Open education and digital identities

I’m currently in the early stages of Ph.D. research on digital identity practices in open education. I’ll be exploring how educators and students in higher education construct and negotiate their identities — social, pedagogical, civic, professional — in open online spaces in which they interact. Some of the questions I am considering are: How are digital identities enacted in open vs. bounded online spaces? What is the relationship between digital and embodied identities, particularly with respect to learning and teaching? And how are power relationships between educators and students negotiated in different online spaces?

Last week I was invited to give a seminar on this research (early stages!) as part of the IT research seminar series at NUI Galway. Below are the slides, a brief summary of my research, and a reflection on my own identity as a “digital identity” researcher.


The recently published Horizon Report 2014 (Higher Education edition) is just the most recent of many to pose the question: How will formal learning institutions remain relevant when quality learning materials are freely available? (i.e. now). Of course, it isn’t just learning materials, but learning networks and learning experiences that are freely available in our increasingly networked society. The MOOC phenomenon is just one example: across the spectrum of MOOCs, from open, connectivist models to more content-focused, behaviourist/cognitivist models, the desire for flexible, autonomous learning is  clear. Noisy pronouncements to the contrary, open education is about much more than MOOCs, of course. Open education includes initiatives and practices such as the use and creation of open educational resources (OERs); open course blogs, websites and wikis; open sharing of student work — via a range of digital, mobile and social media;  and open communication across learning networks using social media and social networking tools.

identities & learning spaces

In most higher education institutions, after meeting stated entry criteria, student access is achieved by fee and by name. In my university, for example, students must register using the name shown on their birth certificate, unless this has been legally changed. Thus, in most classrooms and within most Learning Management Systems, students and educators are identified by their real names. To participate in open online education, however, learners need simply the will to participate and an identity. Learners not only choose their own learning paths, but they create their own digital identities. Thus individuals can choose to be identified by their name or a pseudonym, by a photo or an avatar, with a consistent digital identity across multiple networks or different digital identities for different situations and contexts. 

So how does the concept of digital identity layer on to our understanding of offline or embodied identity? Identity can be defined as a constantly re-worked personal narrative; we continually create and develop our identities through our actions and our interactions with others. But identity is not a single construct; we have multiple identities related to our different roles and contexts (e.g. daughter, mother, partner, friend, student, lecturer). This is the case for both digital and embodied identities, as Miller makes clear in the excellent Future Identities report of 2013, which explores the relationship between online and  offline identities:

As studies become more contextualised it seems that the real lesson of online identity is not that it transforms identity but that it makes us more aware that offline identity was already more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than we had appreciated.

Miller also notes that contrary to many media claims, most studies (with the exception of a few, e.g. Turkle) oppose the notion of digital dualism, i.e. the belief that online identities are separate from and less authentic than our offline identities. Our online and embodied identities are, in fact, deeply intertwined. 

Learning involves identity transformation. In Lave and Wenger’s Community of Practice work, for example, education is defined as an identity project: there is a relationship between “learning to do” and “learning to be”.  During the course of their learning, students in higher education develop new identities: personal, social, academic, professional. Both students and educators develop and enact their identities when interacting in learning spaces, be they physical or digital, bounded or open. As part of my study, I’ll be exploring three types of learning spaces: physical classrooms, bounded online spaces (e.g. members-only LMSs), and open online spaces or networked publics (e.g. blogs, wikis, discussion forums, social networking sites). These three modalities are often used in combination with one another, but my study aims to identify the specific affordances of each, particularly with respect to identity, access and equity.

The first two of these spaces, classrooms and LMSs, are private learning spaces in which learners and educators within a particular course can meet, physically or virtually, to interact and learn together. In the third category, open online spaces, educators and students in a given course can interact with one another as well as with other students, educators, writers, creators, experts, etc. in other courses, disciplines, institutions, organisations or locations. 

politics, power & privilege

Politics, power and privilege cannot be ignored in educational research. For example, in examining learning spaces, the architecture of most physical classrooms speaks loudly about power and privilege. Who is present, and who is not? Who sits and who stands? Who moves? Who speaks? Where is attention focused? Answers to these questions reveal whose voice counts, whose knowledge counts. Those educators committed to democratic practices — to creating environments for mutual knowledge construction and sharing —  often must work against the constraints of the architecture of physical classrooms.

In bounded online spaces, such as members-only LMSs, system architectures may communicate similar messages. LMS participants are typically identified by their (real) names and their roles — student, lecturer, tutor, observer, etc. Lecturers and tutors have design, creation and editing privileges within LMSs; students usually have fewer and lesser privileges (e.g. writer vs. editor). These are signals about power and ownership of the learning process.

In open online spaces, students and educators are not limited by real-name identities, nor by rigid role definitions. Students, particularly, may experiment with new identities – not just social identities, with which they may have some confidence, but learner identities and public/civic identities. The teacher-student relationship is changed, moving beyond a teacher-student dichotomy. Students and educators can have more equal roles in creating content, sharing resources, participating in and starting conversations. Educators can be learning peers in open online spaces, not just the lecturer at the head of the classroom or with privileges within the LMS. Although the technologies themselves do not create democratic environments, educators who choose to engage with students in open online spaces, who use open tools, and who engage in and model democratic practices, can foster learner autonomy and agency.

Open online spaces can be considered what Gutiérrez defines as a Third Space of learning; where students develop sociocritical literacies not in a formal learning space, or informal learning space, but a combined space:

People live their lives and learn across multiple settings, and this holds true not only across the span of our lives but also across and within the institutions and communities they inhabit – even classrooms, for example. I take an approach that urges me to consider the significant overlap across these boundaries as people, tools, and practices travel through different and even contradictory contexts and activities.

Many students already have confident social identities online, but developing identities as learners, writers, scholars, citizens — these are important tasks as part of higher education. As Etienne Wenger has noted:

If institutions of learning are going to help learners with the real challenges they face… [they] will have to shift their focus from imparting curriculum to supporting the negotiation of productive identities through landscapes of practices.

Moving beyond private, bounded learning spaces into open learning spaces, even occasionally, provides learners and educators with opportunities to discuss and develop important digital and network literacies, as well as  a deeper awareness of issues such as privacy and data ownership. Open practices allow students the potential to link formal education with their informal interests, knowledge and expertise, and to build Personal Learning Networks which reflect all of these – to the extent that they wish to do this. In these open Third Spaces of learning, learners cannot just develop new identities, but strengthen existing identities, and integrate identities across multiple settings and contexts.

postscript: my own identities

During the past few months, I’ve added this ‘digital identities’ research project to a full schedule of teaching, programme management, and my own networked learning and blogging activities. It’s been challenging, but mostly satisfying. Those cycles that people warned me about when embarking on the Ph.D.  ( lurching from “wow, this is wonderful!” to “oh, I’m lost!”, and back again) — I reckon I’ve ridden through a few of them already :)

At the start, it was the practical aspects of combining these activities that demanded my energies. How will I organise my schedule/workspace/systems to accommodate my new research commitments? And how will I manage others’ expectations of me — colleagues, students, family, friends? Lots of thinking, discussion, negotiation of boundaries.

But, of course, it’s not *that* simple. It’s not just my schedule that must be negotiated, but my own identities. Every day the balance is slightly different: dividing my hours and energies between teaching, student and facilitator support, programme management, learning and research. For the past few years, this blog has provided an invaluable space for sharing ideas and questions related to learning and teaching, for thinking-through by writing, and for connecting. Up to this point, I’ve been happy to share my learning and to share my teaching experiences. So where does “researcher me” fit?

For example, I’ve been working with Jane Davis and Joyce Seitzinger over the past 6 months, each of us writing papers and collaborating on a joint symposium for the upcoming Networked Learning conference. Throughout all of that research and writing and rewriting, I didn’t write here in my blog. I put my time and effort into writing the paper (in the “academic” voice) and engaging in discussions with Joyce and Jane. That time was productive, and it wasn’t my intention to separate these two activities — research and blogging — but that’s what has happened. Hmmm…

As so often happens, via my PLN I read a recent blog post by Bonnie Stewart in which she described this dilemma: identity challenges for hybrid scholars:

I’ve been researching hybrid scholars – people like me who are both cultivating some semblance of a traditional institutional academic identity and building connections and credibility for their ideas in online networks … I’ve been trying to be both networked scholar and proper academic, whatever that is. I’ve been trying to wear two entirely separate hats and engage in two entirely separate identity economies … If there’s anything to the premise that the potential of massiveness + openness = new literacies of participation, it’s those of us out here straddling the edges of old and new that will end up making and modelling those literacies, whatever they turn out to be worth.

Michael Gallagher, another valued member of my learning network, posted a comment to Bonnie’s post which captured this conundrum — and my perspective — so well:

My identities have oscillated all over the place depending on where the projects reside (scholar one day, project manager the next, teacher the following, that sort of thing). I find a certain joy in that disequilibrium, as if I dance between these ambiguous spaces and identities long enough, something new will emerge. And it will just emerge, as you said, by walking the road. And if I contribute at all, it will be through my blog and that emergent identity.

As I noted in my response to Bonnie’s post, I’m often comfortable in boundary and hybrid spaces — I’m a New Yorker living in Ireland, a feminist working in technology, an engineer doing research in education, and I’ve taught/teach in both higher education and community spaces. So being a hybrid scholar feels right — most of the time. Most of the time, the intersections energise me and spark connections which move my thinking and practice. But sometimes things feel out of balance, and I suppose that’s what I’ve recognised regarding my writing at the moment.

So, where am I now? I’m enthusiastically continuing my research and also reflecting on my identity as a hybrid scholar. This reflexivity seems important, given the nature of my research. I am comfortable as an open and networked learner and educator, and still in a liminal space as an open researcher. This blog post is another step in developing that identity, and opening myself to new creative possibilities. As Michael Gallagher expressed in his beautifully written blog post ideas and identities in liminality, creativity springs from ambiguous states; liminality is a “generative state of being”.

If you identify as a hybrid scholar, an open educator, a researcher in the area of open education, networked learning and/or digital identities, how do you navigate these hybrid spaces? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and to learn more about your work. :)

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Open education and digital identities

22 thoughts on “Open education and digital identities

    1. Many thanks, Frances. I’d noted Cristina’s article was just published — it is *next* on my reading list, looking forward to it! Thanks for the link to the thesis as well.
      I met Cristina in Dundee last August (with Helen, at eAsssessment conf.) and she was full of practical advice re: research and staying focused. I do appreciate your wise words… don’t want to lose sight of the big picture. Thanks so much.

  1. Excellent post, thanks Catherine. I recently completed a 4-year online degree and I can tell you from my experience there were easily identifiable distinctions between instructor and student in their closed online spaces. Traditional politics, power & privilege dynamics of student-teacher relationships was common and seemingly inherent. There were some instructors who simply would delete student posts if they decided the questions or critiques in them were too confusing or against their teaching style.

    There were a couple of stand-out instructors that obviously were trying a democratic style within a bounded online space, not easy, especially when grades are the eventual expected outcome. Not surprisingly these are the same teachers that advocated learning through social media and open learning spaces. This is how I started to blog and tweet in earnest and I learned that I could actually learn more in these spaces.

    Enjoy your research and I look forward to reading about it all. :-)

    1. Hi Elke — I’ve enjoyed connecting with you and exploring these issues over the past while (since #etmooc?). Thanks for sharing your story — very interested to hear about your experiences and about the practices that encouraged you, and I’m sorry to hear of the heavy-handed approach of some instructors. Different HE learning environments have different affordances, yes… but it is the intentions and practices of educators that create the space for open learning and knowledge co-construction. Students are already engaging in these practices, in many different open online spaces. If we want to engage *with* students, to teach, but also to learn with and from them, we must be prepared challenge traditional power relationships and practices.

      Thanks & I look forward to ongoing discussions :)

  2. Hi Catherine
    When I saw this post via Twitter I knew I had to read it :)
    Thanks for sharing your PhD research, great to hear your enthusiasm for it

    I’m doing an EdD programme via London, and I am at the start of writing my thesis proposal at the moment, I’m reading lots and enjoying it, especially in the area of open learning, digital scholar(Weller ) and also Christina Costa’s work, already mentioned above
    My interest for research stems from my work with supporting academics that created eportfolios for an accredited CPD programme. Since that programme many of the academics eportfolios evolved into digital profiles, where they share research and teaching and learning information with the wider education community. At the moment I am interested in why some of these academics evolved to engaging in open online spaces and why others kept their eportfolios private and choose not to move into the open online space………..this is my starting point I guess, when I talk to some of this group I am hoping that I my research question will evolve…..I’m quiet nervous that I don’t actually know what I am looking for yet. I’m looking forward to interviewing the participants as hopefully it might give me more focus….
    Thanks for your post and for the links to articles posted also, lots of reading and thinking for me over the next few weeks :)

    Best of luck with the identity balancing act: I think that online presence causes identities to merge more, the divisions between roles that I have are more blurred than if I did not have an online presence. I have also been thinking about values a lot through my EdD research, and I think that my core values stay the same and underpin my practices in all of these roles/identity situations…..Although maybe that thought needs a bit more reflection :)

    Best wishes

    1. Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here, Muireann. I’m particularly happy to hear about your EdD work. I’d love to stay connected as our respective research projects progress — it sounds like there are many points of connection. I had a similar discussion with Paul Gormley this week about his research on digital literacies. Seems like a support network in the making ;)

      I’m familiar with Martin’s work, and just read Cristina’s paper this week — there are many resonances for me as an open educator. As Cristina described, I view openness as a source of information, motivation, support & friendship — it is part of my identity as a learner and educator. It’s particularly important as it allows me to connect with others with similar principles and approaches. For many of us, there are few colleagues in our own institutions who are open scholars (yet?), so this support and connection is vital. The identity balancing act is fascinating and, ultimately, a great source of creativity, I believe. Will look forward to future discussions with you!

      All the best.

  3. Catherine – It is probably no surprise that your questions and research are of deep interest to me. Very interested in hearing how the journey progresses, and hoping to contribute in some small way. I do not share – at least, as of yet – the researcher role. But your characterization of the “comfort” of hybrid roles resonates – I am very conscious of that position, having played boundary-spanning roles throughout much of my professional career. At this point in my higher ed role, I am (I think) just beginning to learn how to bind together my various roles with a set of common questions. Much to learn.

    And in the meantime, am +1’ing France Bell’s comment that “focus is a life-saver.”

    1. Greetings, Jeff! We meet once again in blog-land :) I do enjoy our “thinking-through” conversations. Getting started on this new path as a researcher over the past few months is one of the reasons that I haven’t been able to participate as much as I would have liked in recent MOOCs — such as your own #xplrpln and #rhizo14. However, having you and others in my PLN means that I continue to learn — occasionally, serendipitously, gratefully — even when not participating in the main flow of those courses. The balance of my teaching/research activities will continue to evolve, but I’ve been happy to find that PLN connections and friendships remain a continuing source of ideas, support and motivation.

      What next? Don’t know… see you there :)

  4. Interesting stuff – looking forward to seeing the thesis when it’s done. The cycles of excitement, confusion and despair are definitely ones I identify with. At one point you feel like you won’t get anywhere, the next there’s so much stuff you don’t know where to start. And it’s true, you only really figure out what you should be doing when you’ve got to the end.

    It sounds like you’re really in a productive area though. I wonder if one of the issues you’re facing is the difficulty most people (and particularly students) have in reflecting on their identities. I’ve been a visiting lecturer on a course on digital communities for a few years now, and running a workshop on digital identity in SL. The response I always get from students is that they’re not constructing an identity, whatever they do is because “they just do it”. I run through a few examples and exercises to get them to reflect, and it helps, but identifying their identities takes a lot of careful probing and unpacking of a lot of behaviours that are unreflected. Is this something you’ve encountered?

    The same’s true of academic identities too. I’d not thought of myself as a hybrid scholar – but then I do have an institutional role and a networked identity. I’d not consciously thought of those as different, perhaps this is because the majority of my work is done at home online. My immediate co-workers are therefore my cats, and my identity with them doesn’t need thinking through (basically they’re in charge, I just do what I’m told). The only conscious adopting of identity is putting on one of the various staff IDs I have (depending on where I’m visiting to do some f2f work) and that feels more like roleplay. Perhaps because most of my identities are negotiated through different online spaces they don’t feel hybrid, just multiple as defined by which online space I’m in.

    Like you I have issues with the digital dualism idea – I did have a mild disagreement with Shelly Turkle on FB having described her as “going to the darkside” – since the idea that online is somehow less authentic (and less healthy) than offline is one that I think is unproven and ludditic, but she took exception to the description. Not having read Alone Together (though Life on Screen was a cornerstone of my thesis) I didn’t feel ready to pursue the argument. I guess that’s a good example of an online networking identity conflicting with an academic one. In social media the two can overlap in unexpected ways.

  5. Oh another thought – the aspect of the changing dynamics when moving online. To some extent using avatars does bring everyone down to a level playing field, and this is actually a source of unease to some people (there was a paper about it at ReLIVE 2011 which I can dig out if you’re interested). This is why some people actually insist on using RL names for avatars in learning contexts. I’ve described this as “losing face” (literally) and thought I was very clever for noting the appropriateness of the phrase, only to discover Goffman had already done it 30 years earlier. On the other hand, even if you remove names and titles, the differential status comes through in other ways. When I started teaching in SL I took screen grabs, and even if you can’t tell by the names who’s teaching, the proxemics is a dead giveaway; everyone defaults to the physical behaviours of the physical world. There’s other ways to tell too – the more experienced users (and therefore usually the teachers) have more modded forms, scripted movements, better clothes … actually in that respect the reverse of the physical world.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Mark — much appreciated! I’m figuring out a lot about digital identity as I progress (& digress) through this research project. I’ve done research in the past in the areas of gender and pedagogy, but not on identity, so I am catching up with Giddens, Goffman, etc.

      I came to this research as a practitioner — someone who’s been teaching in HE for many years (online and offline). In my work with undergraduate students, we explore ideas about digital identity, privacy, authenticity, and digital & network literacies. This is always a fascinating process; students (even of similar ages and backgrounds) have widely varying views and opinions, and I learn a great deal from them. Many students have firm ideas about privacy, for example, but regarding identities there is much unreflected behaviour. This sounds similar to what you describe.

      In my experience (as well as a preliminary survey) of academic staff, the story is similar — a broad range of views and not much reflection on digital/online identities. Recent work by Bonnie Stewart (hybrid identities), George Veletsianos (the fragmented educator) and Cristina Costa (habitus of digital scholars) has been helpful in exploring this aspect. But my focus will be on interactions between educators and students — so I’ll be examining identities as well as behaviours, particularly power dynamics. I’ll have a look for that ReLIVE paper you mention (or if you have the reference handy, I’d be grateful for it). I don’t intend to wear my rose-coloured specs when looking at changing power dynamics, but with increasing opportunities for interacting with our students in open online spaces (from virtual worlds to Twitter, etc.) increasing our understanding of digital/online identities seems increasingly important.

      1. Ah just looked in the conference proceedings for ReLIVE 2011, there’s no paper on that subject so it may have just been a poster. If I remember the name of the academic who wrote about it, I’ll let you know.

  6. One last one – is there a commonality between Gutiérrez’s idea of Third Space and Ostenberg’s of Third Place? They seem similar concepts and I wonder if online third places also are ideal areas for students to develop sociocritical literacies?

    1. Yes, this is exactly Gutiérrez’s approach – “Developing sociocritical literacy in the Third Space”:
      I’m not familiar with Ostenberg’s work, but will explore.

      I also just came across this post today by John Potter: “Third space networks: digital literacies, media arts and coding”, which may be of interest.

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