What does scuba diving, The Office, Ready Player One, and the infosphere have to do with online identity construction?
Last week I went scuba diving in the beautiful salt waters of the Northwest known as Puget Sound. The purpose of the diving was to earn my dry suit certification. See, a dry suit is wonderful for diving in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest as opposed to the more familiar wet suit frequently used in tropical waters. Dry suits employ waterproof zippers (originally created by NASA) and seals at the neck and wrists to keep you dry. The suit traps air, and since air has a much lower heat capacity than water, the bubble of air trapped inside your dry suit acts as an insulator to keep you completely dry and cozy for a longer period of time as you dive deep into the cold, salty water of the Sound. Wet suits, on the other hand, are made of neoprene foam. This allows for water to seep into every nook and cranny of the suit where it gets trapped inside forming a liquid layer all around your body that allows the neoprene foam to insulate you, though the water does transfer heat away from your body.
Neil de Grasse Tyson might criticize my oversimplification of the thermodynamic science that describes the process of heat loss while diving, but I find it to be a great analogy to describe the technological revolution we have been experiencing since the mid-20th century.
Since the 1950s, we have been living in a global information society transformed by information and communications technology. Like the water that bypasses the neoprene and fills the gaps inside of the wet suit, we have been experiencing a similar process with information as it has seeped into our suit creating a new infosphere. It has transformed our understanding of reality and of ourselves while reshaping our environment. No longer is there a metaphorical dry suit that blocks the waters of online and offline. We now navigate the waters of our world with a wet suit where information acts like water. This interconnected informational environment, or infosphere, has seeped and blurred the lines in which we consider life online and offline. Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford, explains that we are currently experiencing a fourth revolution of science. “We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one” (Floridi, 2010, p. 24). This new experience and perspective of reality is modifying the ways in which we construct our identity. In order to reach some level of individualism, we self-brand and re-appropriate ourselves on various online platforms like blogs, social media pages, YouTube channels, and online multiplayer games that allow us to present ourselves uniquely to some degree (Floridi, 2010, p. 26). Consider the science-fiction novel Ready Player One that was published just a year after Floridi’s work in 2011. The main character experiences conflicts around identity and relationships with his avatar on a world-wide virtual reality game. His avatar online is unique and self-designed, and in some ways, completely different from his physical persona. In addition, the choices he makes impact both his avatar online in the game and in the physical world that are extremely interconnected in this dystopian setting. I’d love to hear Floridi’s thoughts about the novel because of how closely it depicts the experience and processes of the fourth revolution that we see today.
Both Floridi claims and the example of Ready Player One boil to the surface the need for parents and educators to help students explore their identity and express themselves responsibly. Kids often develop their identities with access to digital media and they have a desire as learners to create and connect “on their own terms, with their own interests, and by their own design” (Tucker et al., 2017, p. 10). Consuming content, choosing avatars, sharing personal pictures and/or videos, and live streaming are just a few ways our students explore their identities and create a digital footprint of their online activities. In each of these ways, students construct a core identity, but they also develop digital personas for different mediums and audiences that will change alongside their identity overtime (De Kerckhove & Miranda de Almeida, 2013). Young people and adults manage the pressures of the infosphere by creating multiple accounts to manage their identity expressions to different audiences.
An example of the array of identity expressions are my own multiple Twitter accounts. One account is for my academic-professional self linked with the work I publish for this blog. The other is my personal-self account that includes a timeline and network of much broader interests. I carefully curate the content I share and engage with for both accounts considering the audiences who see it, though the data for both are most certainly linked and trace back to a representation of my core identity. If you’re a big Office fan like me, think back to how important Dwight’s Second Life avatar was to him and how he represented himself. Dwight expressed himself almost exactly how he does to his office colleagues except that he also lives out his fantasy of flying. Dwight’s Second Life Clip
These expressions and mediums come with implications we must help students consider. For example,“some teens can feel pressure to conform to idealized societal norms when they present themselves online” (James et al., 2019). The pressure to get likes or to appease the opinions of others can be damaging and isn’t an authentic expression of one’s self. In addition, our digital footprints influence strategies and actions that use collected data to influence settings and user experiences that often reduce our identities into categories that hinder our ability to self-management our identity. Controlled and constructed identities from data collection fails to recognize our multiplicity and impacts the ways we can engage online (De Kerckhove & Miranda de Almeida, 2013). That controlled data can also have long-term consequences affecting a student’s opportunity in the future. Inappropriate engagement with digital media when your young can be stored and resurfaced to be held against you even though you made a youthful mistake. There are plenty of examples of this in the college admissions and hiring process. Even Sir Francis Bacon’s ideas on the Idols of the Market Place still ring true if applied to our own discourse in online markets of digital media. “Speech is the means of association… but words are applied according to common understanding… Indeed, words plainly do violence to the understanding and throw everything into confusion” (Bacon, 1620). We must be careful and considerate for how our online selves engage and are presented to a wide range of audiences as it can lead to great controversy. In short, it is important for students to understand the consequences of their consumption and engagement in the informational space which can be both positive and negative.
Considering these implications from the perspective of a digital educator, I wondered: How do we, as educators and institutions, help students to responsibly express themselves and explore their identity as digital citizens?
ISTE Standard for Coaches:
Conveniently, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has created a framework of standards for educational leaders to consider when coaching teachers and students. Standard 7, Digital Citizen Advocate, presents considerations and strategies related to identity construction. The intention is for coaches to model digital citizenship and support educators and students in recognizing the responsibilities and opportunities inherent in living in a digital world. Not only do these standards help us support and prepare students through their identity exploration with technology, they also help model for educators and students how to responsibly engage with technology in the digital world which is very much part of the contemporary classroom learning environment. Two substandards in particular, 7b and 7d, directly address the heart of my inquiry:
7b: Partner with educators, leaders, students and families to foster a culture of respectful online interactions and a healthy balance in their use of technology.
This standard focuses on creating values for inclusive online interactions. This is important because students express themselves through digital media and engage with a wider audience. That engagement online with others also impacts how they view themselves and the world around them. It is important for them to consider different perspectives and experiences of others. Furthermore, maintaining a healthy balance of their technology is also extremely important for healthy identity development. Too much screen time can cause a plethora of physical and social-emotional issues.
7d: Empower educators, leaders and students to make informed decisions to protect their personal data and curate the digital profile they intend to reflect.
Your digital profile is how you represent yourself in online based activities. This can have both short-term and long-term consequences. Our identity evolves over time and our digital footprint may not accurately represent who we are or want to be. This standard focuses on footprint awareness and understanding how our information is collected and shared.
An offered solution with accompanying resources:
In considering the implications and consequences of constructing online identity and personas, it is imperative that as educators we shift and present views of technology away from focusing on tools and practices within technological systems. Instead, we must provide students the space to examine their online selves and interaction with technology as part of a larger information ecology which is a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a local environment. Students need opportunity to “critically engage with technology and media in a manner that notices their presence and effects” to better develop themselves appropriately and productively as digital citizens (Campbell & Garner, 2016). The focus is then on the relationships between entities within a technological system and the human activities that are served by technology. Issues that deal with people, relationships, social justice, and sustainability presents technology with language of environmental concern and awareness that challenge students to consider their role in a larger digital ecosystem (Campbell & Garner, 2016).
After conducting research to learn more about my question, I discovered two resources that I find extremely valuable in addressing my question and the related ISTE standards of 7b and 7d. The first is a widely popular website known as Common Sense Education that is dedicated to research, insights, and curriculum for K-12 digital citizenship. I love this website because it offers both families and educators resources for teaching and learning digital citizenship. They also have lessons organized by the subtopics of digital citizenship and grade level. These lessons feature activities that invite students to consider personal, moral and ethical issues associated with online identities. Common Sense Education also uses the Rings of Responsibility framework that promotes consideration of our personal well-being alongside broader moral, ethical, and civic considerations. This directly supports building awareness about our roles within the informational ecological system. Students also consider the benefits and risks of sharing and explore how their digital expressions affect their sense of self and relationships (James et al., 2019). Considering the Triple E Framework for measuring the degree to which the technology is helping students meet the learning goals:
- Extend Learning:
- Many of the lessons include a family component and/or an inquiry option for students to discuss their learning with families and/or conduct their own research
- The lesson topics and resources are directly applicable to their everyday life experiences and offer agency in how they demonstrate or engage with their learning
- The lessons are organized in in a progressive sequential order that is appropriate for each grade level.
- Enhance Learning:
- The resource challenges students to think critically and deeply about the implications of their technology use
- The resource follows a handful of research backed scaffolds to increase the capacity of student learning including 5 Core Dispositions and thinking routines
- Common Sense Media offers a variety of authentic activities that provide flexibility for how students demonstrate their learning
- Engage Learning:
- Lessons are focused on 1 particular topic of digital citizenship that is framed into a question
- Lessons allow for personalization and choice
- In most, but not all lessons, there is an inquiry piece of Digital Dilemmas considered to promote active social learning and engagement with their peers.
In addition to Common Sense Education, I feel it is important to couple their rich frameworks and pedagogical strategies with culturally responsive teaching methods in order to build student agency, voice, and understanding a diversity of perspectives. Classrooms, whether they be remote, hybrid, or full-time in-person learning, need to be designed around conversations that are culturally responsive and resemble ways students engage in discourse outside of school or at home. Providing a variety of social and academic talk structures assists in promoting more effective sociocultural natures of learning that builds community and student agency. When students can narrate their lives, share their experience, and process their thinking through discourse, they can better define the people they see themselves becoming (Hammond, 2015). The talk and task structures identified in Zaretta Hammonds book, Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, should be applied to our digital learning environments to support responsible and respectful online interactions with their peers. These strategies can help build empathy and encourage students to engage with digital media in a positive manner. They also pair really well with secondary lessons offered by Common Sense Education that incorporate dispositions that guide thinking and behavior. Just another resource that helps us shift our thinking about our role within a informational ecological system. This book is available as an e-book copy for your digital convenience.
You can learn more about Zaretta Hammond’s work through the following video as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME8KjqyqthM
Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner, “Theology of Technology 101,” Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in a Digital Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2016), 19-37
De Kerckhove, D., & Miranda de Almeida, C. (2013). What is a digital persona?, Technoetic Arts, 11(1). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263726825_What_is_a_digital_persona
James, C., Weinstein, E., & Mendoza, K. (2019). Teaching digital citizens in today’s world: Research and insights behind the Common Sense K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.
Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, technology and friendships. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/06/teens-technology-and-friendships/
Tucker, C., Wycoff, T., & Green, J. (2017). Blended learning in action: A practical guide toward sustainable change. Corwin.