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Postdoc Spotlight: Dr Alison Twiner, Digital education researcher

Alison’s research is broadly around “meaning making”, how we make sense of things, and the tools we use to do this.

She unpacks this in detail, identifying two main threads within her research, one around teacher professional learning and the other around communication through education dialogue. Alison also works with one of Hughes Hall’s research centres as well as other groups within the university and wider education landscape.

She talks to us here about her work, about technology in education more broadly, and reflects on being a female academic and mum, and how she successfully navigates and balances these identities within the welcoming culture of Hughes Hall.


One of my key research threads is around teacher professional learning, which reflects my main role currently as researcher with Camtree – the Cambridge Teacher Research Exchange, which sits in the Bridge within DEFI.  Camtree has been set up – initially through the work of Dr Pete Dudley and Prof. Sara Hennessy; and now also with Dr Patrick Carmichael, Ms Maria McElroy and myself – to address a long-standing challenge in education, whereby the expertise and experience of education practitioners is largely not considered a valid source or voice within education policy making.

When academics conduct research, they tend to write articles that are published: with the benefits of open access publishing they become widely available, read and drawn upon in building the body of knowledge and tracking the discourse about an issue or challenge.  Indeed, academics are often commissioned to conduct research into educational practice and identify recommendations that will directly influence policy.

Dr Alison Twiner presenting her work at an education conference in 2022, showcasing her research with colleagues Dr Louis Major and Prof. Rupert Wegerif on dialogic learning using digital technologies.

Camtree is seeking to shift this balance, to validate the voice and expertise of practitioner research, through supportive resources and mechanisms as well as a digital library for publishing peer-reviewed practitioner-authored reports outlining outcomes and implications for practice.  Situated within the Bridge, the translational research and impact between academia and practice makes Hughes an ideal home for Camtree’s vision and work.

Multimodal educational dialogue

The second thread to my work focuses on communication through a lens of multimodal educational dialogue, and the various different tools and signs we use to express and interpret understanding.  Linking to the CEDiR (Cambridge Educational Dialogue Research) group in the Faculty of Education, I am developing work I’ve done previously whilst at the Open University, and from my PhD which I completed there in 2011.  In this I consider the central role that talk largely plays in communication, but also how we augment and alter meanings and understandings through different tools, with a particular focus on dance-based movement.

For my PhD work I was delighted to work together with dance specialists from the dance organisation The Place who were piloting a programme using dance and digital technologies to support teaching and learning across the curriculum (as I personally love to dance, this was a hugely rewarding connection!).

Imagery developed to support research and learning in dance and ‘meaning making’ workshops, without recourse to photographic images of children. Illustrations credit: Andrew Plant

Through this partnership,  it was apparent that the dance-based exploration of concepts was particularly beneficial in constructing understandings for those pupils who spoke English as an Additional Language, or who otherwise struggled to convey or understand meanings through words alone.  Taking this forward, also whilst at the Open University, I worked with colleagues, the same dance specialists (who since set up Dance Educates) and a mental health specialist to explore how using dance-based movement could help young children to understand the abstract concepts of different emotions.  It’s important to flag this work was about education, and not therapy – the mental health practitioner was involved to ensure we stayed on the right side of that balance.

Whilst we started to trial some sessions in a school unfortunately COVID prevented us fully piloting this work, so we shifted and ran some online practitioner workshops which were very insightful as well as helpful in building a wider network.  But there is so much more in this area that I’m keen to develop and explore!

Technology in education

To different degrees, use of technology to support education runs across both of these threads, reflected in some of the research projects I’ve been involved in previously at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge, as well as the Open University and Nottingham Trent University early on in my career.  Clearly available digital tools and what we can, should and sometimes shouldn’t do with them has changed significantly over this period.  I started as a research assistant at Nottingham Trent University in 2003, with a project addressing the impact broadband internet could and was starting to have in schools in England, with an intention that primary schools should have 2mbps, and secondary schools 10mbps – such a focus seems unimaginable now!  Currently working within the DEFI umbrella and through my role with Camtree, it is fascinating to explore what is becoming possible, the different decisions we are having to make, and the different ways in which we are interacting with each other and with content.

Navigating multiple identities

As a female academic – and a mum – being a contract researcher has been a tough journey at times, of trying to make successive research employments look and feel like a coherent research trajectory.  I’ve been fortunate to gain successive employments, which particularly in light of the COVID pandemic I don’t take lightly.  Navigating these multiple identities, I hugely appreciate that Hughes Hall in particular is a place where females in academia are listened to, valued and nurtured – not just for the sometimes brief contract periods but as leaders of the future.  As a research by-fellow at Hughes I’ve enjoyed multiple opportunities to engage with senior academics and students within my discipline of Education as well as across disciplines, and reaching beyond the Hughes community.

I have presented work internally for MCR events, within Bridge showcases, and for webinars organised by DEFI – taking advantage of the intimacy of the many in-person events scheduled through the termly calendars, as well as the benefits of digital tools to connect and communicate with audiences more widely.

Personally, and navigating those multiple identities, I was delighted to bring my sons to Hughes for a couple of days during their school half-term holiday.  This was great for them to get a sense of what I actually do and where I go each week, and for me to feel that my work and personal life don’t have to be so compartmentalised.  It was also their first time in Cambridge, and a first time punting for all of us.  But it was wonderful that people in Hughes welcomed them on site, with no sense that they didn’t belong.