I presented my research at the #DRHA conference in September and this was a point of realisation about my findings. From the data analysis I found it interesting that while all the participants claim to use Twitter as a tool for professional development, not all participants are engaged and interacting discursively within the social network of Twitter.
In describing this finding, I had portrayed participants as novices, as lurkers, competent and expert users of the social network. However these terms were not describing the situation or the actions of the participants accurately.
The penny dropped when in preparation for the #DRHA conference, I returned to the literature on professionalism and on identity. I realised that a better explanation of participants’ use of twitter was related to identity. I started to reflect on the data and how the participants perceived themselves as part of the social network that Twitter provides.
Anyway to summarise my current understanding of identity I believe that identities are multi-layered, Our identity within the home, in leisure pursuits can differ mildly or greatly from the identity that we have in a professional context.
Focusing on the workplace or our professional contexts, other professionals see us through the behaviors and the actions that we exhibit. We also shape our identities by interacting with other professionals in our professional arena, through others we shape and change who we are. We become the professional, we identify our roles with certain tasks, values, knowledge and skills.Identity formation is a continuous evolution; it is a growth process and a reflective learning process.
While in many cases interactions with others can be a pleasantly stimulating experience, occasionally we can find ourselves deeply challenged by interactions with others. Tensions can arise among professionals and between professionals and the organisations within which they work. This tension can be a cause of external demands placed on the individual; and these demands might not align with the values of the professional. In some cases this can cause the professional to reflect and examine the cause of the tensions and to reexamine their internal value systems compared with the values of the organization .
These tensions or incidents instigated by professional or life challenges can instigate transitions and in some cases can trigger major metamorphosis, such as what Jack Mezirow proposes in his theory of transformational learning. Through critical incidents in social situations such as workplace or society at large we redefine ourselves and create our identities.
But when we think about identities in the online space, things are ultimately more complex. How can we start the process of negotiating our identities when we can’t easily see or connect with a person or community? How do we find the best communities in the online space that will help us professionally?
Eraut (2008) considers that professional development in the workplace happens informally and socially with other professionals. He established 3 factors needed for informal professional learning in the workplace, these are: challenge, support and confidence. Eraut’s research focused on a traditional workplace within which workers met one another in the physical space and exchanged information and discussion in a face-to-face way.
I think that these 3 factors are also important to consider in the online space. Professionals often feel challenged by situations and by incidents in a workplace. Online communities are a means to discuss professional issues and come to solutions through discussions ti others. But in order to have a challenge addressed by the online community it is vital that we feel supported in a community. To feel supported we need to know and trust other members of a community, we need to participate and feel part of a community. In the online space it is more difficult to become part of the community without the scaffolds of support, the onus is on the person to reach out and ask for support, and this takes confidence. For professionals at the early stage of their careers confidence might not be that well developed, and often early career professionals have established a social support structure around them to help them participate.
Finally Eraut’s factors are linked to identity, a lack of challenge, support and confidence contribute to a lack of professional engagement within online communities, thus the professional does not engage in online discussion and in turn this inhibits the development of their online professional identity.