Jun 072011

Having just read the excellent To be or not to be: the importance of Digital Identity in the networked society, that Cristina Costa and Ricardo Torres published in the EFT journal, I saw myself portrayed in many of the challenges they point out in the process of representing ourselves online and building a digital identity. First and foremost is the question of our fragmented presence, with bits of our selves scattered all over cyberspace, not rarely emulating different aspects of our complex identity as a person. In the physical world, these different instantiations of us are linked to specific contexts and rarely get mixed together. Online things are a lot messier, with contexts easily mixing, with the resulting difficulties in managing the way we want to present ourselves to others. To this respect, Twitter, to some extent, and, especially, Facebook make it really hard to manage a coherent identity online. Which brings me to the three dilemmas that they propose for analysis: open or closed?; single or multiple?; genuine or fake?

If the last one doesn’t really strike a chord with me personally – I almost always go for “genuine” over “fake” – I’ve long been struggling with the first two, trying to get the right balance in a difficult-to-decide continuum. I prefer open over closed, and single over multiple, because of the many benefits that are pointed out in terms of professional practice, personal development, credibility and accountability, etc.,  but only when I can have a fair amount of control over the context and easily manage who gets to see what I publish. In the case of Facebook, this is made nearly impossible: although there are permissions you can tinker with, it takes a lot of effort to get them right and they won’t work in many specific situations. The fact is I had a list of friends that included renown academics, former and current colleagues both from the university and high school, the same for students, online connections, some of which I’ve also met physically at conferences, recent and very old friends, and some of my son’s schoolmates and football teammates, aged 11, among other types. In this case, the obvious route was to go with different identities – personal and professional – which is not even allowed in Facebook. Fortunately, I don’t mind breaking the rules when they are unfair, illogical or plain stupid. Facebook should make this management easy – Diaspora makes this really simple – only it goes against their be$t intere$t$.

Another important element that connects with the “single or multiple” dilemma is language, for those of us whose mother tongue is not English and who take an interest in areas where a big chunk of our relevant connections are international. Should we go single, mixing languages in the spaces we publish, or multiple, with one identity for our mother tongue and another for English? Both options have their pros and cons, but it is often difficult to decide which one to take – different blogs/accounts/identities make it easier to manage what you publish and to whom, but can be very time consuming and arguably make for a weaker, less coherent online presence. Not to mention that publishing in a foreign language is an obvious disadvantage, as we cannot achieve the same level of quality in expressing ourselves and our ideas. And since language is the most powerful tool through which we represent ourselves online, i.e. build our digital identity, this is definitely something to be reckoned with.

One final note to refer to the interesting way in which “networked learning” is framed within the larger context of human experience and beyond ICT, with notable examples such as Erasmus, Voltaire or Darwin, to which you could add Illich’s learning webs as a visionary anticipation of some of the core aspects currently discussed in this field. Also noteworthy is the account of the different stages in web development, although I think that the technological perspective of elearning referred to, focused on content delivery, is not the whole story. In terms of distance education in general, there is another tradition, going back two decades, that is more relevant, IMHO. Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education, published in 1989, was a game changer in distance education, with people like Anthony Kaye, Robin Mason, Andrew Feenberg, Linda Harasim, Søren Nipper or Morten Paulsen, to name a few, envisioning a totally new perspective for distance learning, based on the emergence of technologies – mainly, the discussion forum, also labeled “conference” – that made group interaction possible. One of the key readings in the book is Linda Harasim’s On-Line Education: A New Domain, where she characterizes online education as “A domain for collaborative learning”. She goes on to say that “The on-line environment is particularly appropriate for collaborative learning approaches which emphasise group interaction”, and that “On-line education represents an augmented environment for collaborative learning and teaching”. Almost a decade later, in 1998, Heather Kanuka and Terry Anderson published Online social interchange, discord, and knowledge construction, where they state: “Social constructivist theory is currently the most accepted epistemological position associated with online learning”.

So, although it’s true that in certain contexts elearning came to be associated with content delivery and “passive” learning (as Jane Hart once said, “content publishers hijacked the term elearning”), online learning (often a synonym) was, since its inception, focused on collaboration and active learning, now made a lot more powerful and diversified with the technologies available today. And this is something I feel is worth to remember.

Kanuka, H., & Anderson, T. (1998). Online social interchange, discord, and knowledge construction. Canadian Journal of Distance Education, 13(1), 57-74.

Mason, Robin & Kaye, Anthony (Eds.) (1989). Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

  2 Responses to “Some notes on To be or not to be: the importance of Digital Identity in the networked society”

  1. Great Post Jose.
    Thanks so much for the review.
    You raise really interesting perspectives regarding language, and also the difference between e-learning/distance education and online learning.

    A couple of months ago when introducing the Virtual Doc project to a bunch of academics I also used a similar analogy. That is definitely a section in the paper we need to improve on. Yet, out point was also to stress the fact that although the tools are there and the individual can be empowered to higher levels of interactivity, that does not necessary happen and that has to do with people’s epistemology of practice, concerns, lack of training and motivation, resistance of change… I experience that on a regular basis … but people are changing their attitude, simply because the world around them is pressing them to
    thanks for sharing. very thought provoking 😉

  2. Hi Cristina :-),

    You’re so right about this

    although the tools are there and the individual can be empowered to higher levels of interactivity, that does not necessary happen and that has to do with people’s epistemology of practice, concerns, lack of training and motivation, resistance of change

    Tools are the easier part; the real work lies in changing practices, beliefs and mentalities. As cliche as this may sound, it is definitely true. But I also think that, especially in higher education, teachers need to have stronger incentives to change their practice. As long as their career continues to be mostly (not to say completely) valued for their research and publication, and their teaching totally overlooked, change will be harder, imho.

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