Not everyone chooses to be openly active on the internet. Although there has been much discussion about “digital natives,” defined as “individual[s] who [have] grown up immersed in digital technology and [are] technologically adept and interested,” Sue Bennet (2012) argues that research indicates that it is really a small subset of these students who would truly fit this description. While some students may be exceedingly comfortable in digital environments, others will not. The flexibility of online (or even blended) courses means that the students are often very diverse. Being respectful of this fact can help engage students.
While many people today choose to be active in social media, some even working to establish professional identities online, some value their privacy and choose not to participate. Others may participate online only in very select ways, making careful choices about what they will and will not share. Some may be consumers rather than creators of content.
Privacy of self can include one’s image, voice, any work produced, as well as personal information. There are risks to sharing things online and some people choose not to do so because of that. Some are uncomfortable attaching their face or voice to their online presence. In some cases it is about personal protection, not wanting to provide additional information to anyone, in others it is a protection against misuse of anything personal. This misuse can include editing of a photo or voice clip and reposting in a negative way, the making of a fake account, or even the use of one’s work in a negative way, reflecting badly on the original creator. For others the concern is about plagiarism and their choice is to remain private is about protecting their intellectual rights. Privacy is about control and it can be easy to lose control once something has been shared publicly on the internet.
By making work public, it also becomes part of existing discourses and is judged against them. Anything shared to the internet can become public and should be viewed as existing forever. For students whose views or position are counter to current discourses, this can put them at a disadvantage in power relations in a current situation but also in future ones.
Sharing within UR Courses, while not always comfortable for students, can be viewed to be of minimal risk, like sharing in a classroom. Participation requirements, such as forum posts and replies, provide students with community which can be balanced against the risk of exposing themselves to potentially negative responses. That is not to say that such situations cannot happen. Instructors need to be vigilant for instances of cyberbullying. Providing students with netiquette guidelines, instructions about appropriate and inappropriate posts, or even an opportunity to develop a behavioural contract can be helpful in creating a safe environment.
Sharing outside UR Courses, on the other hand, does provide some personal risk. In some cases, that risk is about connecting personal spaces to educational tasks. An example of this would be using Twitter or Facebook for class assignments. Students and instructors may be uncomfortable having one another see what happens in their lives outside the virtual classroom if they use a personal account which is really used for connecting with friends and family. Others actively choose to have Twitter assignments because social media provides new ways to engage students. This means that there needs to be some balance, such as providing students with the option of “disposable” accounts and having the choice about how public their participation is.
Another issue is about the revealing of oneself. The sharing of opinions, views, analysis, experiences and reflections can all be part of the process of learning. The issue comes here in the opening up of this sharing to a wider audience than an instructor or even peers within a class. While some things can be done privately on the internet, keeping in mind issues like the Patriot Act, many Web 2.0 services emphasize the social aspect of the web, defaulting to public sharing. This can be uncomfortable for students. More than that, it can be a violation of their personal privacy. Not everyone wants to share their innermost thoughts with the world. In some cases, a student’s views could be counter to public opinion. In others, there could be very personal stories related to situations. In sharing publicly, students could open themselves up to the risk of cyber bullying.
To share publicly is to participate in creating a public persona on the internet. One aspect of the internet that has been valued historically is the ability to be fluid and always changing (Ross, 2011, pg. 120), or even anonymous. This may mean true anonymity of not revealing anything about who you are or it could mean choosing a username and/or avatar that reflects who you want to be in that case but does not match the identity you may have on a driver’s license or in an educational setting. There has been space for identity online to change. it is not always consistent. In the case of class work being done on the internet, it forces students to present what is supposedly an “authentic self.” While the concept of transparency in presence online is viewed to be a positive, it may not always be so when forced upon people. It can lead to intense feelings of personal exposure (Ross, 2011, pg. 122)
The requirement that reflective works be shared publicly also raises questions of power dynamics. While an assignment shared solely between an instructor and a student is, on some level, private, it is a very different matter when that same assignment is shared publicly. This needs to publicly create a supposedly authentic self also places that self in the space of critique as to whether it is legitimate (Ross, 2011, pg. 120). It is therefore necessary to question why a reflective assignment should be done in public versus private and whether the gain is sufficient to outweigh the danger of the power dynamic’s impact on the student.
Ross, J. (2011). Traces of self: Online reflective practices and performances in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 113-126.