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Establishing Your Digital Identity

Will National Online Education Succeed

The next few weeks are going to be a tremendous learning curve for schools around the nation. Although teachers have already begun incorporating digital technology into their lessons in recent years, many have not been trained to create online lessons until this past week. Of course it will be tough, for the teachers, the schools, the parents, and the students. However, I suspect that, given the proper support and resources, many of the schools will be successful in their attempts to continue teaching their students.

People have, in little ways, been preparing themselves to learn online. Between various educational apps, informative videos, and many easily accessible articles, many have taken to the internet to learn for both necessity and for the simple joy of learning. For instance, Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, has 30 million users regularly completing exercises. Websites like Khan Academy provides free educational resources, servicing approximately 18 million. Many people have already taken online classes. I, myself, have taken two online classes in high school and one in college. It’s different, certainly, but an appropriately structured class can be just as successful as the typical classroom setting.

In the upcoming weeks, students will be expected to engage with their education through a digital medium, and there are going to be so many problems. There will be schools that fail to create and follow through with a plan to alter their style of teaching, parents who do not ensure that their child does their schoolwork, and homes without access to computers or the internet. It will not be pretty or easy, and some students will suffer for it. Even so, I believe that people have been training themselves to learn online and many of the efforts for national online education will succeed because of it.

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Establishing Your Digital Identity

Security and Identity

One of the main challenges of the modern day is the conflict between establishing a middle ground between protecting student’s personal data, and creating means for that student to market themselves and leverage the social media environment for their own ends.

On one hand, there is the fact that schools and universities are the formative times of almost everyone’s early lives. Places like Appalachian State collect vast reams of information relating to student health, engagement, grades, and interests. Much of this is privileged information under FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), and there have been numerous attempts to further restrict what can be shared. Here, I see a very real concern about the use and utility of student information. While certainly not as immediately valuable as a credit card number, or banking information, it is an extremely broad and deep set of information, which, if obtained, can be exploited for profit. However, some of the proposed laws are likely too restrictive, and may well hinder actually good research, such as work that has exposed problems with traditional education, including that “poor, nonwhite and non-English-speaking children have been educated inadequately by their schools.” (Susan Dynarski) This is a place where both privacy activists, and educational groups with an interest in using school data to improve outcomes have valid, and viable points.

On the other hand, managing a digital footprint is a vital life skill. A website offers a platform for ideas, a place to put an array of personal details, and a demonstration of personal skills. This is one of the places where the classroom can reach out beyond the four walls and the power point, and give students a piece of work that will stay useful long past passing the class or graduating the school. Looking at the program developed by University of Mary Washington, the key piece is that it is a student’s space, built around a framework offered by the university, but shaped by each student’s unique needs, desires, and goals. The school is, in effect, providing added value, and validation to the student, on top of the education needed to build, maintain, and add to the site.

Beyond the advantages of schools offering benefits beyond the classroom, the crafting of one’s own personal digital space is a fundamental piece of digital citizenship. Most of the internet exists to make the people serve it, through advertising, through data collection, and through social manipulation. The creation of personal, and personalized digital spaces creates the freedom to express feelings, ideas, and work without the limitations of commercial and commercialized space. Digital citizenship is often tinged with fears of doing or saying the wrong thing, and then being haunted by it forever, because on the internet, nothing really goes away. While this is a useful thing to know, it is far from being the be all end all, or even the most important piece of citizenship in a digital world. More critical is trying to use that digital world to make a space where we can all live.

Finally, social media is an important part of networking and publicizing historical work. While the limits of twitter make it a terrible platform for expressing historical ideas or engaging in debate, it is perfect for advertising events. Looking more deeply at twitter, it serves as a tracking tool for people wanting to live as historians. As Jason Jones put it “how often people go to panels, when they visit the book exhibit, when they need downtime, whether they’re still working on papers, and more.” Much of the historian’s social craft is obscured, and Twitter is one piece of raising the curtain. Similarly, other social media such as Facebook works to build a historical community, despite its privacy issues.

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Establishing Your Digital Identity

The New Digital Revolution and Identity

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington is a unique way for universities to encourage the ability of students to take control of their digital footprint. Audrey Watters investigated UWM’s movement of students’ information to be held in a central web domain. Unlike most undergraduate work which generally ends up in recycle bins at the end of a semester, UWM is promoting a way for students to keep a digital “hard copy” of academic work for the student to have unlimited visibility for potential higher education or employment. This offers a much better view of student scholarship, along with orienting students to keep their digital identity professional and secure. Indeed, the CORVID-19 pandemic has now forced higher education into the digital arena at an unprecedented rate. With most educational institutions being up and running online within the time-span of a week due to CORVID-19, the future of education is being built by this pandemic. Society will be forever changed by CORVID-19, but not by death rate like Spanish Influenza. The cultural response instead is a revolutionary moment in history with all levels of employment and education being forced into a brave new world of digital identity. It is a prudent investment for educational institutions to follow a model similar to UWM to prepare students for this new era of online information integration.

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Establishing Your Digital Identity

Your Digital Identity and Privacy

Online personas are an extension of us, a part of ourselves. Collectively, they form our online identity- which can be quite abstract depending on how many forms of social media and sites a person engages with. But that’s alright, because we learned that we can control our online identity by picking and choosing how we present ourselves and what information we depart.

In order to protect our online identities, we were taught to not post anything “bad” or “incriminating” in the eyes of our family, future employers, or anyone else representing authoritative judgement. These things might “follow” us for the rest of our lives because “nothing can truly be deleted from the internet.” Audrey Watters in The Web We Need To Give Students defines this as digital citizenship. And that’s easy- don’t post pictures or videos of partying, acting out, or otherwise behaving on the more wild side.

To cement this sentiment, a professor during my junior year assigned a paper that required us to explore our digital identities. In order to complete the assignment, we had to type our name into the Google search bar. If I do that right now, I’ll see my LinkedIn and Facebook account in the results, as well as academic mentions on App State’s website news. And if I’m honest, these results barely begin to encompass what I consider my digital identity. If someone had knowledge of and were to search my most used gamer tag/online alias, that would expand on my online identity, but still not cover everything.

At this stage of my life, what would significantly fill in the blanks of my identity for anyone looking is a repository of my work- an accessible, online, and controlled portfolio. As someone who has spent the last 18 consecutive years of their life attending one academic institution or another, it would be an understatement to say how encompassing education has been. But this isn’t wholly reflected anywhere online- when it should be. I would expect this sentiment to be relatable, and therefore fully agree with and admire the efforts of UMW and The Domain of One’s Own Initiative to give students autonomy of their online identity. And I appreciate that their focusing on educating students on what they can control, rather than just what they cannot- i.e. privacy legislation. 

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) lays out privacy rights in the context of students and their parents. Its purpose is to provide access to the student’s records and be able to challenge the record content and the release of the records to third parties. Information on this can be found here.

By providing students of greater control of their digital identity, they are educating students on how to manage it as well- beyond the digital citizenship they are accustomed to. Going further into the Age of Technology, this is incredibly important as pressure to present yourself online as you do in real life increases. This is evident in the way that an influencer’s power is positively correlated with their perceived authenticity. But as authenticity and online interaction increases, it is arguable that user-controlled privacy decreases.

Some users feel like they have nothing to hide, and this reflects in their perceived apathy toward the increased data mining by corporations and lack of attention towards privacy-related legislation in the works. For example, while Americans are concerned with COVID-19, the EARN IT Act is currently threatening to end end-to-end encryption. This would give law enforcement officials and the government a backdoor into user information, currently held by tech companies.

 The amount of government surveillance that would be made possible would infringe on users’ right to privacy. Despite the gravity of the implications, many people are unaware of this legislation. This makes education on digital citizenship, online identity, and privacy advocacy even more critical. Therefore, I would like to argue that there should be more efforts to educate students on their digital identity by giving them full control of it within their rights.

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Establishing Your Digital Identity

Students and the Internet Frontier

When it comes to technology, students are the ones pioneering the use of technology, with a few innovators and professors leading the way. The educators are harder ones to convince of the uses of the web and internet when it comes to teaching and student use, preferring to learn and teach as they had been taught, using books and papers. Most caution against the internet, as it is a rather new and unforgiving territory, one that they are unprepared for and slow to adapt to. 

Their reasons to hesitate with new methods of information-sharing are warranted. What someone said in highschool could come back and haunt them in their thirties, thanks to sites like Facebook and Twitter. When teachers do bring up the internet, the majority consists of some form of “Don’t use Wikipedia”, “don’t put up anything personal online”, and “Websites are not proper sources, you can’t site them (because they are always changing)”. If they do teach about the internet, it is used as another way of using pen and paper, like ebooks and online academic journals. This has slowly begun to change the way classes will be taught, with increasing use and reliance on technology.

As everyone is adapting to the ever-increasing presence of technology in our lives, so have the attitudes towards the internet and computers changed, as well as the teaching methods used. Papers, books, and articles are not the only means of presenting research and furthering knowledge among scholars. So much information is right at people’s fingertips. Where the problem was once a lack of information, now there is an overabundance of information to sort and shift through, as relevance and time allows. 

Websites and blogs are becoming more common and acceptable means of gathering and sharing information, but to what level are they the same? In a perfect world, all information would be held equal, but how can people replicate and use what they do not understand?

With an increasing part of people’s lives being lived on the internet, new ways of navigating and interacting with the world and each other are being created. People can interact with others in ways they never could before the internet, and the new dangers that have been created as well. 

Now classes can be taught online, which is a very big break from the more traditional methods of teaching, functioning as a mix of homeschooling, tutoring, and traditional teaching depending on the class, the teacher, the subject, and the requirements.  

Professors are creating new guidelines to adapt to the expanding field, allowing for online projects to be held at the same level as a research paper, even if it has different uses and requirements when dealing with information.

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Establishing Your Digital Identity

Advocating Your Identity

A constant argument you will hear in the world of education at any level is how to grade or assess students. Should we measure a student’s intellect from a standardized test produced from a major corporation or from a project that allows more creativity? While these arguments seem to center around a disagreement on what captures intellect, I think it touches on something different and more fundamental wrong with our education system: we do not care about a student’s identity. Schools and institutions struggle to separate from standardized testing because we operate on the fundamental belief that students should be defined in graphs and charts, not their own growth. 

This is why I think that programs like “Domain of One’s Own” are essential but face huge structural obstacles. The creators of “Domain of One’s Own” wished to allow students to create their own digital space and truly express their own identity and creativity for free. Domains like Facebook essentially control the digital identities of their customers, so if Facebook dies, so does their digital identity. However, with “Domain of One’s Own”, students can control and define their digital identity after a class is done or once they have finished their education. This is an exciting development, but I think this program will face many of the same problems that other developments in education have faced: “well, that doesn’t really count to show capability.” 

New and emerging historians can relate to this problem. We feel discouraged to invest our time and energy into projects that express our interests and ideas through different platforms because our tenured peers do not recognize them as actual pieces of work. I am not sure how to combat this in an effective manner besides actively working to promote our identities and present how this can aid our fields. Kathleen Fitzpatrick stated in her article “Voices: Twitter at Conferences” that platforms like Twitter “have the potential to demonstrate what it is that we as scholars do, and why the broader culture should care about it.” Engaging online with Twitter, creating new domains, and advocating for ourselves as our own historians is the best way we can maintain our digital identity in the face of academic oppression. 

In the face of social distancing and the mandate to work from home during a pandemic, I think the older faculty in our field will realize that digital platforms do matter, and not just for our work, but for our own mental health. There are many reasons to be scared right now, but the thing that disorients me the most is my daily routine of engaging with peers on academic discussion is gone. My intellectual productivity is about to look very different in the face of COVID-19. Therefore, I think it is valuable for all teachers, professors, and administrators to take into account how we express our academic identities, rather than limiting our success to a previous model that no longer applies. We are all trying to do our best during this time, and I hope this shows how our system needs to move towards one based on identity and success rather than meeting goals.