social media and educators

Is COVID-19 heralding a new way of the media representing teachers?

The sport and politics of teacher bashing, and in particular teacher union bashing, has a long and inglorious history in the Australian media. Whether this is connected to an anti-intellectual bias in Australian society, the glorification of sport and the physical as opposed to the intellect, is unclear. However research suggests that mainstream media plays a critical role in creating dominant representations of particular groups in society and these representations directly impact individuals and the groups involved.

During April 2020 when schools were rapidly moving to and from remote teaching we collected and analysed a range of media articles focussing on schooling issues. What we found makes us believe the COVID-19 pandemic might yet be an opportunity to reset the often-antagonistic relationship between the teaching profession in Australia and the Australian press.

In this post we want to tell you more about our research and why we think it could be an opportunity to herald change in the way the media connects with our teaching profession.

Major disconnect of perceptions before the COVID-19 pandemic

Two pre-COVID-19 surveys of Australian teachers and public perceptions of teaching revealed a major disconnect between the public perception of teachers as respected and trusted, and teachers own views of their reputation. In the nationwide survey conducted in 2019 with both public and non-government systems, teachers were asked to indicate their agreement with the statement, I feel that the Australian public appreciates teachers.  71% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. In contrast, a second survey of the general public conducted simultaneously reported that 82% of respondents felt teachers were well respected or moderately respected. In addition, 93% of respondents in the public survey felt that teachers were trusted or moderately trusted.

This disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of respect and trust and the public perception has serious direct consequences for the education of our children and young people, particularly in terms of teachers’ well-being, the retention of teachers in the profession and even educational outcomes. The survey reports that in order for teachers to remain motivated and committed to their profession, public recognition by politicians, communities and society of the importance of teaching is critical. They further report on international research which has “found a correlation between teacher status and student achievement”.

Why media concentration in Australia, and media discourse, matters

It has been regularly noted that the concentration of media in Australia is one of the highest in the world. And although levels of public engagement in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television have declined rapidly, their ability to shape public opinion and political policy remains high.

Of the 58% of teacher respondents in the 2019 survey noted above who indicated they wished to leave the profession, 10% cited a lack of appreciation as the main reason for their departure. One respondent’s unsolicited comment typified these responses:

I feel under-appreciated and disrespected in community, public and media”.

Recent studies of principals shows that negative representations of teachers in the press deleteriously impact on the health and wellbeing of principals who are expected to manage the media, particularly in time of crisis. As a society we all pay the price and are poorer for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak and media representations

Health workers are rightly valorised by politicians and the media for the front-line role they are playing in the pandemic. However, teachers have been shamed in the media, for example by the Prime Minister, for raising the issue of risks associated with keeping schools open, but also sometimes praised for being on the frontline by continuing to teach.

Nevertheless at the beginning of this pandemic we were hearing more about parents doing schooling from home (not home schooling) rather than recognition of the work of teachers teaching online and face-to-face, often at the same time. 

Our research project

As part of a large scale Australian Research Council Discovery Grant examining school autonomy and social justice, we collected a range of media articles which discuss the particular issues facing schools and systems as they tackle the move from face-to-face schooling to remote learning, and back again.

We analysed 18 articles collected from a range of state jurisdictions and from a cross-section of the traditional media, as well as one article drawn from social media, written by Lyndsay Connors, a highly respected senior education adviser for the New South Wales and federal governments. These included the more right-wing News Corporation (or “Murdoch press”), the more traditionally centrist newspapers owned by Nine Entertainment (formerly the Fairfax press) and the Saturday Paper, an independently funded, left-leaning newspaper. The articles range from ‘hard news’ pieces, opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

They were collected across April 2020, a month which spanned the shift from the closure of schools across Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic to their gradual reopening as restrictions gradually eased. As states gradually lifted their lockdown measures, there was increasing pressure from the federal government for schools to reopen across the nation so that workers could return to employment and fuel an economic recovery.

However, given that Australia is a federation and funding and governance of public school systems is a state responsibility, there were differences in opinion between the various state governments and the federal government as to the wisdom of reopening schools. This is where teachers and their portrayal within the media becomes revealing.

Prior to the debate about reopening schools, there was a brief time when the Prime Minister and Federal Government more broadly appeared to be in consensus with the media that teachers were front-line workers and required respect and trust. Lyndsay Connors reflected in her opinion piece on 15 April 2020 that

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly (Connors, 2020).

This statement appeared to be borne out by a range of commentary both in the Murdoch press as well as in the former Fairfax media. For example, in a wide-ranging opinion piece, Teachers earn belated respect (paywalled) published in News Corps’ Herald Sun and Courier Mail,  David Penberthy argued that  “one of the most derided  professions in this country has historically been teaching” but that hopefully this perception was changing, forcing a “national rethink when it comes to the perception of teachers”.

The article was a welcomed and nuanced discussion of the competing medical advice and messages that were being faced by state governments in regard to whether it was safe for teachers and students to resume face-to-face teaching. The article finished with two keywords, “thank you”, which the journalist noted were too often lacking in the Australian public’s attitude towards teaching and teachers.

Welcome though this opinion piece was, it appeared on pages 47 of the Herald-Sun and 56 of the Courier-Mail on a Sunday, not the most newsworthy day of the week or a prominent position in the papers.

The following week in a highly critical opinion piece, Not a very class act from teachers’ unions (paywalled) published in the Sunday-Telegraph, a Sydney News Corps paper, Bella d’Abrera, the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute Public Affairs, castigated teacher unions across Australia for “being reckless when they ignore the science and fight to keep students out of classrooms”. This was in response to news reports, for example, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled) where the Prime Minister was quoted as taking a “swipe at teacher unions, saying that workers… were showing up each day at work despite the risk”, the implication being that teachers should take that risk also.

In keeping with the more centrist approach of the former Fairfax media, a range of articles appeared that were broadly sympathetic in their representations of teachers and the dilemmas facing teachers as workers. These included letters to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Teachers can be heroes but only with proper resources”.

Media matters

Media discourses form a crucial part of a broader discursive framework of how teaching is perceived and enacted. They can also inform policy which is often used symbolically as a means to solve a ‘problem’. These discourses also shape the professional identity of teachers in ways that have profound and ultimately negative impacts on their work, their ability to commit long term to the profession and their motivation to continue in a vocation for which many have felt a deep calling. This is the cost of a constant negative media barrage about teaching.

The opportunity presented by COVID-19 media coverage

We believe COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reflect, reconsider and set aside the poisonous politics of the media and society’s teacher blame game. Are we ready and willing as a society to grasp the potential it offers us and our children?

Jane Wilkinson is Professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education at Monash University. Jane is Lead Editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership, Victorian executive. Jane’s research interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice, with a particular focus on issues of gender and ethnicity; and theorising educational leadership as practice/praxis. She is a lead developer of the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, Wilkinson, Edwards-Groves, Hardy, Grootenboer, & Bristol, 2014). She also draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and the philosopher, Ted Schatzki. Jane has published widely in the areas of women and leadership, refugee students and theorising leadership as practice/praxis. Jane is on Twitter @JaneWillkin1994

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), Associate Professor Scott Eacott (UNSW and Associate Professor Richard Niesche (UNSW).

Are you an academic labouring for social media impact? Here’s a must-read

You don’t have to look far to find online blogs and essays encouraging educators to use social media. There are several on this EduResearch Matters blog. Advocating for the use of social media, particularly Twitter, is sound advice in this highly mediated world.

I am writing this essay to complicate the idea of academic use of social media by considering it in terms of digital labour.  I do not wish to discourage academics from using social media.  If academics stopped using it, I wouldn’t have anything to research. Please don’t! However, if use of social media is considered part of academic impact, then the labour involved must be given greater attention.

According to social media scholars Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd (intentional lower case), Twitter encourages digital intimacy where communication serves a social function by reinforcing social connections and maintaining social bonds. Generally scholars communicate on Twitter in a social capacity, which has been identified by digital humanities scholars Anabel Quan-Hasse, Kim Martin and Lori McCay-Peet as “invisible colleges”, or networks of people who engage in disciplinary conversations, collaborations and philosophizing.

The focus of this essay is when a scholar shifts to informational mode (providing information) by writing a blog post, publishing an academic paper, tweeting a thread of observations and findings, or presenting their work at a conference. This dissemination and translation is the focus of the impact and engagement agenda that has led to universities encouraging academics to use social media. However, unless an academic is already successful offline, for the informational to have traction, the social groundwork also needs to happen, making both activities digital labour.

The labour of translating academic research to social media publications

Research translation on social media might be informational but it is also a pedagogical act because it is an act of public education. Researchers engage in teaching practices by interpreting their deeply theorised, analysed, thoughtfully considered, and lengthily articulated research process and findings into a medium that encourages brevity and clarity. They also use carefully considering composition techniques intent on sparking engagement. I have watched education social media users bring all their deepest pedagogical powers to bear on social media. Just like pedagogy, different approaches work for different people.

In my current research I have noticed the following pedagogical (possibly also influencer) approaches: connecting with the audience using second person pronouns (you) or first person plural (we/us), claims to personal research and practical expertise, linking to the expertise of others, asking questions and engaging with answers. A significant amount of work also goes into gaining trust through “authenticity” labour. If positioned as an expert there is often an expectation from followers that what they post is well considered, logical and researched. So authenticity work helps humanise an academic beyond that narrow expectation.

A question I often ask myself: Is it possible for someone who identifies as an academic to tweet idly? What does that do to academic notions of expertise?

Developing effective research translation pedagogy is labour. These pedagogical techniques are developed through trial and error, responding to engagement by repeating approaches that spark responses through comments, retweets and likes.

A complication to this pedagogical act is that when “reading their room” an academic starting out on social media is reading someone they follow, not necessarily someone following them. So the practice of academic impact, until reaching a large enough followership, is aspirational and resembles those practices noted by researchers of microcelebrity.  The typical individual on social media who arguably has the highest impact is the microcelebrity, with generally between 10,000 and 30,000 followers.

In the rest of this essay I draw on a decade of literature into the evolution of online microcelebrity labour, to offer academics and those encouraging academics to use social media some points to consider.

The role of microcelebrities on social media

Microcelebrities are important elements of the platform ecology because they are perceived as more authentic than their influencer counterparts, according to assistant Professor of Communication and Media studies at Fordham University, Alice E. Marwick. Microcelebrity is not an identity. Microcelebrity is a practice that is concerned with presentation strategies, positioning of subjects, and labour. Academic use of social media for impact, like microcelebrity, is in the business of impression management. This approach means careful consideration of audience and aspiration to a potentially more influential audience.

What are the industrial practices of an education Influencer?

Social media labour is substantial if one wants to retain audience and become influential, which is the nuts and bolts of an engagement and impact agenda.

Swinburne University academic, Jonathan Mavroudis, explains how after noticing that microcelebrities tended to only respond to microcelebrities, he decided to pursue microcelebrity status so that they would respond to his requests for interviews. On achieving a following of over 10,000 followers, his requests began to receive responses. Mavroudis describes his and his participants extensive “fame labour” which on the surface might just look like communication:

  • He crafted a consumable image through critically considering which parts of himself he should put online;
  • Continuously updated his interests, monitored the activity of others, and paraded the success of other microcelebrities;
  • Coming up with content;
  • Creating content; and
  • Satisfying audience by constantly striving to maintain popularity.

What Professor of English at the University of Chicago, Lauren Berlant, labeled the cruel optimism, or the fantasy of a good life if success is achieved, is a key feature of platform capitalism, the economic model that underscores most social media. The aspirational labour of going from a regular user, to a microcelebrity then to influencer should also be considered in terms of academic use of social media. 

This practice involves working above and beyond the current level of influence in the hope of building followership. Building a social media following strong enough to be impactful takes time and energy beyond tweeting a few times per day.

An academic might also aspire to use social media “more critically” than a microcelebrity. However, this attitude dismisses the critical labour microcelebrities do every day as a part of content creation and attracting and maintaining audience. According to Marwick, microcelebrities consider the technology industry they are a part of, the affordances of the platforms which host their content, and ethical dilemmas related to social justice and capitalism. Have a look at the critical discussions around and the development of the influencer who identifies as a robot, Lil Miquela to consider this further.

Decisions to be made about ‘impact’

If an academic reaches microcelebrity status, and while they are on the road to it, they must consider whether their research is impacting their immediate circle or if it is reaching beyond. As Mavroudis indicated above, aspirational microcelebrities might only be looking towards established microcelebrities. This is not just about choices about audience a user makes, but also about how the algorithms broker audiences. Does your pedagogy of research translation rely on the endorsement of other influential online academics? Does your pedagogy need to be more “grassroots”? The less an academic relies on the trickle-down impact of being shared by an education microcelebrity or influencer, the more work is required for impact.

Dr Charlotte Barlow and Professor Imran Awan reported on how the hate speech directed at academics from minority groups disseminating their research on social media has led to the silencing of difficult and contentious research topics. Furthermore, Dr Mikaela Pitcan along with Marwick and boyd have also found that aspirational people from minority groups present themselves online as “vanilla” in order not to offend majority sensibilities. Power in digital environments may be flattened in many ways, but the same issues of equality that affect society offline, are well established online.

If newer and differently powerful academics are continuously looking towards social media success for clues on how to develop influence online and/or choosing safe topics for research to avoid vitriol, what implications does this have for the future of academic research?

If universities are serious about using social media to disseminate research for impact, then the hidden professional and emotional digital labour of building an academic social media profile must be given research attention – for what it might do to research and scholarship as well as academic workloads.

To those who are already on this journey, how do you already think through these ideas? Would you comfortably identify as an education influencer or microcelebrity? Is your social media pedagogy working? What type of labour goes into that impact?

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy in the Faculty of Education in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. She teaches in Curriculum and Pedagogy and Specialist Studies in Education. Naomi’s research is in digital rhetoric. She focuses on qualitative critical network analysis and how multiple modes of communication are at play in online human networking. She is interested in the relationships humans have with each other online, particularly in social media, and the socio-cultural theories and philosophical traditions which help us better understand how technology has changed the way we communicate. Naomi is also interested in the policy and pedagogical implications of these changes in communication.

Naomi is chairing a session on Reasoning in Education: Bringing together four ways of thinking at the at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. #AARE2019 Check out the full program here