Changing identity in online society.

It's getting close to the end of the taught part of term and time to start writing more frequently.

I've been asked this week to consider how the various identities, personae and aliases that we construct for use online are relevant to e-learning. Personally, I can count about ten individual online alter egos that I would regularly "use"; and although I've made efforts to aggregate those through this site, there will always be sides to any person which remain hidden. Perhaps I am a level 50 dark mage, perhaps I masquerade regularly as a lonely housewife, perhaps I hack NASA on a daily basis searching for alien evidence. We can only hope to know one another through the things we share.

It's an area that I've already been giving some thought to after discovering the work of cultural anthropologist Mike Wesch and his students. He offers the suggestion that new media bring new forms of self-understanding. Here's a great video of a lecture presented at the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum entitled, The Machine is (Changing) Us: YouTube and the Politics of Authenticity. It's insightful, entertaining and ultimately quite hopeful.

Two of his references are particularly relevant to the week's theme, so I did a bit of web trawling to be able to expand on them here:

1. Charles Taylor in his “Ethics Of Authenticity” tells us that humans are social creatures who can only truly understand themselves through interaction and dialogue with others. Thus dialogue allows us to construct our values and beliefs.

2. Neil postman in his book “Amusing ourselves to death” modifies McLuhan's aphorism that "the medium is the message" to read “the medium is the metaphor”, and says that each new medium offers new opportunities for new types of knowledge.

So how could new forms of self-understanding be relevant to e-learning? We could claim that the various personae and identities which we construct in online spaces are really helping us to understand ourselves, both as individual, (gestalt???) people and consequently, as learners too.

Dialogue is essential, and I seem to keep coming back to the idea that the web's social aspect is a real game changer for education. If our students are so fluent with social networks, and are possibly even more comfortable in these spaces than they are in the traditional halls of academia; then perhaps our focus should be on emphasizing peer supported, social learning more strongly when we consider such things as course design, lesson and exercise planning and maybe even course content itself.