Monday, September 30, 2013

The Backchannel and Emergent Systems

Continuing thoughts on the marginalization of teachers, the importance of Social Networks in professional practice and professional activism, and the emergence of grass root organizations from the chaotic system of the Twitter educator community.

In the current climate, teachers have a platform unavailable in the past. With the rise of Social Networks, teachers from around the nation have made connections previously impossible. Twitter has become the de facto platform for the educator community and has created an unofficial communications venue for teachers. This area for public, yet easily anonymized, teacher communication has created what is known as a backchannel. From this backchannel, educators have not only collaborated on techniques to implement dictated policy, but have found their voice in opposing the overreaching administrative oversight
With teachers becoming an professional class that has lost a large amount of its respect in the public, as well as finding itself forced to implement  a curricular mandate that it finds arbitrary, ineffective and misguided, educators begin to resemble an oppressed and marginalized group. A study of teachers as a marginalized population, and how the backchannel of Twitter as a semi-anonymous communications network might empower teachers would fit well within the framework of critical studies.

Teachers have been called to bear the weight of implementing an increasing amount of regulation and law in the name of reforming education. As high stakes testing and standards designed for the lowest common denominator become increasingly tied to system and school funding, teachers are also losing their collective bargaining rights and tenure. This creates an environment in which the teacher who does not meekly accept the system is in danger of losing their teaching position with little recourse or appeal. Because of the lack of official channels to voice their grievances with the current legal and regulatory atmosphere of the classroom, many teachers have used Twitter and other Social Media Professional Learning Networks (PLN) as an unofficial backchannel for voicing their opinions on the way teachers and students are treated by an increasingly micromanaged, corporate controlled and ineffective system of laws, regulations and ill-conceived reform.

Twitter has allowed teachers to collaborate and brainstorm, as well as find resources and improve methods. But Twitter has also provided a platform for educators to voice their discontent with education reform, including debating the value of corporate education reform, high stakes testing and national standards. Teachers may post through a pseudonym if they deem it necessary to maintain a veneer of anonymity, allowing teachers to give voice to opinions counter to those of their administration.

Research has explored the value of the social network as a PLN, but little research has emerged on the value of these networks in the education reform debate. While teacher advocacy and education reform groups are emergent phenomenon in these educator social networks, can they have a real influence in the reform debate or are they just a modern version of whispers over the workroom table? With names far removed from the political mainstream, e.g. the BadAss Teachers Network, can groups of teachers on these social networks have a serious impact in the way America manages its schools or are they merely a valve to release pressure?

By examining how teachers perceive their interactions through their digital PLNs, we may determine if there is political currency in these networks. Emergent organizations from the complex system of Twitter can provide insight into how these groups organized and then gain and wield power, if truly there is any power in these groups. Use of social networks in organization of protest and dissemination of videos, images and other records of teacher action may be evaluated to determine how these networks are used to mobilize teachers to speak out for their classrooms. A critical study may facilitate more teachers in using their PLN as a tool to reassert the teachers’ voices in education reform and encourage leaders to take the organizations emerging from these networks as serious organizations of reform.

Potentially, this study will examine the culture of the online social network in their use as a professional learning network and reveal how these complex and interconnected networks of teachers are emerging as organized political voices for teachers in the current regulatory climate. How do loose knit groups of teachers, typically gathering in an online space to collaborate on methodology and pedagogy, become an organized political voice?

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