One of the conversational themes from the Friday part of the TALO SwapMeet/ Unconference was online identity. I gleaned some of the ideas on the table in conversation with Alex at day's end and I can also asynchronously hear some of the actual discussion via some of his uploaded recordings. I'll certainly see what sparks go off in my Skinnerian brain and put some raw thoughts out here when that happens.
But it strikes me that the students I encounter in my work need to get a firm grip on this concept of personal identity, particularly in the online world. Right at this moment, that seems to be much more important than if they know how to manipulate a spreadsheet, edit a wiki or to use any one of the digital tools freely available for the price of a valid e-mail address. And maybe my best argument for teachers developing an online presence is "How do you educate students to take control of their online identity if you don't have one of your own?"
So how do I define Online Identity?
For me, I leave traces of who I am when:
· I write online - my blogs, wikis (both as administrator and contributor), Google groups, forums, mailing list archives.
· I comment on someone else's blog.
· I sign up for a new web application or service.
· I upload photos to Flickr or Bubbleshare.
· I use text based chat.
· I fill out a profile.
· I buy or even view something on Amazon or Ebay.
· I send e-mail.
Whenever I go anywhere or click anything on the web, information about me, my preferences, my curiousities, my intellectual property is gathered whether I want it to be or not. The only way to avoid that completely would be to adopt a luddite mindset, retire to a cave in the Flinders Ranges and abstain from the World Wide Web. I'm not even sure that could eliminate everything related to my identity. I know of Teacher X who told me that he/she didn't have a computer at home, proudly announced his /her abhorrence of mobile phones and accesses the web from behind the safety of the school's network firewall and IP address. This person and some of their related professional work turned up in the first page of my Google Search based on their name - if you're human and interact with other humans, then they also can have a hand in building your Online Identity, regardless of your own personal stance on the matter.
All of this personal data seems to fall into two main categories - what we give up willingly and what is gathered by stealth via cookies and search patterns. What we consciously type into dialog boxes and text fields can be in search of tools and services, or in the pursuit of communication. That's the part we can control. It's much harder to avoid the key stroke Google info gathering that presents ads to us based on our perceived needs and interests. (I've lost count of the number of Interactive Whiteboard ads that crop up on my work laptop - and after the boys have hammered the Disney, Thomas the Tank Engine and Dreamworks sites, the home PC will peddle different but "relevant" wares via Google Ads.) The only way someone could evade that form of identity hunting would be by disconnecting. That might nearly be impossible and certainly undesirable from a student's point of view so awareness raising might be a good place to start.
But most of that stuff is hidden from most regular web users - sign up information is only accessible by site administrators. It's what we voluntarily contribute to the web that could threaten us if due care and some foresight are not observed. Through these web interactions, we offer glimpses of our families, our social lives, our networks of friends and colleagues, our beliefs, our prejudices and our hopes. It's not as if adults can't make mistakes online but the one thing someone of my vintage has in their favour is my own comfort with my own time-established identity. I'm still not trying on different philosophies or looks, and the mistakes of my youth cannot be downloaded, remixed and manipulated beyond my control. In fact, I am now in the realm of having to think through the ethical decisions of a parent playing and learning in this digital arena. My experience tells me that adolescents aren't looking five years down the track - sometimes it might not even be five days - and the issues that look so obvious to us as worldly wise educators are extremely masked to those who just want to stay connect to their friends and more 24/7.
So I reckon educators need to be having open, awareness raising conversations with their students and logically covering all of the bases that assist these kids to be safe, ethical and in control. And these conversations can't just be the scaremongering the print media seems to be specialising in these days. Every time a crime occurs involving a teenager with an online presence, the finger is pointed to the "dark side of the internet" - if only they didn't have a MySpace account this never would have happened - this twisted logic that would also conclude that car accident victims are to blame for being on the road. As part of the conversation, Alex also pointed out to me the issue of intellectual property - students flocking to MySpace and Piczo are actually giving away their own rights for their content and images to large profit driven companies and being locked into an advertising driven interface where with some education and direction, they could be using open source alternatives and minimal-strings-attached services that empower and offer protection from exploitation.
So when parents start crying for help because they feel out of the loop, when the classroom teacher who's never ever created online content is called upon to sort out inappropriate postings by their students, when the principal is called in to referee a IM flamewar that a father caught the tail end of, how is it all going to be sorted out? I've seen and heard teachers start to berate students for their stupidity and their inappropriate choices - that's hardly going to get the kids on side and willing to alter their choices. Some teachers will be petrified and thank the department for the filters that stop them from having to deal with this technology within the school environment. I don't think either approach is going to work.
Personally I think I'm going to start gathering useful resources and dumping them in del.icio.us for an Online Identity approach to internet safety. I'm going to openly engage in dialogue with my class and share the issues that I've discussed above and try and work with my fellow teachers to get them to access and use these resources. And I'll throw an open invitation to anyone interested to perhaps put together a flexible series of lessons or a unit plan aimed at the middle school area, maybe hosted on a wiki - sort similar to Wesley Fryer's TeachDigital|safedsn pbwiki but aimed at students. Because this Online Identity business shouldn't have to be learned the hard way.Attribution: Image: 'Migrazioni di Identità' by Kay84 www.flickr.com/photos/20338931@N00/126457738