Teachers on Twitter: A #BowdoinSummerResearch Project

Roya Moussapour '17

Roya Moussapour ’17

What can tweets teach us about about the shortcomings in our educational system? Roya Moussapour ’17 is working with Bowdoin’s Associate Professor of Education Doris Santoro to find out.

This summer Moussapour and Santoro are using Twitter to gather data from current and former K-12 teachers from across the country who have become frustrated by mandatory teaching duties that they believe aren’t right for their students – for instance, requiring students to work from workbooks or gearing lessons toward high-stakes testing.

Sometimes such “moral discontent” is strong enough to persuade teachers to leave the school system. Whether or not they continue teaching, many express their discontent through personal blogs – or distill their frustrations into concise tweets.

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With the aim of harvesting this rich yet low-cost digital resource, Moussapour and Santoro have begun a test-trial of tweets from 100 Twitter users. They’re using a program called Scraper Wiki to identify influencers in Twitter’s education community, and they’re “following” teachers who tweet their thoughts on the current state of American education.

“We’ll be looking at threads between the various moral claims,” Santoro said, “and we will be examining how teachers use Twitter as a form of moral and political resistance.”

A handful of Gibbons Summer Research Fellowships are awarded each year to allow students and faculty to collaborate closely on projects that use technology to explore interdisciplinary problems.
 Besides gathering existing tweets published starting a few weeks ago, they are posting their own tweets asking for contributions and encouraging Twitter users to re-tweet relevant information. Of course, there’s always irrelevant material to sift through, too: Roya noted that some people who list themselves as teachers “primarily tweet about their cats.”

Consulting on Moussapour’s project, which is supported by a Gibbons Summer Research Fellowship, is media specialist Jessica Hochman, assistant professor and library program coordinator at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science in New York City.

The project is related to a book that Santoro plans to write during her sabbatical: “I’ll be looking at teachers who leave the profession as conscientious objectors to policies and practices that they believe are harmful to students and antithetical to teaching,” Santoro said. “I’ll also be examining the strategies teachers employ to reestablish integrity in their work, and who subsequently find a way to stay.”

twitter1Santoro has previously used her Twitter account as a recruitment tool, successfully connecting with education historian and philosopher Diane Ravitch, among others. Moussapour was first introduced to Twitter by a high school science teacher who communicated with students outside of class exclusively through tweets (and yes, whittling a question about physics homework down to 140 characters is just as hard as it sounds, she said).

A prospective physics major who plans to minor in teaching, Moussapour noted that the loosely structured nature of social media research takes a bit of adjustment. One of the project’s components “is developing new philosophical concepts,” she said – for instance, the current task is to define what exactly constitutes moral discontent.

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“As a science major, I need my method, I need a procedure, and I don’t have one,” she said. Instead, she and Santoro are honing their approach along the way, as they identify searchable hashtags, analyze tweets, and gain insights from reading teachers’ blogs. Nevertheless, Moussapour is excited to be at the forefront of this rapidly expanding field.

She is particularly fascinated by social media’s ability to help educators, and other groups of people with shared interests, connect with one another over their ideas in novel ways. By putting themselves and their opinions into the public sphere, teachers just might be able to contribute toward system-wide changes – one 140-character tweet at a time.

Follow @DorisASantoro on Twitter to get involved and to learn more about her research.

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