On Avatars, Disposable Identities And Sock Puppets

I know I'm writing on this topic a good week or two after an interesting discussion on the TALO forum on the topic of Learning In The 21st Century, but I've been thinking about some of the ideas on student identity that were explored on that thread. This all ties back to the Al Upton issue and is certainly something that I can't seem to be able to move away from. (That could explain my blogging slowing to a crawl in the past fortnight.) Janet Hawtin has done a truckload of exploratory writing/thinking and was asking the following to occur:

Passing the baton back to the gang there are many folks on list who are more experienced in the specifics of these issues in a school context....

...fwiw I am not in any position as a non-educator participant in an open community to critique who is credible in a discussion about safety in schools...

So, I thought that I would have a go (edited to stick my chosen topic of student online identity):

I'm going to do what Janet suggests and that is speak from the perspective of working with kids and what the issues at hand might mean for them and me. I work with primary school kids - mainly 10 and 11 year olds. I really like this age group because they are still open to new ideas (they haven't closed their minds down into that's cool, that's not, learning sucks, teachers suck, we're really good type of thinking ... yet) but they are independent enough not to have their hands held all of the time. They are the right age to be guided to use the web responsibly, ethically and safely in my opinion. Many have not made their own "digital footprint" and many know a fair bit about a few limited things - MSN chat, and video games to name a few.
I've started off cautiously introducing them to social web tools using avatars and nicknames for two reasons - one, I know the media hype and scare stories and I didn't want to have alarmed parents denying their child's participation, so slowly does it and I also reckon it's everyone's right to have control over and determine their digital identity. What we created when we started a wiki project with Doug Noon's Grade Six kids in Alaska were sort of disposable identities. We worked on this wiki throughout the second half of this year - a great opportunity for their research to be for a purpose, they were accessing primary sources of information via the wiki and then creating something that could be shared with others. All of that happened.
This year, I started the kids with their own blogs. I was (am) hoping that this was a chance for regular writing, creation of a repository of their learning, building up of a class community of learners via reading and commenting.  Again, I was cautious so that the rug couldn't be quickly pulled from under our feet - avatars, no real faces, nicknames or first names only, close monitoring of content, moderation of comments, clear guidelines about what constituted private information...
...I'm scared - scared not what might happen to the students because I am confident that my caution will nip anything remotely inappropriate in the bud - but that one complaint from a paranoid source could shut down this opportunity for my students. We've learnt heaps along the way in only six weeks - mistakes have been great learning opportunities but we've kept them in-classroom and no-one has suffered embarrassment or felt slighted or unsafe. I'm concerned because I have to think of all of the contingencies and possibilities in advance, knowing that my department's policies have not kept up to date...

James Neill responded later with this reply:

interesting, graham, so you've basically gone the sock puppet route with

another experiment would be to only allow direct true, honest, and
transparent self-expressions - otherwise take it home / do it outside of
school - ideals about honesty, etc. often appear in school mission
statements - but perhaps school and education department mission
statements should be modified to reflect actual practice

Now James works in higher education, so I wasn't sure if he was having a go at me with the "sock puppet" reference. It was the first time that I had ever heard the phrase and a bit of Wikipedia research found that it wasn't a flattering term. Anyway, in true Wegner diplomatic style, I decided to explore his point of view in another post:

Hi James ... I'm not sure what to make of the "sock puppet" comment - something tells me that I should be offended or at least reacting to it as some form of jibe. Is it just another name for an avatar/nickname based identity? Is the concept of a "disposable identity" for students under the age of 18 such a bad thing? Maybe I wasn't clear about my choices here - and it could well be that my thinking is full of holes - I may be on a lower intellectual level anyway. To me, while the concept of real images and use of real names might be desirable, it isn't crucial to how I wanted to start my students in using read/write tools for learning for the first time. Part of my thinking is that once you are 18, as an adult in an educational setting, you can choose how to portray yourself in your online identity - disclose as little or as much about yourself as you feel comfortable with. But my students are still minors under the law, I am their "legal guardian" during school hours and for any school based projects that I set up. Any choices I make and set up for them could affect their future digital history if linked closely to their actual non-online identity. A "disposable identity" that has enough in it for the classroom community (and by default their families) to know who is who allows them to sever ties with that classroom project if they want. After all, this is new territory for me and them. There are unanswered questions in my mind about how any blogs of theirs should be used anyway after they finish in my classroom and move on... I'll concede that the "sock puppet" treatment is conservative but I think it is very early days to be using these tools in the primary school setting. And at least in primary school, there is one teacher mentoring this whole process - in high school when things get fragmented, who's doing the guiding and teaching then? I want other teachers to come on board and they need to feel sure that they are doing the right thing in their appointed role - adults themselves use "fictional identities" until they feel confident in the online world.
I'll emphasise again that for the vast majority of my kids (10/11 year olds) this is their first foray into online read/write interaction. My parents expect that I will be keeping them safe but they also know that this may be the only time their child might be doing individual online authoring in their school life - so their support is not something to be treated lightly. If their comfort level is at ease because we've equitably agreed that we'll go down the avatar/nickname path - having different options would only muddy the waters and make it very hard to manage. (Especially as I have the rest of the curriculum to deliver.) Again, make things too complex or hard to manage and other teachers following behind will baulk.
I think that while it's nice to think in terms of ideals, the practicality of delivering those ideals in a classroom of minors is too much to ask. And even with the compromises I make on those ideals, the kids are lot more savvy and in control of their online skills than without any read/write exposure at all. This is an important part of my job (and one that is sadly neglected by the vast majority of K-12 teachers in my opinion) but it is not my entire job, and it is a useful and much needed tool for my students' learning but it is not the sum of their learning either.
I apologise for being unable to make my points more succinctly - it means I won't be adding any of my thoughts on your other posts and points right at this point in time.

James then chimed in with his clarifying thoughts. Now I could see where he was coming from - and he now understood mine:

i suggested the term 'sock puppets' might be relevant earlier on as another word/phrase for describing one approach to handling the issues raised by the minis not being allowed to blog anyone - they could go the route you have chosen. i also suggested we might reclaim the negative connotation of the word, just as 'true' hackers have tried to
reclaim the good meaning of hacking.

i am curious whether you have actually been given any guidelines within which to operate - or have you intuitively picked your way through the minefield of 'what might happen if' in order to get the project to fly?

i've got no problem with people using multiple and fictitious identities - when there's an authentic purpose. but if the fundamental reason is to avoid political scandal, then it's time for online educators to start the revolution.

from what i can smell from here, i suspect that the current conservativism in online education is undermining the quality of education for our future workforce


So, maybe the "sock puppet" moniker can be reclaimed for good but I think I prefer the term "disposable identity". There is also some great discussion around this topic when Alex Couros and his EC&I class talked through some of the issues around the miniLegends closure with Sue Waters. There the participants talked around whether the use of pseudonyms reduced the authenticity of a blog or a blogger. However, when dealing with younger students, I still believe that a student blog using one of these (modified name, representative image) identities can still be authentic - for me, these choices place barriers to actual identification but leave enough for other readers to engage with. I was amused but dismayed that the suggestion that pseudonymity would be the creation of a fictional identity. I don't think that should be the case. There is no doubt that if you read one of my student's blogs that they are actually Year Six students, you could figure out their gender but you won't get their actual name, you won't get actual clear images of them, you won't get any more than vague references to their family, they refer to other students by their avatar names but they are authentically blogging about their learning, their classroom experiences and their own ideas.

Their blogs are a construct of my design. Although they have been extremely enthusiastic, they haven't just decided to blog of their own accord so I owe it to them to ensure that it is a safe environment. A "disposable identity" is something they can cut adrift at a later date, or claim for their own when they feel they are ready to manage their own online identity.

It's not just about safety - it's about personal control of that identity. And in the artificial world of the classroom, my role is to help add the responsibility component as my students make their connections beyond that classroom without compromising that control.

Image: "Sock Puppet" http://flickr.com/photos/toni-travels/1388176674/
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4 thoughts on “On Avatars, Disposable Identities And Sock Puppets

  1. merij

    I too stumbled onto your blog when I googled technology and teaching generation z. I teach infants and primary computer and I am inspired, I love your idea of using an alias for teaching primary students about avatars. I am looking forward to looking through your site.

  2. Geoff Brown

    Good discussion. One point which might be slightly tangential…..Yes, you are their guardian — AND you are also a “mandated reporter” for child abuse under state law. That means you must report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse. The problem is that many teachers don’t know how to talk to students in whom they notice possible signs of abuse. (You can’t just say, “Are you being abused?”). There’s a new online role-playing course lets teachers practice these difficult conversations online and get better at detecting and reporting child abuse. It has a free demo, plus a CEU-credit version. Written by a Minnesota police detective. Hope this is useful to your readers.


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