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Keywords- Education; Twitter, social media; research participants; research practice, ... As a within-class educational tool Twitter has received some attention at all ..... The presentation of celebrity personas in everyday twittering: managing  ...
'Setting research all aTwitter': Education research participants' perspectives on use of the Twitter platform

Hazel Beadle Chichester Institute of Education University of Chichester England [email protected]

Abstract—It is in the context of the increasing use and popularity within the education sector of the social media platform Twitter, and acknowledgement that research into the use of social media is generally under developed [4], that a study was made of educational research participants' perspectives in relation to the experience of being engaged through Twitter to participate in research activity. Drawing on the data collected through 167 online survey responses completed by educational professionals, the participant experience is identified to relate to three inter-related themes - subject matter, curiosity and the influence which stems from the way the Twitter platform operates. Identified are a number of considerations for future education research practice which makes use of the Twitter platform.

Keywords- Education; Twitter, social media; research participants; research practice, online survey, research activity, experience


The use of social media has become commonplace. Different social media platforms serve different, and often distinct, purposes. Twitter, launched in 2006 and within 6 years achieving the status of being the 9th most visited website in the world [66], is one of those platforms. Furthermore, the use of Twitter is still increasing [57, 63]. As a within-class educational tool Twitter has received some attention at all stages of the educational system, e.g. [22, 28, 58, 61]. There is significant emphasis placed on the classroom use of Twitter being linked with innovation [48, 49, 62] and of this situation being little different within higher education [10, 16, 45, 55]. Furthermore, there is highlighting of the need for teachers to integrate technology into their own practice, in part to provide an exemplar of how technology might be embraced [17, 41]. It is suggested that the Twitter platform has the potential to respond to a continuing professional development (CPD) need [47, 24]; its use being a feature within a number of professional disciplines. Within the education sector use of the Twitter platform for the purpose of CPD has been identified to be the consequence of Twitter providing the opportunity to culture both the learning environment and a personal learning network, of this being supported by the impact of a leveling effect, and of Twitter postings being underpinned by subject matter passion [8]. There is also acknowledgement that the perception of innovation which surrounds the use of Twitter is associated with a bridging of the gap between the professional role and life outside that role; what is written about in terms of Twitter having the potential to provide links with other aspects of the Tweeter's daily life [3, 46, 53]. It is in the context of this developing use, of the popularity of the platform within the education sector, and of the need for education practitioners to integrate technology into their own practice, as well as acknowledgement that research into the use of social media is generally under developed [4], that a study was made of educational research participants' perspectives in relation to the use of the Twitter platform for research activity. This paper provides an overview of the findings from that research, flagging up a number of considerations for future education research practice.

literature review

Use of the internet for the purpose of conducting research has risen in popularity over the past two decades [33]. Some of the popularity associated with that use of technology is linked with the difficulty in recruiting research participants and a general decline in response rates [30]; a decline potentially reflective of the increasing volume of the population which possesses technological familiarity and who expect an underpinning technological presence in their day to day lives [7, 26, 56, 51]. Difficulty in participant recruitment is an issue which spans discipline boundaries [5]. Furthermore, this is an issue which can compound dilemmas for the researcher including the inclusion within their studies of those with whom there is a pre-existing relationship, such as peers and workplace colleagues [52], and the influence of power relations in settings such as schools [51]. Mention within the literature of engagement with technology in relation to research activities includes email [23, 51], text messages [35, 37] and the use of Participant Information Clips (PICs) for the purpose of conveying information to potential participants [29, 33]. There is also broader mention of social networking sites; particularly in relation to reestablishing contact with participants in previous research activities [50]. However, there is limited focus on the use of the Twitter platform as a research tool, and even less on how education research participants perceive the use of the Twitter platform for research activity. It is this gap which this paper contributes to filling. Engagement with social media is acknowledged to vary [33]. Some of this variance can be attributed to the effectiveness of the communications process. This effectiveness is often related to simplicity [54] and, in the research context, equivalency; for example in encouraging research engagement in the light of other pressures on educational practitioners [43], and in subsequent application of findings [34]. Since technological capabilities vary, there is also variance in what constitutes simplicity [44]. Like other social media platforms, Twitter offers the potential to repost messages. This is called retweeting and the process offers a measurement of content popularity [7]. The subject expertise and trustworthiness of the proximal source are highlighted as playing a role [42]. The online persona, explained by Kutler [40] to be an intangible but legally protectable asset, and by Coney and Steehouder [14] as an 'hypothetical archetype', contributes to the perception of trustworthiness. The online persona has received some significant attention within the literature. Technology's facilitation of image cultivation practice has been noted [13, 18, 36] and the image conveyed is reasoned to be the result of a series of 'tradeoffs' [31]. However, even a positive resultant image risks being compromised by any subsequent flow of negative publicity [13]; what is generally referred to as disruption. Despite the online persona being a well known concept, and there being acknowledgement of the potential effect of a negative persona, there is variance in the extent to which Twitter users suggest they actively engage in management of that persona [9]. For the seasoned Tweeter, the process of retweeting is regarded to be a simple process. It is, never-the-less, one which contributes to the aforementioned persona [9]. Whilst the act of retweeting a posting received requires the tweet recipient to engage with the material being handled, significantly greater demand arises where that tweet extends to practical engagement in research activity. In the context of this study the tweet requested completion of an online questionnaire. Participation such as this, which extends beyond the social media platform, is categorised as 'high engagement' [33]. This contrasts with 'low engagement', explained as being 'when people agree with or acknowledge preference for a content area, such as the ‘like’ button on Facebook, but do nothing else' [33]. More broadly, recruitment and the retention of study participants is linked to the issue of trust [11] and there is little in the literature to suggest that with regard to the use of the Twitter platform as a research tool, that the issue of trust should be of any less significant. However, one area where use of social media broadly, and the Twitter platform specifically, may differ to more traditional forms of research engagement is in relation to the influence of self-interest. This is accepted to be a powerful, if not the primary, motivator of human behaviour [38]. Furthermore, reciprocity, the returning of behaviour, is reasoned to be a universal norm [25], which serves to underpin sustained cooperation [2]. Reciprocity has been extensively considered in relation to the workplace (e.g. [20, 21, 27, 39]) but has received less attention in relation to the use of social media broadly and the Twitter platform specifically. Since Twitter is a contemporary and popular tool, it should not be surprising that there is interest in its operation and the value it has the potential to offer, for example to the researcher within the education sector. The difficulty in forecasting the future impact of modest developments is acknowledged [19, 59]. Also acknowledged is that the construction of reality is influenced by interaction with others [59] and Twitter, as one of a number of social media platforms, facilitates that interaction. It is thus through use, and examination of that use, for example in the context of this paper, that the Twitter platform's contribution as a research tool becomes apparent.

III. method

This paper draws on data collected through 167 online survey responses completed by self-declared educational professionals recruited through the Twitter platform. Participants were self-nominating and asked to complete an online survey (using Survey Monkey) accessed through a web-link. Since all participants were Twitter users, a base level of social media related technological expertise was present. The online survey had a dual purpose. Firstly it questioned participants on their engagement with the Twitter platform exploring, for example, their use of the platform for the purpose of professional development. Then the questionnaire moved on to explore participant perceptions regarding having been recruited through Twitter to engage in education based research activity. It is this latter data which is central to this paper's examination of educational research participants' perspectives. Beyond providing gender, age category, job title and sector, no personal details were sought. Participants had the right to decline any or all of this detail but failure to identify their job role was based in the education sector resulted in their data being discounted. The age range of participants largely reflected the traditional working age population (20s to 60s). In line with this study's exploratory nature, open questions were used and the data was analysed using open thematic coding.

IV. findings and discussion

The data identified there to be three broad themes which influenced engagement with research through the Twitter platform - subject matter, curiosity and the influence which stems from the way Twitter operates. Whilst there is some interlinking between these categories, they are considered in turn.

1 Subject Matter

Nineteen percent of participants made mention of their research engagement behaviour being driven by a personal interest in the Twitter; what can termed subject matter interest. This indicated that for participants who were specifically interested in the how Twitter can be used, use of that platform for the purpose of collecting participant perspectives was of negligible significance. Participant 1, a teacher in his 40s, highlighted how he was 'interested at how the power of Twitter can influence my choices and those of others', whilst Participant 32, a Primary School teacher, highlighted that she found it to be 'quite exciting that Twitter has become so widely used and known that it has reached the stage where research is being made about it'. Other participants made general note of their pleasure at being able to contribute to the development of Twitter as a tool. However further analysis suggested perception of the subject matter, Twitter, was underpinned by expectations associated with the way the Twitter platform operates. Participant 77, an Assistant Primary School Head, highlighted the impact of the reciprocal nature of knowledge shared on Twitter; indicating that being sounded out to participate in a research activity using the platform had cultured a measure of obligation. Whilst there were those who highlighted their participation emanated from an awareness of how difficult it can be to get participants to engage with educational research, a significantly larger number of participants highlighted that they felt the obligation to participate was the consequence of the support they had received, or anticipated receiving, through Twitter. This reflected the identified impact of reciprocity highlighted in the literature. Participant 67, a Secondary School Assistant Head Teacher, suggested that they 'felt a (nice) obligation to help' and that 'resources are shared on Twitter in a reciprocal manner'. There was mention that this reciprocity was the consequence of a professional education link; what another Secondary School Assistant Head, Participant 131, termed 'the helping of a fellow education colleague'. However, whilst there was suggested to be some repaying of the help participants had already received through the Twitter platform, others indicated they saw their participation as an investment. Here it was indicated that if help was given through the Twitter platform then, in due course, they would likewise receive help from a Tweeter and, either way, that they would benefit from the understanding arising from the study activity. This reciprocal underpinning was mentioned by thirteen percent of participants, with acknowledgement of a reciprocal presence suggesting that norms of behaviour cultivated outside of the Twitter platform have the potential to be transferred to the media.

2 Curiosity

This category is comprised of two, not entirely discrete, groupings. Firstly, there were those who identified their engagement relate to curiosity about participating in research activity which used the Twitter platform. Secondly, there were those who regarded this participation angle as demonstrating novelty. Here the term novelty is used in the sense of newness; an unfamiliar approach [60]. Novelty was mentioned by fifteen percent of participants, although not all participants indicated that it was specifically the presence of novelty which had determined whether or not they participated. There was indication of a desire to be part of something different; reasoned to be on the basis of new offering. Inevitably the more frequently Twitter is used as a research tool, the less novelty it will provide by way of attraction. Participant 31, a teacher in her 30s, suggested she 'had engaged with the research because it had appeared different but, on reflection, the approach turned out not to be dissimilar to real world research'. Similarly, Participant 138, a male Education Supervisor, highlighted that 'it turned out there was nothing particularly special about it'. In contrast, eight percent of participants mentioned their engagement had been stimulated by curiosity. Here the influence of needing to integrate technology into teaching practice, indicated within the literature, was apparent. Whereas the novelty link was identified as short term, the 'I want to be involved with something different' approach, those who highlighted curiosity to be a driver provided indication of a desire for longer term engagement. This indicated use of the Twitter platform within the education setting may be moving forward from a more limited parallel with innovation, to an association with expectation. Underpinning both the novelty and curiosity considerations was acknowledgement that the use of Twitter was different to the research mechanisms with which those participants had previously engaged and that this difference was playing a role. Participant 135, a Secondary School Head of Department, identified, for example, that 'curiosity to see how this would work' had had an influence. Furthermore, several participants made mention of engaging with the research activity in order to, in the words of Participant 136, an English and Information and Communication Technology Coordinator, 'see how it might be used in [their] own research'. This outward appearance of there being a difference to familiar research mechanisms was, however, seen to generate a measure of uncertainty. Some participants were identified to have engaged in a process of actively seeking to resolve that uncertainty. Participant 26, a teacher of French, indicated that she 'came to the site and did a quick scan to assess what it was all about' concluding that 'participation was worthwhile'. Indicated was active exploration as to how the Twitter approach sat alongside more traditional research mechanisms. Here the study provided further example that there is force to be derived from the presence of curiosity [1, 6] and that this curiosity can be constrained by the circumstances in which it emerges [15, 32]. Furthermore, technology is suggested to have facilitative potential, for example through the potential to gather information [6]. How many participants might have been lost as a consequence of the novelty of the process cannot be identified. Certainly some participants expressed sentiment similar to that of Participant 15, a male Education Consultant, who highlighted that 'it wasn't the mechanism [they]'d choose' going on, however, to identify that 'it worked, I'm here, I've completed the questionnaire'.

3 The way Twitter operates

The way Twitter operates was seen to embrace three elements; the potential reach of the tweet; what can be broadly described as the simplicity of the process and the impact of the online persona. The potential reach of the tweet, the message posted on the Twitter platform, is influenced by the way Twitter operates. By 'retweeting', the message reaches those who are following the retweeter's postings and not just those following the postings of the original Tweeter. This means that any request to participate in research activity posted as a tweet can reach a greater population than the number of followers held by the originating Twitter account; a replicating approach that tends to be spoken of in terms of having viral capacities [64]. Six percent of participants commented on this reach, with some specifically using the research related 'snowballing' term. Participant 42, a Primary School teacher, highlighted "I think it's a worthwhile avenue for mass response" whilst Participant 57, a Science teacher, suggested that the approach 'gives the researcher a much broader sample space which is good, especially if the education profession is to become more action research based'. Whether there was a parallel between the number of Tweeters the posting requesting participants reached and the action that resulted, was not determined. The effectiveness of turning enhanced reach into research participants is, however, identified to be influenced by a number of factors; including a need for the Twitter feed to be checked whilst a posting remains visible. This, in turn, is influenced by the number of Twitter accounts the Tweeter is following, since each of those accounts contributes to the volume of Twitter feed they receive. The greater the number of accounts, the less likely it is that any one message will be seen. Visibility is also influenced by the regularity with which the account is checked and this was suggested to be influenced by tweeting fitting around other demands, such as the nature of the school day. Participant 126, a Head of English and Drama at a Secondary School, provides an example in noting that "Like many things on Twitter my engagement occurred by chance. If I hadn't dipped into Twitter at a particular moment I might have missed that someone had retweeted your tweet". Similarly, Participant 123, a Teaching Assistant, identified that "Someone that I follow retweeted your tweet about participating. Otherwise I wouldn't have found it. However, the fact that I was just browsing my Twitter feed in a break from the classroom and stumbled upon this was a nice surprise". The second of the areas highlighted was the simplicity of the process. The literature identifies perceptions of simplicity to vary and of this variance to be particularly apparent in the presence of technology. Several participants made favourable mention of there being a one click link to the survey, with emphasis placed on how quickly the research activity, in this case completion of a questionnaire, could be undertaken. However further examination identified that the focus was not entirely on the speed with which the research activity might be completed (there was, after all, no formal obligation to participate), but how the process dovetailed with whatever else was happening in the participant's day. If the research activity occupies little time, it was highlighted as being more likely to be accommodated. Participant 132, a Head of Department in a Secondary School, identified they had completed the questionnaire whilst awaiting the arrival of public transport. Participant 107, a Teacher in his 40s, identified the request arrived at a time when it could fill a gap in his evening entertainment. He mentioned having 'nothing better to do before [his] TV programme came on, checked Twitter, saw the request'. Another male Teacher, Participant 155, highlighted the request 'appeared on my Twitter feed at a very appropriate time, i.e. Sunday afternoon'. What was happening in the participant's day also included the potential for variation. Participant 66, an Education Consultant, highlighted that they took part 'because it offered a welcome break in very cerebral work'. Because the link to the survey was supported by technology this could be reasoned to increase its availability at a time which suited the Participant's capacity to respond. However apparent from the responses was that it was the time at which the request arrived in the Twitter feed which was significant. This offered contrast to, for example, a postal survey which might equally be reasoned as having the potential to wait until a convenient time for completion. The potential for time differences between the Tweeter and the tweet recipient's location acknowledged, for the researcher this flags up the need to be engaged in research work when others are relaxing; that there is a link between the use of Twitter for research purposes and unsocial hours. Earlier work by Faught et al [23] identified there to be a 'best time' to send internet surveys by email in order that the response rate might be maximised, suggesting this to be a Wednesday morning. The current research provides extension of that work in relation to those in the education sector making use of Twitter, embracing the changes in technological software and mobile accessibility which have occurred over the past decade. The third area under 'the way Twitter operates' category related to the impact of the online persona. Several participants mentioned that tweets seeking research participants had been forwarded to them on the basis of what people perceived their interests to be; demonstrating the content focus which Chiu et al [12] suggest underpins retweeting. Participant 10, a Teacher in his 30s, for instance, said that the tweet requesting participation in the research study had been forward to him and that he had had 'other approaches in the past where people have picked up, from Twitter postings, what [his] interests were'. However there was also mention of enthusiasm to engage with the research approach being muted by the presence of repeated requests. This was reflective of Faught et al's [23] observation of technological capability having the potential to result in 'over-saturation'. Participant 18, a teacher in his 40s, for example, suggested that he was receiving at least two survey requests a week and that these were 'becoming more common'. A further influential factor was the number of times that an individual saw the tweet containing the request to participate. Whilst it can be reasoned that the more an individual sees a request the more likely it is that they may be stirred into action, the study indicated that there was more to the process than the effect of repetition. Having a number of people associated with the study, even if the retweeter was not party to the research activity, was identified as a positive influence. Participant 89, a Teacher in a Primary School, highlighted that 'retweets usually get me interested because more than one person is behind the request'. The online persona was also identified in relation to the impression generated of the researcher. Participant 51, a School Director, for example, highlighted 'the tone of your posting was what prompted this response'. Likewise, Participant 99, a Primary School Deputy Head Teacher, said "It was great, easy, I responded to the tone of your tweet". Ten percent of participants made mention that the nature of the researcher's tweet wording had positively contributed to their research experience. Noted with respect to this tweet was that, firstly, the request derived from a Twitter account which had been used for professional purposes for more than 2 years before the research activity took place. This account was highlighted as having contributed to the cultured impression; extending to the education sector Van de Velde et al's [65] identification of the value to be derived from long-term Twitter use, as exampled through the age of account and the number of messages posted. The impact of using for the purpose of education related research a Twitter account without any history, for example an account created primarily for the research purpose, is unknown. Certainly it would be linked with inherent problems such as the absence of followers. Secondly, participants highlighted there to be a decreased opportunity to discuss the research with the researcher at the point of data collection, reigniting in the Twitter context concerns which had been identified in the earliest online research [23]. Whilst contact with the researcher was feasible, the effort involved in sending, for example, an email or Twitter 'direct message', or in making a telephone call, was reasoned to be distracting. It lessened, for example, the aforementioned likelihood of the request for participation fitting in with what else was happening in the participant's day. The effect resulted, as Participant 47, a Primary School Support Assistant, identified, in heightened reliance being placed on the 'information sheet' preamble. Participant 106, an Elementary School Teacher, highlighted that they were 'not thrilled to not be able to discuss the research face to face but underst[ood] what is being achieved here so support[ed] it regardless of my feelings'.

V. conclusion

This paper set out to provide an overview of educational research participants' perspectives in relation to the use of Twitter for research activity. The data identified there to be three broad themes which influenced engagement with research through the Twitter platform - subject matter, curiosity and the influence which stems from the way Twitter operates. The first of these themes, the subject matter, is influenced by expectations such as the support individuals have received, or anticipate receiving, through the Twitter platform. The reciprocal underpinning suggested that norms of behaviour cultivated outside of the Twitter platform have the potential to be transferred to the media. The second theme can be further sub-divided into the influences of novelty and curiosity. Whilst there was some indication of a desire to participate in educational research where the tools used appeared to vary from more traditional mechanisms, in practice that variation was regarded to be limited. Those whose engagement was stimulated by curiosity provided indication that use of Twitter had gained credibility within the education community and there was thus a need to update their experiential skills. The more frequently Twitter is used as a research tool, and the greater the publicity surrounding that use, the less novelty it will provide by way of attraction. Associated curiosity will decrease, as will some of the uncertainty generated by a lack of familiarity with Twitter associated research activity. However, variation of the education related research topics and the potential for innovative data capture using the Twitter platform, indicates there remains the opportunity for a measure of curiosity to be sustained. If participants were lost as a consequence of the novelty of the process, this forfeiture will be rectified. The third of the themes related to the way Twitter operates and included three interlinked elements - the potential reach of the tweet; what can be couched under the 'simplicity of the process' phraseology; and the impact of the online persona. Visibility of the research request was key. Here a number of influencing factors were identified. The researcher has influence over the timing of the original tweet, timing which can accommodate the impact of predicted demands, however once that tweet is posted it can be retweeted or ignored at will. The researcher is largely ignorant of whatever else is happening in the participant's day and thus cannot directly accommodate this. However key points of access were noted, such as outside teaching hours, evenings and Sunday afternoons. With the potential for time differences acknowledged, this suggests the need for the researcher to be working when others are relaxing; that there is a link between the use of Twitter for research purposes and unsocial hours. Consideration of the online persona embraced both the participant as recipient of the tweet and the researcher in offering a positive image as an education researcher. In the study it was found that the impression cultivated by the longevity and nature of the researcher's Twitter account was favourable. The impact of using for the purpose of education related research a Twitter account without any history, for example an account created primarily for the research purpose, is unknown. Furthermore, whilst the researcher's online persona may have served to alleviate some concerns, the reliance placed on the study's information sheet provides reminder of the paramount importance of ethical integrity.


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