Tag Archives: social network

Studying teachers in social network sites: Thinking about methodology

There is an entire genre of journal articles about how teachers in social network sites are behaving, what they’re doing, and what benefits they’re getting. This refers to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Ning and EdModo.

Recent review papers by Macia & Garcia (2017) and Lantz-Andersson et al. (2018) gives some indication of quite how many articles are out there about teachers using these sites. I’m doing work at the moment with Bernadette Mercieca and Paul Mercieca to conduct a wide, integrative review, that looks at the methodology of studies of teachers in SNSs.

Teachers in social network sites

The rationale for studying what teachers in social network sites are doing is compelling:

  • We know for sure that lots of teachers are using them
  • They are getting all kinds of benefits, such as social/emotional support, exchange of resources, a place to get new ideas, and even occasionally a place to have serious conversations reflecting on practice (Kelly & Antonio, 2016)
  • We want to know how to use social network sites better: How should they be used by individuals? How should policy around them be framed? How should they be a part of teacher education and school operations?

These are all great questions, but I feel like there is a growing need for more maturity in the methodology of studies of teachers in social network sites. Consider the “classic case” of many studies (some of my own included!) of teachers in social network sites:

  1. A sample is being studied that is chosen for convenience: an existing group in a social network site, a cohort of preservice teachers, a group of teachers within a single school, etc.
  2. Often teachers from that sample will self-select to be a part of a study
  3. Traces from the social network site are typically analysed in some way (coding and counting, social network analysis)
  4. Often a survey is conducted (again, often self-selected from participants in the social network site) for self-reported data relating to use of the social network site

In case it isn’t obvious, this is not a great recipe for any kind of generalisability from results. The volume of studies that have been conducted could potentially have led to meta-analysis for some kind of convergent validity–except that often there isn’t enough information included in many studies to know such basic information as:

  • The size of a group (for groups are the unit of study)
  • It’s focus (e.g., subject/region/theme/identity)
  • How it was convened and if it is facilitated

A way to categorise groups productively is discussed by Kelly & Antonio (2016). The key issue is that without this kind of information, there will be no movement towards convergent validity of theories.

Towards theory

We have well and truly past the point of needing studies that point to the potential of social network sites for teachers; or that collect exploratory data from a one-off study. There are many such studies and on their own they are not contributing to a collective whole.

The ideal situation would be to work towards an understanding of how different types of group serve teachers in different ways and how approaches to designing/facilitating/convening groups in social network sites can better lead to desired outcomes (see for example Clarà et al., 2015;  Kelly et al., 2015; Kelly et al., 2016; Mercieca et al, 2017).

The analogy is that of a chemical engineer trying to understand how to create a reaction of some sort–let’s say that she’s trying to create an explosion.  She could work for years randomly combining elements to see what happens, in the hope of coming across something that works.

Far more fruitful would be to develop a theoretical understanding (say, the table of the elements) that allows her to predict what will happen when elements are combined.

In short, what we need is the kind of research that allows us to make theoretical propositions (about teachers in social network sites) that are generally applicable–or where the limits of generality are at least understood. The work of Kraut & Resnick (2012) gives us a glimpse of what such work might look like. We need methodological rigor else our whole domain risks failing to reach maturity.

Thanks to Professor Peter Reimann for the chemistry analogy, it comes from a conversation with him.


Clarà, M., Kelly, N., Mauri, T., & Danaher, P. (2015). Can massive communities of teachers facilitate collaborative reflection? Fractal design as a possible answer. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 1-13.

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.02.007

Kelly, N., Clará, M., & Kickbusch, S. (2015). How to develop an online community for pre-service and early career teachers. Paper presented at the ASCILITE 2015, Perth, Western Australia.

Kelly, N., Clarà, M., Kehrwald, B., & Danaher, P. (2016). Online Learning Networks for Pre-service and Early Career Teachers. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan/Palgrave Pivot.

Kraut, R. E., & Resnick, P. (2012). Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design. Mit Press.

Lantz-Andersson, A., Lundin, M., & Selwyn, N. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302-315.

Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291-307.

Mercieca, B., & Kelly, N. (2017). Early career teacher peer support through private groups in social media. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 1-17.

Teacher Peer Support in Social Networks

Interested in the ways that teachers support one another online in teacher social networks? A recently published paper by myself and Amy Antonio looks at open Facebook groups of teachers to examine the ways in which they support one another.

Some elements of this paper are discussed in another post about the limits and potential of online communities for teachers.

The paper has been published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education and is titled teacher peer support in social networks (free link).

The crux of the paper is that six roles can be identified that experienced teachers take on to support other teachers online:

  1. Advocates the practical. Teachers help one another with day-to-day pragmatic aspects of the profession, such as finding resources for a lesson or navigating the bureaucracy.
  2. Conveners of relations. Teachers instigate relationships with other teachers, and can make introductions to other useful contacts.
  3. Agents of socialisation. Teaching as a profession has cultural norms. Experienced teachers induct other teachers into these norms, such as in the way that they share stories and the ‘memes’ that they promulgate.
  4. Modelers of practice. Teachers give a rich description of what they are doing in the classroom, providing a model of teaching practice.
  5. Supporters of reflection. Collaborative reflection is often considered the most important kind of knowledge for beginning teachers, to make sense of confusing situations and learn from their experiences.
  6. Providers of feedback. Teachers provide a constructive source of feedback, such as pedagogical and curriculum advice or in reconstructing an event that has occurred.

In a review of existing online communities, it appears that certain conditions are needed for teachers to be willing to engage in the most important of these roles: modelling practice, supporting reflection and providing feedback. Such a connection appears to have preconditions of a trusted environment with stable relationships and a sense of privacy

The logic for reaching these six categories comes from two places. The first is from Clarke et al. who identify eleven roles for co-operating teachers of which only six apply to the online context. Secondly, there is much in the literature on forms of social support onto which these six roles can be mapped:

  • Emotional support in the form of esteem, affect, trust, concern and listening
  • Appraisal support in the form of affirmation, feedback and social comparison
  • Informational support in the form of advice, suggestion, directives and information
  • Instrumental support in the form of aid in kind, money, labour and time.

The main contribution of the paper is to define these six roles for online teachers. The paper then uses these roles to analyse teachers interacting in social network groups (on Facebook).

The results show that teachers support each other in open groups of teacher social networks in very pragmatic ways – there is very little in the way of reflection upon practice or modelling of teaching occurring in these groups.

The citation for the paper is:

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.02.007