TO educators!

  5. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    Thank you for this topic, one that has frustrated me for some years.. As an academic for the last 7 years of my teaching career, I found it difficult to engage in research writing after my doctorate. Mostly, this was due to the type of writing, academics are forced into to get the points to maintain their own and the university’s research profile. I found this a discouragement knowing that many practising teachers who would be interested in my work do not want to wade through much that has to be included to get a paper published in some weird and wonderful academic publication seen of worth to the university.

    Then, of course, there is the problem of finding the publications.

    Just one further point…reading contemporary research is extremely important but mostly discouraged by large education systems who prefer teachers and leaders to only follow the prescribed beliefs and practices of the system.

    Your ideas are interesting and remind me of my days in the eighties when after school, I would race off to teacher meetings led by teachers where we would share ideas and enjoy collegiality. That appears to have faded in my area of the woods.

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