29 June 2015

Identity Formation and the Digital Self in School

Who you are—your identity—and therefore who you become is defined by many different factors: social constructions, personal choices, and historical constructs being three of the biggest. This identity is not made up of permanent states, or at least significant constituent parts don’t have immutable permanence. Identity is formed over time, and changes in time. More recently, identity has also taken on a digital component, as people have begun to create “digital selves” that are both an extension of and a separate formation of a person’s whole identity. The role school plays in the formation of the identity of a student is profound and multivarious. Therefore, how school problematizes and navigates this new digital identity formation world is of increasing importance.

However, it appears that most school policies regarding the digital self start and stop with admonishments as things you shouldn’t do—a strategy of scarring and thus protecting the students from the dangerous of the digital world. What is lacking in these policies is that the digital self formation is framed in purely prescriptive terms—thus missing the potentially progressive capabilities of framing digital self formation in terms terms of self-ownership and empowerment. I'd like to try to explore the ways school currently views digital self formation, and possible ways forward for a more full conception of identity formation and the digital self in schools.

What is a digital self?

The digital self is the outward expression and presentation of a person within online and digital mediums. Because it is online or digital, this identity is disembodied and sometimes anonymous. The digital self is also a very recent phenomenon—as little as fifteen years ago most readers would not have been familiar with the concept. But ask someone today and they could very likely give you at least a fairly concrete example of what an online identity is and even one they currently use.

The digital self is also evolving at a hard to comprehend pace. What started with email and chat rooms has now progressed to blogs, big data, social media, massive multiplayer online environments, and possibly even massive open online learning environments. As our day-to-day lives become exponentially more connected, our digital constructs of who we are and the ways in which we express and present ourselves becomes more complex and multivariable. It would be hard to imagine a more foundational, substantial historical addition to identity formation that the digital self.

The Digital Self in School

Identity formation in school, especially during the middle and secondary years, is mostly left to the “hidden curriculum.” Schools place a lot of emphasis on the formal curriculum of teaching and learning, but they also mold students identities and behaviors through these hidden— unwritten and unofficial—lessons (think detention, line making, asking before speaking, honesty, saying the pledge, etc). School understands it influences it, that students are forming them and that intervention is necessary when students need “redirection,” but there is very little active formal emphasis on identity (in most schools, in most circumstances).

Thus the digital self in school finds itself existing in a dance between the formal, hidden, and null curriculums of school. Most schools actively talk about the digital self in prescriptive ways by prohibiting certain actions or uses and by threatening the permanence of certain action or uses. In other words, bad use, but never wise use. The instances of the digital self that do not fall under prohibition or permanence instead become part of hidden or even more common null curriculum—curriculum that schools don’t teach. It is a mistake to only view the digital self in bad use terms. It is a missed opportunity. And the inaction is becoming more inexcusable as school stays silent while the identities of students become more and more intertwined with their digital selves.

Most schools currently treat the digital lives of students much in the same way as we try (and usually fail) to teach them about drugs and alcohol—prohibition and permanence. The message we send more often than not about the digital age is about all of the dangers. How much time do we devote to this, and how much time do we devote to talking about how they can take control of their own digital identities, about how the world before them is a world that will be paradigmatically different than the world 20 years ago, about understanding their digital and connected experiences by teaching and promoting digital citizenship? A better balance needs to be found.

Students also need to be learning and practicing about how to take self-ownership of their online identity, to function, find meaning, within the connections, find wise use. School need to be teaching and encouraging ways to do this and creating spaces and experiences to practice within. In a world of never ending data, what's important is not individual incidents of wrong or immature use, but demonstrated totalities of use, and school should be showing them ways on how to personalize it—so it can be creative, inventive, self-owned, and meaningful.


Where do we go from here? The digital self is becoming too important of a player in the formation of the identities of students for the totalities of use to be left as part of the hidden and null curriculum. As Michael Wesch claims, we are living in a different “media-scape” where we’re at the center. This center is comprised of user-generated content, filtering, organization, and distribution. This is especially true of today’s students, and will be ever more increasingly true as long as the world progresses on the same digital, interconnected trajectory we are on.

By prohibiting certain actions and uses and by threatening the permanence of certain action or uses what school is doing is pushing this part of identity formation outside of school when it should seen as integral, as part of the formal curriculum. School should not only be teaching the hows of wise use and the formation of the digital self, but also should be using the digital self to expand, take advantage of, and re-imagine the new affordances of teaching and learning in the digital age.

A full conception of what this looks like in practice needs to be explicated, but many teachers are already beginning the process by encouraging their students to write blogs, create e-Portfolios, use Twitter, join online learning communities, and publish their creative works in digital mediums. Teachers need to continue here, and do more. School as an institution needs to incorporate this new reality into their overall mission statement of what it means to be an educated and self-discerning young adult. If we do this we will begin the necessary step of problematizing the digital self.

(Originally written for EPS 415 A SU15: Technology & Educational Reform with Professor Nick Burbules, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

“The Digital Self: Concepts, Culture and Society.” CHUCOL RSS. Web. 29 Jun. 2015. <http://www-chucol.mml.cam.ac.uk/?page_id=54>

Zhao, Shanyang. “The Digital Self: Through The Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others.” Symbolic Interaction 28.3 (2005): 387–405. Web.

“An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 29 Jun. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpao-lz4_hu>

08 June 2015

How Time Structures School as an Educational Technology

Two of the most persistent, pervasive, and prescriptive teaching and learning features (or technologies) of school over the past 100 or so odd years are: 1) the way school uses and defines space; and 2) the way school creates and establishes structure. These two features, more so probably than any other two, shape and frame the school teaching and learning environment. The discussion of school space will be bracketed in order to examine more in-depth the concept of the structure of school; specifically to critically evaluate the role different school created and established structures have in defining the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school. A conclusion will be reached that the structures school has traditionally created may no longer fully serve and support the current and future goals of teaching and learning.

Structure Defined

What is structure, and is it an educational technology? In general, any of the mechanisms school uses to organize the teaching and learning environment and hence the communication and knowledge architectures in school is a structure. These structures can be both deliberately created and established, and arise as the unintended result of other structures. While the teaching and learning structures within school are too numerous to list (and probably not understood well enough to either), there are a select few that are obvious, deliberate, and near ubiquitous. We can highlight three: 1) timetabling, 2) pedagogy, 3) content.1

School as almost all of us know it is based around the structure of a timetable cell, with a class name and a start and stop bell (cells and bells). Discrete topics of learning take place within discrete cells of a timetable, only alterable by those in charge. The result of this is the delineation of where and when teaching and learning happens—it happens right there at that specific time.

These discrete topics are also many times filtered through an intermediary, traditionally called a teacher, who structures the teaching and learning in what many times become both categorical and idiosyncratic ways. These pedagogical decisions end up for the most part defining the knowledge and communication architectures within the learning space.

Not only is the way the information is constructed structured by the learning environment, but also the type of information is structured by the learning environment. The content—or curricula—is usually a predetermined, fixed entity, set to standards, sanitized and sterilized for consumption, and then delivered on a distinct and linear trajectory.

Taken together, these three interconnected structures of school account for a significant portion of the overall structured nature of the teaching and learning inside school. But is this concept of structure a technology? Following in the tradition set-out by American educational philosopher John Dewey and continued by philosophers Larry Hickman and Nick Burbules, a technology properly understood is not as a tool but as a kind of relationship. Viewed in this way, technology is not the thing that helps us solve problems but rather it is the result of the process of inquiry into problem-solving—technology is the result of a process of inquiry and a stage toward new inquiry (Burbules lecture, 21 May 2015).

The structures of school, especially the structures of timetabling, pedagogy, and content highlighted, fit very well into this definition of technology. These three structures, probably more so than any elements within a school except for the learner herself, form the relationship teaching and learning has with a process of inquiry. The results of this process of inquiry are in many ways dependent upon the structures set-up before the inquiry began. This effectively makes any inquiry structure a technology itself.

Therefore, structure can confidently be called a technology. However, technologies themselves, again following Dewey, Hickman, and Burbules, are not ipso facto good or bad. Their essence in this sense is determined by the use. The use needs to be critically reviewed in order to understand the affordances created between structure and teaching and learning.


Critical Review of Structures in Practice

It is difficult to isolate these three structures in practice because at a deep level they are interdependent. But more so than the other connections, the structuring of time drives the pedagogical and content choices made.

Timetabling standardizes the communication and knowledge architectures of teaching and learning in school into discrete periods and discrete subjects. For a long time, this model improved the teaching practice and created specific and successful models of learning and classroom climates. School was built on the assumption that information was scarce; therefore it had the job of delivering fixed content because it had the access to the information. Information was then broken down into standardized subjects, and pedagogy was designed around delivering the content with a discrete chunk of time. But what about where today and into the future?

It could be argued that information scarcity should no longer be a main driver of school assumptions. And if this is true, then timetabling teaching and learning should no longer solely drive the pedagogical and content choices school makes. A question to ask then is: Does it continue to make sense to require all learning to happen within a timetable cell (and therefore within four walls with controlled and fixed content choices) just because that is the created and established structure?

The current world teaching and learning inhabits is a world of abundance, and more so, an uncontrollable and ubiquitous world of accessing, creating, and sharing information (cf Will Richardson). What this world therefore also requires is for school to build different relationships with time. Learning shouldn’t begin and end with the sound of a bell. This world of abundance requires a refocusing of the communication and knowledge architectures traditionally set-up within a walled and timed classroom environment. It requires a focus on building the capacities within students themselves to think, learn, and grow. And to do this, it will be hard for school to continue to value timetabling over learning. A more flexible approach to time is needed.

Re-structuring the relationship school has to time, away from timetabling and towards a more flexible approach, is a foundational educational shift. The structure of the timetable technology was build for a teaching and learning world that is existing less and less. A new structure built around a more flexible relationship to time would help further the current and future goals of the teaching and learning ecology of school. The balance is currently too skewed towards a celled structure. School needs to also embrace a flexible time environment in order to take full advantage of the new learning affordances of today and into the future.

Go to Part II 

(Originally written for EPS 415 A SU15: Technology & Educational Reform with Professor Nick Burbules, University of Illinois, Masters of Educational Learning Design and Leadership in New Learning)

1It´s an interesting but altogether different conversation as to the why of their ubiquity and stickiness. Many blame Horace Mann, the Prussians, and the industrial model of education. Age grouping is another interesting case of an ubiquitous structure that will have to be bracketed for now—Ken Robinson calls into question this idea that the most important thing kids have in common is their ¨age of manufacture¨