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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part Five. Building networks

16. Joint Reflection on Twitter, Phenomenography and Learning Friendships

Margy MacMillan et Chrissi Nerantzi

Texte intégral

#Intermediate #Phenomenography #Twitter

What Is This All About?

1This chapter is about being brave enough to ask, and curious enough to respond to, questions about how a mutually beneficial relationship developed out of social media. One half of the relationship under discussion is Chrissi, an academic developer in the United Kingdom, who was in the midst of completing her PhD when she met Margy, a librarian and researcher in Canada at the time. This chapter presents a reflective conversation between these two individuals, who met via Twitter. Together, they share their experiences of the relationship as well as their feelings, and ask each other questions they didn’t (dare to) ask before. Neither the structure nor the themes they explore were pre-defined. As the story unfolds, it illuminates the potential of social media to enable individuals, who would otherwise probably never meet, to connect at a professional and personal level, and to develop honest, trusting, and lasting friendships.

2The chapter starts with two stories of prior experiences of seeking and finding help. These serve as an introduction to the story that brought Margy and Chrissi together in the Twittersphere. These discussions were based around their shared understanding of a research methodology called phenomenography. This is a qualitative research methodology, usually based on interviews that aims to investigate the way people think or experience something. It emphasises the interviewee’s refection and description of experiences.

How It Used To Be…

Working in the Dark, by Margy

3My first big research project involved examining 300 pieces of writing by students — some aspects of the project were quantifiable, while others were more qualitative and open to a lot of interpretation. Stumbling around in the literature for a way to make sense of what I was reading, I came across a thesis by Christine Bruce (The 7 Faces of Information Literacy) that used phenomenography, a method I had never heard of but that she described so clearly it gave me the confidence to use it in working with my data. No-one I worked with knew the methodology, and at the time my institution was teaching-focused with very little support for research in general. Without anyone to talk to about my project or to bounce ideas around with, it felt very lonely. In the end, I gave up. I used Bruce’s methods to break down the data and conduct basic qualitative analysis sufficient for the project, but attempting to generate deeper insights by building up categories was like rolling the proverbial rock up a hill, and the ‘outcome spaces’ (a discussion that enable ideas to be debated in an unfettered manner) that are the hallmark of phenomenography eluded me. Even with the end product of a useful, published article, I felt I had missed the mark and that failure rankled.

4Fortunately, I was able re-engage with phenomenography for another project. I went back to its beginnings and read papers that explored how the method developed in sequence. It helped that phenomenography was a more suitable method for the questions I was investigating this time, but even more, it helped that the research culture at my institution had changed and there was far more knowledge and support available. I benefited from a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoLT) research group in the initial study but what really made the difference was a ‘critical friend’. Also, Karen Manarin, a Professor of English at Mount Royal University, and I had worked together in teaching and on many projects. While Karen does not use phenomenography in her own work, she understands the method well. The subject of my study, student reading of scholarly materials, is an area of interest and research we share. Being able to talk through my findings with an expert researcher who understood the phenomenon I was looking at helped me to find deeper stories in the data than I ever could have done alone. In countless conversations, she patiently listened as I detailed a set of categories and then asked the questions that prompted me to look again, try again, and categorize again. Throughout it all, she reassured me that the story I was discovering was worth telling, useful, and supported by the data. We know each other well, I trust her implicitly and I am in awe of her knowledge and analytical ability. Having an excellent mentor like Karen so close by was very different from Chrissi’s experience.

Phoning a Complete Stranger, by Chrissi

5In the days before social media making connections and research breakthroughs often remained an uncertain and time consuming process. I remember in the olden days when I was a translator and I needed help searching for a term or phrase that I couldn’t understand with accuracy or find an explanation for anywhere. Usually the author was no longer alive, my reference guides, lexicons and encyclopaedia were letting me down, and nobody I knew, knew.

6These were the olden days, before social media. Encyclopaedia and specialist lexicons filled my walls. We had a landline and phone books, with which we reached out to the people we knew or could discover there.

7I vividly remember phoning around when I was translating Der Kurgast by Hermann Hesse. Herman was referring to some technical casino term. I had no clue what it was. I had no related reference guide, no encyclopaedia that was sufficiently detailed about casino games. I also had no experience of being or playing in a casino, nor did I have a friend who did. I could have just skipped it, but as a translator it was important to me to preserve and transfer what was in the original into the target language. I felt a strong responsibility and obligation towards the author and his work — not because Hesse won a Nobel Prize for Literature; I felt exactly the same when translating the work of any author. I needed help. After asking everybody I knew, I reached for the phone book. A few days and phone calls later, I ended up speaking with somebody who was working in a casino on Siros island in the Aegean. I explained my problem and described my patchy understanding of the specific passage in the book. I was lucky. He understood and our conversation helped me to solve the problem. I could move on, finally.

8We all know what the possibilities and the opportunities are now in the time of social media, but the situation was very different when I was working on that book in 1998.

Living in the Recent Now

9The story that follows, written as a dialogue, relates to the same two professionals who shared their individual stories above. They were strangers, physically separated by the Atlantic Ocean and their different, if overlapping, professions. They were united via Twitter by their common interests in phenomenography, learning, reading, and helping others. The following is the story of how these two individuals connected, and the human relationship that grew out of that connection.

Margy (M): A question for Chrissy to start ― what prompted you to post the request on Twitter?

10Chrissi (C): Good question and an easy one to answer. Twitter for me has become a really rich and dynamic human resource for multidirectional help.

11However, just buying, as my mum would say, without selling, would not lead to much. Giving with our heart without expecting anything in return can make a huge difference to the connections we form and how others see us. If I can help I will and if I can’t, I will try to find somebody who can. A colleague has called me an academic matchmaker. I guess this might be true. So for me, part of who I am personally and professionally is helping others and I regularly do this through social media and particularly Twitter. It came naturally to me to ask for help in this space, and I was hoping, not expecting (there is a big difference there) that somebody would respond in the same way as I offer my help to others.

C: So Margy, you asked me why I reached out via Twitter in my desperation. I am curious to find out, what made you respond. Do you remember?

12M: I think our mums may have been kindred spirits! Similar to my work in teaching, if I know something that might help someone else, I can’t hold back… vocation? Compulsion? Either way, having had my own struggles with phenomenography and been helped tremendously by someone else, I had to respond. I know that even just articulating questions for someone else can help to clarify one’s thinking, and I was happy to offer to be a sounding board, idea bouncer, or whatever else might help. I saw the tweet through Penny Bentley (@penpln) and the Teaching & Learning Inquiry Journal (@TLI_ISSOTL).

Penny Bentley @penpln 16 Apr 2016
“@chrissinerantzi: Help please! Looking for great examples of phenomenographic outcome spaces. Please RT. Thank you.” #phgchat1

13Once the communication started, the first thing I did was very ‘librarianish’: I sent a list of resources, most of which you probably already had.

@penpln @TLI_ISSOTL @chrissinerantzi Lots in the information literacy literature — Christine Bruce, Clarence Maybee… Can dm you more2

M: I’m wondering now ― how much of a response did you get and what prompted you to trust enough to engage with me?

14C: It’s wonderful to find out what made you respond to my call.

15No, I didn’t get many responses. I heard from you and Penny Bentley, whom you just mentioned and who was also a PhD student at the time. Penny then set up the Facebook group as she also needed help with phenomenography and felt a community approach would help us both. I think somebody also highlighted the phenomenography hashtag on Twitter (#phgchat), which was also useful — I think that might have been a Professor from Sweden called Ake Ingerman; he was very supportive.

16You saved me! You saved me from going insane struggling to understand what I needed to do to create that outcome space from the categories of description that emerged through my analysis (Marton, 1981). I found it more productive to discuss and have a collegial exchange with somebody, instead of just reading about the outcome space on my own. Also, seeing and discussing examples was extremely useful. Some might think that this is strange, but I guess it comes from my desire to interact and share, perhaps? And my dialogic approach to learning? It is so easy to get lost in bits of paper, bits of academic writing, and the worst thing is the papers don’t speak back when you have a question.

17So before the tweet I felt really lonely in my struggles and then after the tweet, I suddenly had a mini network. Just perfect! This instantly made me feel a bit more confident that I would get through this challenge and synthesise my findings in the outcome space to show the logical relationships among the categories of description. Sorry, I am not answering your question. Let me see, what was the question? Oh yes, I have responded to the first part, I think. Why I trusted you? How did I know you were genuine?

18I guess, in an open space like Twitter we don’t know. Actually in life we never know. But I start with trusting people. I see the good in people. And there are often early signs if somebody is not trustworthy… or when things change…

19From the beginning I felt that you were a very warm and giving individual. I actually often felt guilty asking more and more questions of you. I had no idea how this felt to you and I was scared that you felt that I was using you? I hope you didn’t get that impression. But it was really tricky for me; I didn’t want to over-ask, if you know what I mean, and abuse your kind and generous offer to help me and the time you made to help me.

C: Now that we are writing this, maybe you could tell me how you felt about all my questions?

20M: At the start, what I felt most was empathy. Having been in that space fairly recently, I really understood your frustration, anxiety, and ‘hitting a brick wall in the dark’ feelings, because I had felt them all myself but in a situation with much lower stakes than a PhD. I knew that it had helped me to talk through my work with an interested listener and that I could be that listener for someone else.

21It was also wonderful for me to talk to someone immersed in phenomenography… and nice for me to be able to use the knowledge I had gained. Not a lot of people on my campus were interested in it, and no one had gone as deeply into it as you had, Chrissi. It was very gratifying to have my knowledge appreciated, and, actually, strengthened through my having to go into it more deeply with you. I had some misgivings at an early stage about whether my understanding of phenomenography was strong enough to help, but listening was certainly within my skill-set.

22Once our conversation took off, I was fascinated by the research, and by your teaching work as seen through the eyes of your participants. It was really clear how important the framework you were developing could be for both research and practice. As a SoTL researcher interested in understanding learning, and as a librarian with a commitment to ensuring good information gets to people who need it, it became important to me that your findings become part of the record.

23And yes, there were lots of questions, but they were always interesting questions; often working through them was the most challenging (in a good way) part of my week. And reading through your drafts gave me an amazing, privileged look into your thought processes, as you refined and revised your chapters. I was only sorry that I couldn’t always respond as quickly as I would have liked, due to other commitments.

24Alongside all of this intellectual stimulation, I felt a real connection, a friendship that grew as we learned more about each other… everything from the weather and politics of the day to families and holidays. I ‘heard’ your other conversations on Twitter and it felt like hearing you down an office hallway. And also in working with you I’ve learned a lot about, and felt freer in bringing my whole self to academic work; heart and head, being present as a person, not just an academic, closing up the distance even across oceans.

25Long answer to a short question… how did I feel? Engaged, useful, challenged, whole.

M: Chrissi, we conversed through messages asynchronously for a couple of months before we set up a Skype… was there anything different about that mode of communication for you?

26C: You are very kind and generous Margy, and I am so pleased it was a useful experience for you too.

27I felt that you showed real interest in my work and wanted me to understand phenomenography better, and especially to enhance my understanding of the outcome space. But you also helped me see value in my work. You are very knowledgeable and I really valued our conversations and the papers you shared. You helped me see phenomenography under a different light and actually learn to love it. You had a very soft and gentle way of letting me know what wasn’t clear enough and the connections that made sense. This really helped me a lot and boosted my confidence during the construction of the outcome space. I soon realised that step by step, I made a little progress every day until I got there in the end, with your help. You asked me if I felt engaged — I would say, I started feeling immersed into phenomenography thanks to our conversations and exchanges, and I let go of what I didn’t understand, if you like. I was clinging on to little bits that made sense and slowly I was knitting my own understanding of phenomenography and particularly the outcome space. In a way, the flexibility and the freedom this methodology brings was torture for me initially, during the analysis stages, and I think this happens with anything we do when we don’t feel confident enough. We feel lost. I felt lost initially but when it all started coming together and made sense, I started loving this freedom phenomenography brings and our exchanges contributed massively to this as I could see the outcome space, the final output of the analysis, coming together.

28Yes, very interesting that we for some time just communicated asynchronously and via text… however some of our responses to each other were almost done in real time. They were so quick, and almost immediate sometimes. But, I have to say this initial written communication didn’t feel strange or wrong for some reason. It worked. It provided focus perhaps? Maybe our experiences in a pre-social-media life played a role in this? I don’t know. I would be interested in your thoughts on this too.

29My study, as you know, shows that synchronous connections, especially via a video link, can speed up relationships and make them real and increase mutual commitment. But then maybe we were selectively collaborating (see the connection?) and not really immersed fully in the relationship itself and the output, but more absorbed by the task, and we got different things from it? It was more about the process perhaps? And that does link back to my study, actually.

C: What do you think Margy?

30M: How fascinating to see it go meta like this. Yes, I think in part because we were selectively collaborating, and benefiting in different ways, it may not have been quite so vital to have early synchronous communication. I think also it may relate to the boundary crossing you describe in your thesis and it may be that some of those boundaries — professional, experience level — may be easier to cross through asynchronous messages, at least initially, than in face-to-face settings (online or in person), with the time that brings for reflection and consideration and the care I think that writing requires, knowing it will be received without body language or expression. In a way, reading what you said made me ‘listen’ harder, too — and I could ‘hear’ your confidence in your findings growing with every revision. I also began seeing examples of what you were finding all around me, in my own experiences and in various professional development contexts. Your work gave me another lens to look at my own projects, and since collaborating with you, Lave and Wenger have weirdly cropped up in all kinds of other projects I’m involved in.

31Through you, I joined in with so many other interesting conversations, on Twitter, in the literature, through the Facebook group, that have been some of the most rewarding professional experiences of a very long career. Thank you for that! I have also enjoyed pointing others in the direction of you and your work… and look forward to continuing to do so, especially now your thesis is available (Nerantzi, 2017)!

32C: Thank you so much Margy. I think what we have articulated together is that answers and questions lie within people and it is the exchanges among them that drive our understanding forward and help us see new and novel connections. Thank you for being you and for your valuable help. I would love to meet you in person one day.

33M: One day!

So What Are We Taking Away?

34The process of writing this dialogic piece was insightful for both of us, and an adventure at the same time. We didn’t have a plan when we started, and we were wandering and wondering while writing it until we reached our destination — or is this a new beginning? We wanted to explore our lived experience and gain insights into how two individuals might come together in the Twitter jungle. The hooks emerged and the connections lit up, similar to what happens in phenomenography that brought us together. This is fascinating. Our experience echoes many of the themes Stewart (2016) found in her study of academic Twitter use. In particular, Twitter helped us overcome geographic and methodological isolation, and further too, as she notes, ‘participants also valued the opportunities that hyperpersonal communications offer them to be, in effect, a person who offers care to others’ (p. 76). This, we think, was true for both of us as our connections and conversations had a strong current of mutual encouragement. Wenger, White and Smith (2009) would recognize our experience as a ‘learning friendship’, one of the ways learning in communities is enacted and supported (p. 24). A study by Jordan and Weller (2018) around online networking showed that only 6.3 % of academics among 189 study participants were using social media to help others. This came as a big surprise to both of us and we are wondering what the barriers are, since our own experience showed a real potential for peer-to-peer assistance enabled by social media technologies.

35Dahlgren (2005, p. 30) characterises the construction of the outcome space as an ‘intense examination of empirical data’. We undertook this through our conversations. It really deepened our individual understandings about phenomenography.

36C: I can see now how I could have initiated or extended such a conversation much earlier, during the analysis stage. The dialogue with a peer would have been valuable to eliminate fears, uncertainties and dilemmas I was confronted with, but also for scrutinising my personal interpretations (Collier-Reed et al., 2009) during the analysis. It would have been a helpful alternative to exclusively capturing the process in my reflective diary while working on my own through the messy iterative process of constructing the categories of descriptions. Neither Margy nor I think it would have polluted the analysis — it could have enriched it.

37M: For me, working from that early stage with my own mentor gave a certain sense of validity to the work that encouraged me to look and think more deeply. Working with Chrissi has strengthened my understanding of phenomenography as it has developed, and provided, in the framework Chrissi drew out of her research, a highly useful tool for examining and understanding learning in diverse contexts. Thank YOU, Chrissi!

38C: Thank you Margy! I am looking forward to helping you with some of your work.



Collier-Reed, B. I., Ingerman, A. and Berglund, A. (2009). ‘Reflections on trustworthiness in phenomenographic research: Recognising purpose, context and change in the process of research’, Education as Change, 132, pp. 339–55,

Dahlgren, L. O. (2005). ‘Conceptions and outcomes’, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for Teaching and Studying in Higher Education. 3rd edn. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, pp. 23–38.

Jordan, K. and Weller, M. (2018). ‘Academics and social networking sites: Benefits, problems and tensions in professional engagement with online networking’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1, p. 1, https://jime.

Marton, F. (1981). ‘Phenomenography — describing conceptions of the world around us’, Instructional Science, 10, pp. 177–200.

Nerantzi, C. (2017). ‘Towards a framework for cross-boundary collaborative open learning for cross-institutional academic development’. Doctoral thesis, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Napier University,

Stewart, B. (2016). ‘Collapsed publics: Orality, literacy, and vulnerability in academic Twitter’, Journal of Applied Social Theory, 1: 1,

Wenger, E., White, E. and Smith J.D. (2009). Digital Habitats. Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland: CPSquare.


(@margymaclibrary) librarian and professor recently retired from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her areas of interest are information literacy, the scholarship of teaching and learning, social media use by academics and the barriers students face in reading academic materials. She is enjoying retirement exploring Vancouver Island, developing an interest in photography, and catching up on all the academic and not-so-academic projects she didn’t get to while still working. She stays connected to her academic communities and is active on Twitter @margymaclibrary, working in various capacities for Teaching & Learning Inquiry (, and serving as an Advisor-at-Large for Project Information Literacy (

(@chrissinerantzi) Principal Lecturer in Academic CPD in the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University. Chrissi’s area of interests are creativity and openness in learning and teaching and she has co-founded a range of innovative professional development opportunities fuelled by cross-boundary collaborations and community engagement. She used to be a computer programmer in the Greek Navy, teacher of Modern Foreign Languages, and a literary translator, and loves photography, writing stories for children and making stuff. Visit Chrissi’s LinkedIn profile at and her website at

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