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>


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