Sunday, November 15, 2009

Identity Crisis

The issue of identity rarely seems to come up in discussions of e-Learning. Identity, in this sense, is the ability for students or instructors to project a sense of themselves and their unique, individual characters. Without a sense of identity, online interaction with others can seem distant, flat, and does not engage or foster deep learning.

Granted, identity may be less of an issue in e-Learning with very small class sizes or where students already know one another. There are also benefits to online anonymity in that it shifts focus from judgments based on personality or physical features to the quality of one’s ideas – and writing. Researchers have found this allows some people to escape bias associated with disability, appearance, race, and gender. I'm not convinced, however, that for e-Learning the benefits an anonymity outweigh the obstacles it raises. Identity was a barrier in my experience - both in courses that were entirely online with students I never met before and with in-person courses that used online components.

e-Learning often relies heavily on student interaction, often in the form of forum and/or blog postings. When I first started my online program with 45 classmates, none of whom I had met or been introduced to, I found the experience bewildering and overwhelming. Adding to this, I found that most classmate posters did not sufficiently differentiate themselves. The medium, and to a lesser extent, the communicators’ (lack of) action resulted in postings that seemed like overhearing the din of multiple simultaneous speakers and unable to hear any one sufficiently to join in.

There are ways to remediate these issues, however. These include technological mechanisms (e.g. including students photos on all postings automatically, auto linking to profile and to past posts, allowing individual design customization), norms (e.g. limiting the amount of or size of interaction, use of signature lines), or individual mastery of existing devices (e.g. writing style). In my online class interactions, I try to include my (bad) sense of humour, include references to my personal details, and to use a conversational style. The instructor can also address this, for example by establishing expectations or beginning a course with mutual introductions.

In a discussion on this topic with a classmate, she felt that such identity issues were not unique to Internet media. She shared an example of a class with a rather hostile teacher who attacked students for expressing opinions diverging from the instructor's. Rather than expressing herself in class, she “felt that my personal identity, open for all to see, needed to be hidden. Based on how quiet many students were, they likely felt the same.” She adds, "this experience showed me that strong classroom management, teacher scaffolding, and respect, either online or off, is vital." Clearly, a respectful, welcoming climate is essential for any type of learning.

I agree that the challenges of projecting, revealing, or protecting identity apply to learning offline and online. Personally, I have found participating in e-Learning discussions allows me a more safe way to project my thoughts and myself than offline. The more deliberate and controlled online mechanisms allow me to take the time to compose and edit my thoughts and expressions, compared to in-class.

I do think that there could be more that e-Learning technology could do to enable identity to be projected (as desired). The the e-Learning platform Moodle, for example, allows students to include their picture and biography. Educators should also consider this issue in relation to educational goals when planning courses. This will not only help guide decisions of e-Learning technology to use but can also allow instructors to structure courses appropriately.