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July 26, 2010 / mauricefli

Identity Crisis

So who the hell am I? In this wonderful post-modernist paradigm almost anyone one I choose to be! And there, to quote the bard, is the rub.

Important parts of our teaching and learning in the Faculty of Commerce, whether face-to-face or online, are the images we project of ourselves in our interaction with others. The way we dress, speak, attend to others in the classroom, for example, contributes to the tenor of the interaction and atmosphere of the learning environment. These days ‘casual’ – and I use the word advisedly – is vogue.  There is less emphasis on traditional ‘formality’ even in academic presentation, particularly in the new media and online discourses as genres slide into each other. The line between tutorial and coffee morning is deliberately blurred at times. Interpersonal relations are weighed against academic ones and valued highly. The argument crosses with the developing status of online publication versus print media as the reverse trend evolves – peer review and disciplined citation are now the norm for the new media as the older one recedes rapidly into the anachronistic. And with it academic identity shifts too.

In the social networking media new identity is a slippery as Derrida could wish for as symbol slides into symbol and identity (aka meaning) becomes ever more elusive. Parents, now, are advised to monitor children’s chat and Facebook sites as they become prey to wolves in avatar guise. Secondlife metaphors for lies we’d like to live are regularly used in educational settings. For those with the patience to wait for site uploads.  Indeed the opportunity to portray myself as any persona I want to online is a virtual – excuse the poverty of wit – cornucopia.

So where does that leave us in FOC and our online media Learn (aka Moodle)? Well each of us is given a profile with potential for written identity to be constructed and a place to upload an image of ourselves. The latter has a default filler of a smiley face emoticon. This not without motivation – smiling is a default defensive message that is readily transposed to aggression with exposure of the teeth.  So what choices do we make in altering this image? Most of us in FOC – students and faculty – make the default choice and add nothing to the written profile nor change the emoticon. That enables anonymity and probably reflects our lack of confidence in the media and/or value we place on Learn. I’d love to hear comment on that.

In my own case I have written a few sentences about me that try, deliberately, to set the tone for how I want to project myself on the site.  I note here, that my profile on Learn is the one thing that currently* follows me from one course to the other without needing updating. So the written text has a mix of personal information about my background, my academic achievements and my aspirations for my work in FOC. I use personal pronouns and active clauses rather than impersonal pronouns and ‘academic’ passive verbs. This mix of casual grammatical and lexical choice is intended to say I’m open and friendly**. I hark back here to Derrida and warn of the elusive lies our messages may contain :-)

I’ve added an image to the profile as well. Again in keeping with the written message, a t-shirt, head and shoulders for intimacy, face looking up at the viewer for power deference,***  coloured hair that has since out grown the dye pot, and a warm autumnal back ground to the portrait shot. Ah the memories, it was taken in a small cafe in Salta, northern Argentina, several years ago, but that’s another story.

Online I want to send messages to those who interact with my sites about who they are choosing to interact with. I’d like them to be open and willing to take risks in what for some is a new mode of relating to others  and for many a new vehicle for learning and teaching.  I could have chosen and more ‘business/commercial’ image that some would argue is a more honest representation of my persona in FOC – power suit, direct eye-to-eye portrait, ‘honest’ grey shortcut, poorly constructed smile, and so on.

In face-to-face learning situations each participant is relatively transparent in their interactions with others, the steady flow of body language and tone of voice send a myriad of subtle and overt signals to others about mood and message. And we’ve acquired a skill base in these social tools from birth. As yet, we are not issued with iPhones in the maternity ward so we need to consciously build our online persona. And we need to encourage our students in Learn classes to do the same. As an increasing number of courses and assessments involve students interacting with each other in online forums, group project tasks, participants need to build relationships with each other that will enable collaborative learning. The anonymity of the default emoticon just won’t do it. Imagine, if you will, a tutorial where all the participants wore face masks? As we move towards more remote relationships in our work and study we need to build the social infrastructure that supports good learning outcomes. Online social networks can supplement face-to-face relationships but that narrative is for another day.

For the moment, I think about the kind of image I want my learners to adopt to leverage the best result from online learning. The tone I set on Learn is just as important is the one I set in face-to face relationships. Avatars can be fun, cool techno-bent photos can get a laugh, but overtime… I opt for the basic grammar of clear facial messages and friendly written tones.

Maurice

*If LU ever gets around to introducing the 2.0 version of Moodle, many other features of Learn will also be transportable.

**Here’s the link to my Learn profile

***This is an inversion of the power relationship between student and teacher in a classroom where students sit at desks and teachers stand over them.

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