Do Digital Learners Have an Identity Crisis?

Identity: “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances”. Merriam Webster Dictionary

identity-crisisIn a recent post I reviewed Routledge’s book Learning Identities in a Digital Age”. The book is rich with thought-provoking insights into education, technology and its impact on learner identity. In chapter four, Making Up Digital Learning Identities authors suggest that today’s learners are suffering from an identity crisis; that globalization and digital interactions are fragmenting, deconstructing and dismantling stable concepts of identity and meaning (p 61). In this post I explore the authors viewpoint on learners’ identity crisis and conclude with my own thoughts.

Exploring past perspectives on this topic is perspicacious; authors examine the history of identify crisis by referencing a collection of essays by psychologist Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis. Erikson defined identity as a “personal sense of invigorating sameness and historical continuity”.  According to Erikson, youths’ identity was of a serious concern due to significant changes within society—wars, political revolutions and moral rebellions. These events, according to Erikson, shook the traditional foundations of all human identity (1968, p 25).  Erikson wrote this statement in 1968, imagine what he would have to say about youth identity in todays’ digital culture.

And today students do indeed have multiple and complex identities, some are self-created while others are institutionally driven and even algorithmically determined. These multidimensional personas are most challenging to untangle. Authors propose several questions within the chapter including, ‘who is in control’? And ‘what are the implications when a learner loses, or has no control over his or her identity‘?  And my question—does the learner really have an identity crisis, where they are fragmented and unable to make solid contributions, or are they able to reconcile their various ‘faces’ seamlessly?

The books’ chapter explores the questions by presenting various perspectives of learner identities. A selection below:

1. Prospective Identity
Sociologist Basil Bernstein proposed the idea of prospective pedagogic identities. He suggested that a learner’s identity is formed as a process that reflects the current state of educational reforms. Bernstein suggests that identities are ‘made up’, not a real reflection of learners but projected as the consequence of the schools’ pedagogy that reflects societal values at a given point in time (p 57).

Another viewpoint, one that the authors ascribe to, suggests that identities are not influenced by the state as Bernstein implies, but are “being formed through the participation and intervention of myriad of organizations and actors from across the public and private sectors, not least from those involved in the technology industries” (p 58).

2. Portfolio Identity
Most educators are likely familiar with the idea of a portfolio, where a selection of a student’s work are collected to demonstrate a set of competencies or skills, and used as a method of assessment. The portfolio then becomes an ‘identity’, a snapshot of a student displayed through prescribed selections of work samples or projects.  This idea of a portfolio identity extends further, has deeper implications—for those students that undertake a do-it-yourself portfolio or even portfolios to present an image of a person with a certain set of skills that can fit into a given situation.

3. ‘Shape-Shifter’ Identity
Another term for this concept is ‘shape shifter’, coined by James Gee in his book  Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. According to Gee these individuals see themselves as free agents in charge of their own selves as if those selves were projects or businesses. Shape-shifters rearrange their skills, experiences and achievements creatively, shape-shift into different identities to adapt to certain circumstances, i.e. for a company position or member within a group.

We see this concept reinforced through platforms that offer flexible portfolio building. Several new platforms introduce the idea of a do-it-yourself transcript that includes a place to feature a collection of learning experiences such as

4. Learner’s Digital Identify
Another identity is one that is established by educational institutions and is not controlled by the student directly. This digital identify, though not explored in-depth in the book, is significant.  Students have a digital identity, or ‘learner profile’ associated with him or her, as determined by an institutions’ learning management platform [LMS]. The system records each time a students logs on to the LMS and for how long, links clicked, web pages viewed, time taken on a test etc. The term for this tracking is ‘learning analytics‘.  Institutions [and companies] that create identities based upon a student’s online behaviours have an ethical responsibility to communicate how data is used, more so when learners are unaware of that an identity is constructed on their behalf.

So, do learners have an identity crisis? Are multiple identities affecting learners, making them inconsistent and unable to learn effectively? On a broader scope, how does managing multiple identities impact their ability to cope and function within society?

From my viewpoint, youths don’t see themselves in crisis mode. It appears that young learners are able to seamlessly and fluidly manage numerous identities across multiple platforms. A recent study even suggests the younger generation are unconcerned about the collection of personal data. Furthermore, students are shaped by the agendas, programs and forces within our institutions, businesses and organizations and have no choice but to adapt accordingly. However there are ramifications of the movement towards multiple learning identities, just one example is the project-based approach to work versus a long-term commitment to a job or career, which is consistent with the ‘shape-shifter’ identity.  Much to consider. What the chapter of this book does very well, rather than provide answers, it promotes deep thought about what our roles as educators are in the shaping and supporting learners —who they are and where they are going.


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