What a year! This post looks back the events of the last 12 months through the lens of education-related tweets from Twitter users in the UK. It builds on the analysis we published in August, though that included only tweets about schools; in what follows we have also added tweets referring to pupils, students, colleges and education in general.
Ups and downs
Figure 1 shows daily numbers of education-related tweets from the UK during 2020. They are based on a random sample of tweets provided by Twitter, with activity levels normalised so that January 2020 has a mean value of 100.
Before the pandemic struck in early March, activity was relatively stable, with regular weekly cycles and a dip in mid-February coinciding with the half-term holiday. Then the number of tweets rose rapidly, reaching a peak of more than 4 times usual levels on 18th March, the day that school closures in England were announced.
Normal levels of activity returned during lockdown in April, rising again in May when it was revealed that some children would be able to return to school from early June. There was also a peak on 16th June, following the government's U-turn on free school meals. A summer lull during July and early August was followed by another big spike in mid-August during the A-level and GCSE results debacle, and on 31st October, when England's second national lockdown was announced (though this time with most schools remaining fully open). There was a final flourish on 30th December, when the government announced that many January school openings in England would be delayed.
What, then, were all these users twittering about? Figure 2 shows word clouds of the terms that characterised each month. These are calculated relative to the same months in 2018 and 2019, thus highlighting themes that were particular to 2020.
January was full of concerns about the effects of Brexit on the Erasmus programme (which enables students to study across Europe), as well as various petitions on sign language, sanitary products for girls and halal meat. By February attention had already begun to swing decisively towards to the pandemic – amid other talk of Greta Thunberg and Pancake Day – and in March coronavirus well and truly took centre stage. In April, attention turned to homeschooling and (perhaps a little optimistically) school re-openings. This continued into May, joined in June by campaigns to extend provision of free school meals and combat racism. As schools closed in July, most of the online chatter was still about when and how they might open up again.
(Use the menu below to select a month to view.)
In August, attention turned to exam grades and university admissions. With the return to school in September there was much talk of those other kinds of tests – as well as bubbles, masks and social distancing. Free school meals returned to the fore in October, followed by a new lockdown in November. As schools struggled to remain safe and stay open (or, in some cases, to close in the face of government resistance), December saw a suitably cacophonous mix of terms – 'open' and 'closed', 'vaccine' and 'COVID', 'safe' and 'infection' – as if to summarise a thoroughly disorientating year.
Figure 3 shows the prevalence of certain selected topics over time. (These were identified using associated terms that we judge to be relatively unambiguous: see Footnote 2 of our March post for further details.)
School closures were the talk of March, accounting for up to a third of all education-related tweets. Subsequent spikes have been more modest, the largest coming at the start of the second English lockdown at the beginning of November. Mentions of distance learning have been more sustained (though, to be fair, some of this preceded the pandemic) and discussions about rules and mitigation measures have tended to grow during the year, as have mentions of the virus itself. Talk of school openings tended to track the announcements in England of partial re-openings in June and nationwide re-openings in September. Key workers were a common subject of discussion at the start of the first national lockdown in March, while exam results were a predictably hot topic in August. Government policy has been discussed on and off at relatively low levels since the start of the pandemic.
(Click on the figure legend to turn individual data sets on or off; double-click to show one data set on its own. Hover over the graph to see corresponding data values.)
This tells us roughly what people have been talking about, but not how it makes them feel. To that end, Figure 4 shows a rolling 7-day-average 'Net Emoji Score' for all education-related tweets. This is generated by categorising the most commonly used emojis – such as 😀, 😩 and 😐 – into 'positive', 'negative' and 'neutral' categories, then calculating the difference between the prevalence of positive and negative emojis on each day.
One striking trend is that overall sentiment has tended to decline throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, the biggest troughs coincided with the spring and autumn lockdowns (in mid-March and the end of October, respectively). There were also smaller dips at the close of the school year in mid-July and the announcement of a new English tier system at the end of November.
To see more clearly how these sentiments relate to particular topics of discussion, Figure 5 shows the average Net Emoji Score of tweets by topic. Across all education-related tweets from the UK, the mean value was +6.7 (ie, 'positive' emojis were 6.7% more prevalent than negative ones). Tweets about distance learning did almost as well as the average, but all other selected topics show negative scores. (Note that the low score associated with key workers seems to have more to do with confusion or disagreement about who qualifies rather than any antipathy towards key workers themselves.) The lowest circles in this particular hierarchy of hellishness are reserved for government policies, school closures and the coronavirus itself. That seems about right.
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