Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Reflecting on Digital Identity

An oval mirror in front of two empty concrete seats.Saj and Mirror 2016 by Rami Tareef, CC BY-SA 4.0 

A life time ago when I was in high school a classmate of mine had a lucrative side hustle selling pirated satellite television boxes.  What set him apart from the dozens of others who did this was that he actually wrote the code that circumvented the security protections.  Years later our paths crossed again and it turns out that he now runs his own cyber security firm that does consultation work across the country.  During our conversation he told me that “Google probably knows you better than you know yourself.”  He went on to say my buying habits, location data, search histories, and social media presence create a composite picture of who you are in the digital space.

The idea that my activities are constantly shaping my digital identity was foremost in my mind when it came time to write this week’s blog post.  What have I been putting out into the world and what does it say about me?  What have I done to help my students nurture a positive online presence?  How does the concept of digital identity connect to digital citizenship?

We’re Not So Different, You and I

In her article Kristen Mattson argues for the integration and interweaving of digital citizenship concepts throughout various humanities curriculums.  In her opinion community membership demands participation in both offline and online spaces. Essentially she is stating that placing technology related topics into silos separates them from our daily contexts where they impact us the most.  I would take this a step further and say that there is no separation anymore between these subject areas because there is no distinction between offline and online anymore.  Digital identity is our identity.

Let’s pause for a moment of introspection.  If what we put out into the digital world truly defines who we are as professionals, what steps have we taken to carefully shape our digital presence?  My approach has been thus far to hide under a figurative blanket and hope that nothing goes terribly wrong.  But as Mattson points out civic discourse on a range of extremely important topics has migrated to online spaces. As evidence of this my government recently passed an abhorrent bill into law restricting the use of preferred pronouns in schools without parental consent.  Since I personally oppose this policy (which I make perfectly clear to all those who will listen in real life) shouldn’t my position be reflected in the digital space as well?  Teaching, in my opinion, involves a degree of activism and advocacy for the improvement of education.  Despite this my misgivings about fully participating in an online spaces prevents me from being effective.  I am very careful about what I say and do online (even writing this blog makes me uncomfortable to a degree).  Frankly I am scared to put my thoughts out there.

Do as I say, Not as I do

My hope has always been that students would be more comfortable and adept at navigating technology than I am.  As Allision Sparks put it, “we must consider youth’s ability to use technology in empowering and knowledgeable ways.” In my opinion their students are relatively comfortable with technology, but it is the latter point that seems to be lacking.  As Sparks points out it isn’t realistic to assume that parents alone can equip their children for the challenges of the digital world.  Its a an issue of equity; many of my students do not have the same access to resources or knowledge as others.  This places a heavy emphasis on the education system to rise up and fill the gaps.

This means it is my responsibility to help my students navigate digital identity.

Me – The hide under the blanket guy.

I don’t deny the necessity of teachers helping students navigate the complexity of managing, curating, and exploring digital identity, but this is yet another responsibility that is being added to a very full plate.  As mentioned earlier this needs to be interwoven into resources and materials, not just tacked onto to a curriculum document without support.  I think we need to take a moment and realize that many teachers, such as myself, are not as knowledgeable as they would like to be.  I feel the responsibility is being left once again at our feet to “figure out”.  As Sparks noted the community members, teachers, and parents need to combine forces to truly be effective in teaching digital skills.  It takes the village to raise a child, and in this same spirit it takes a community to help students navigate digital identity.  I see it as spheres of influence.  Governments should pass laws that protect children (not restrict their rights) and hold technology companies accountable for the ways that they use personal data.  Schools should educate students on the elements of digital citizenship.  Parents need to have discussions with their kids about online behaviour.  Frankly we are all uncomfortable addressing this, but we need to move beyond our comfort zones and make it happen (myself included).

Sometimes all it Takes is a Push

One of the few positive things to come out of the pandemic was that when push comes to shove, even technological luddites like myself can make it happen.  As Buchholz et al. points out the shutdown forced the entire education system out of technological stupor and thrust teaching into online spaces.  Emergency remote teaching rapidly changed my digital identity, I went from relatively technology avoidant to completely dependent upon it for my instruction.  However, my reluctance to engage online created a larger learning curve when working with students on social media platforms.  I had never considered Discord as a way for communicating with students, but since that is where they were comfortable, I had to adapt.  I would like to think that I can do this again.  Given the current state of discussion on social media platforms I think the area that I need to focus on the most is how to coach students through civil online discourse.

Maybe if it works with my students I can teach it to my government.

Join the Conversation

How have you nurtured your digital identity?  Do you think that teachers have a responsibility to be take their activism to online spaces (where there may be consequences)?  Do you have any advice for a teacher (like myself) who is reluctant to engage and build a digital footprint?

6 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

  1. Great post as always Matt! My mantra about sharing is if I wouldn’t put it on my bulletin board outside my classroom on parent/teacher interview night I shouldn’t put it online. I don’t know if it is the right mantra now that I seem more interested in online activism. I seem to be fighting the urge more and more recently to not get into arguments on twitter with complete strangers. If I gave any advice it would be to stay out of the comments section of articles you are passionate about. “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty but the pig likes it.”

    • “If I wouldn’t put it on my bulletin board outside my classroom on parent/teacher interview night I shouldn’t put it online”

      I think this should be taught in all university education classes!! Solid point.

  2. Great read Matt! I always start my blog by reading others first and I chuckled when I read “Google probably knows you better than you know yourself.” The reason that I found that statement amusing is the fact that upon reading the descriptor of this weeks blog and the concept of our own digital identity, I asked myself what would Google say? Beyond that, I think you certainly hit the nail on the head when you talked about teachers feeling inadequate or not being properly equipped to teach students how to be responsible in a digital world. There are days where I feel the public education system is failing our students and our teachers with regards to digital citizenship. By the way, you are right when you say we are being left to figure it out! How can we truly move digital identity and proper digital citizenship forward when we as educators are all trying to invent the same wheel?

  3. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Matt. A lot of what you said makes me wrestle with some of my own thoughts this week and I really appreciate that. I’m still tossing over this idea of digital “reality” and I think that the comments you made around building a digital community are important. As you suggest, there are also certainly real world consequences for digital actions and attitudes. My struggle still is with how meaningful the majority of contemporary online discourse is. Whether that’s online echo chambers or pure negativity. Fantastic post.

  4. Isn’t it true that our activities shape who we are, whether or not it is digital activities? Your conversation with the cybersecurity expert made me think about how all our activities shape our identity. Also, I can’t help but think instead of digital citizenship being integrated into various curricula, what if the opposite was true? What if “digital citizenship” is the curriculum and various subjects are taught through it? I was reading Kim’s post “Confessions of a Former Social Media Oversharer,” and she mentioned “digital immaturity” (which sums up her post so well, and I imagine many of our growth in our own digital identity), and I thought what if we taught students the stages of digital development. What if our digital identity is not a sidebar but an essential substance of who we are? Would that change what we taught in schools and how we teach?

  5. Hi Matt,
    First off, your story about your high school classmate’s transition from a seller of pirated satellite television boxes to a successful cybersecurity consultant could become a movie (actually, wasn’t that part of the story arc in Antman?) I always find it fascinating how people can change their life trajectory.

    Also, to this comment – “this needs to be interwoven into resources and materials, not just tacked onto a curriculum document without support” – I wholeheartedly, 100% agree. It takes a village…and it really will if we are to support students on their digital journeys.
    Great insights and candid disclosures as always!

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