Power of the ‘Profile Pic’ in Online Learning

Meeting someone with a paper bag over his or her head is a disconcerting experience – conversing with this person can be downright alarming. Trying to carry a meaningful conversation through a thick piece of paper is … awkward. The likelihood of creating any kind of relationship with our masked friend is about nil. I draw this parallel to illustrate how learners might feel in an online learning classroom where there is no visual, or even voice representation of fellow students – which I suggest is a serious barrier to learning. In my own experience as a graduate student in online classes using Blackboard as the learning platform, though there was the capability of uploading pics to a profile, this feature was not utilized. Hence, the  connection I made with peers was primarily through discussion forums, and though we used our names, I found it one-dimensional, impersonal. I had a hard time recognizing classmates in subsequent classes. Working in groups too was impersonal, however in the instances a group used Skype, the experience was far more engaging and personal. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t’ state the truth, that for the most part once involved in discussions that were engaging, interesting and even controversial, this ‘identify’ barrier did disappear to an extent, yet I yearned for the visual.

Social Media is ‘Social’ with the Profile Pic
As I’ve written about in previous posts, social presence is a critical aspect of online learning, and if we consider similar online communities, for example Twitter and Facebook, we do find visual representation [profile pic] is part of the social process. Socializing or the act being social, involves and requires an element of self-disclosure or self presentation, before engagement and involvement with others can occur – which rationalizes why Social Media facilitates self-presentation through the oh-so-familiar profile picture.

Social Media Building Blocks
In a recently published paper, Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, the authors suggest a framework for understanding social media platforms. The framework includes seven functional building blocks which are: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups, all of which contribute to making it ‘work’ in the virtual world  (Kietzman et al., 2011). The authors suggest that companies interested in developing a social media community emphasize certain building blocks over others depending upon their objectives. For example, Facebook emphasizes ‘sharing’ and LinkedIn ‘reputation’, however, identity and presence are common to all. The implications for education are significant nonetheless, as discussed below.

Why Learning Needs Identify
I suggest that any online learning community, require participants to use a profile picture or image to satisfy the ‘identify’ element. Social presence is required for learners to feel comfortable to engage in dialogue with their peers and instructor(s), and to participate in actively in learning, which ultimately creates the foundation for the learner to use critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge.

To illustrate the point of how identify is perceived online – humour me and look at the image below. What do you think when viewing this profile image – perhaps as a recommended ‘friend‘ for you to befriend on Facebook?

Exactly – in most cases the perception is (whether correct or not) that individuals with empty or generic profiles such as the one above, does not use Facebook on a regular basis, are not actively engaged, and are not ‘present.  Do you see the connection?  This person has a paper bag over his head (or hers).

I’m an advocate for making learning social – which begins with learners establishing an identify, a personal profile. However, by using the terms social and learning in the same sentence, I am not suggesting that learning be fluffy, without rigor or shy’s away using critical thinking skills. But, in order that learning and education appear relevant to today’s learners, we need to get-with-the program and incorporate social media components that we use everyday into our learning platforms. Suggestions:

  • Moodle has the capability for uploading profile pics – I suggest educators use it. We use Moodle at our workplace, and though we don’t mandate that students upload profile pics, we strongly suggest it. As a result about 75% of students upload an ‘identify’.
  • Same goes for Blackboard – use the profile features!
  • Check out Pearson’s Open Class [still in Beta] which features a Facebook like interface – making it appear relevant and current.
  • Create a Facebook School Group through Facebook’s platform.
  • Encourage use of  Google + Hangouts, Skype, Elluminate Live for collaborative group work.

These are only a few suggestions – there are many other tools to bring online learning to life, create an identify, and make it personal for students in order that deep, authentic learning happens.

Kietzman et al. 2011. Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, ScienceDirect.com

Do we Need Social Butterflies in Online Learning?, OnlinelearningInsights

5 thoughts on “Power of the ‘Profile Pic’ in Online Learning

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  2. Greetings! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My website looks weird when browsing from my iphone4. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this issue. If you have any suggestions, please share. With thanks!


    1. Hi
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      Hope that helps! Thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂


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