In good company: an imagined community to support virtual PHD journeys (DR11)

(Just for archive, first published in Digital Researcher 2011 blog, 12th February 2011)

My uptake of social media is fairly recent and coincides with my move from an e-learning practitioner role in higher education towards that of an apprentice researcher in the elearning area. Change prompted me to engage in the not straigthforward learning path to practice social media and above all to make sense of them. Indeed I spent almost two years badly playing with different tools (I belong to the ‘digital lazy’ species), while attending online courses focusing on innovations in e-learning. I opened a Twitter account and let it sleep…then built non significant profiles in different ‘generic’ social networks (Facebook, Linkedin). And visited a number of Ning communities, searching for interesting materials, references and links. So, first my motive was to achieve valuable content collection and my attitude was of an explorer.

At the end of 2009 I ‘took up residence’ in a social network specialized in educational technology (Cloudworks), in which I found the community dimension that made me understand how to harness the network effect and to define a digital presence. For instance, I learnt how to follow a remote conference through Twitter (the magic of hashtags!) and contribute to it by live blogging and/or adding references and weaving discussions. Or to set up a simple web space of resources which can be of general interest (such as Tools for digital researchers: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2587) and that implies a committment to curation and update over time. So, my motive was to break the ice by communicating with unknown and renowned people, and the attitude was of a connector.

These gains assumed a more important function when I joined first an online postgraduate course on research methods and then a doctoral programme at a distance. I have just started my adventure as a virtual PHD student and I fear that it will be a solitary journey, apart from the scheduled encounters with my supervisors. I fear I will miss that sort of tacit knowledge that you are only able to acquire when you work side by side with experts and colleagues, that constitutes the basis of a research apprenticeship, that influences your habitus as a researcher. So, living in social media – for now considering Twitter, Cloudworks, Delicious – means aiming to somewhat compensate this lack. Following a ‘do ut des’ attitude, so typical in these participatory media, I learnt to listen to a plenty of voices and to sift (digital) research practices to imitate. My personal learning network became a locus where I can see researcher’s models at work. Maybe the ties being built in this PLN are weaker than in a community of practice, but I believe that they are able to form the connective tissue of a community of interest (expanding and trasforming over time), in which I can position my learning path and my contribution as new edtech researcher.

Therefore, I think that an appropriate use of social media enables you to create your own peer-to-peer environment to support and expand your research apprenticeship, supplementing formal online training.
Finally, social media force me to think of myself a san author. In fact, social media provide me with a continuining opportunity to improve my own communication writing skills, although informally: even mere notes (if published online) should take into account a potential audience, and aim to combine simplicity and rigour. So, regularly running a research blog is the current point of arrival of this early phase of my social media’s endorsement. What next? I will tune in to learn more.

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