In her paper on online identities, Bayne (2005) helps us to remember that working online can also have it's drawbacks. It is so easy to be swept away with the current enthusiasm for online learning and communities that it is good to read this type of reminder from time to time about the possible darker side of the internet.
Bayne solicited the opinion of both students and tutors working in an online environment and found quite contrasting views. The students expressed rather negative concerns about their ability to manage successfully their online identity, whereas the tutors were more positive and confident. In addition, the paper shows a clear mismatch between the perceptions of tutors as to their role in online learning compared with the students; the former emphasising power relationships and traditional student–tutor hierarchies, the latter an equalising of power relationships and a flattening of hierarchies.
The students indicated how easy it is to project a false identity online, by giving a false age, lying about one's gender, or simply acting out of character. But far from finding this exciting or powerful, as one might have expected, students discussed their concerns at being able to project an identity with which they felt comfortable. They used words such as danger, deceit, and even 'pervy' to describe what they were at pains to avoid. One student describes how, having created a false character, one can be easily be drawn into believing it, so that the alternative self takes over. Thereby expressing fears of a loss of control and balance.
Another student talked about how they would say things online that they would not necessarily say in a face to face environment, often later regretting it:
"Sometimes in a tutorial you think ‘O, I don’t think that should be said’ ‘cos you’re like, like you’ll get shot down, whereas [online] you just type it in anyway, and press the button, ‘cos it’s not like you’re actually saying it at all, so it’s not you, it’s like you’re just a name, people won’t attach it to, like, who you are." (Bayne, 2005, p.33)
I can certainly empathise with this, having myself sent emails in the past that later, in the cool light of the day, I have regretted. Indeed, I have now developed the habit of preparing replies to contentious or emotional messages but not actually sending them until after a suitable cooling off period; often changing my mind before doing so.
Another student talked about her concerns with loosing control over her identify. She suspects that others don't always perceive her as she would like them to, misinterpreting her intentions. Bayne comments that our identity is socially constructed and, as such, is only partly under our direct control.
All these concerns reflect student anxiety, which is clearly not a positive situation for learning online. As Bayne says nothing about the age of the students or when the research was conducted in her paper (a major weakness) it is difficult to know if this is more of a phenomenon that is less likely to be today. Was the study concerned mainly with students who had to adapt to new technologies and social software (so called digital immigrants)? Would we expert the same result today with students who have grown up with technology as an integral part of their daily lives (digital natives)?
The tutors offered quite a different view to the students, suggesting that they were much more comfortable with managing their identities online and seeing the positive aspects of being able to behave differently (Bayne refers to this as metamorphosis). The tutors talked about the advantage of having time to think and react to student comments, unlike in a face-to-face classroom environment where they are under stress to perform as the all-knowing, powerful teacher. The tutors talked about reinforcing their authority, of establishing the traditional student-tutor relationship and of gaining respect. In contrast the students talked about seeing the tutors differently online, rather as other participants than tutors. One student mentioned that respect for a tutor was not automatic or evident online.
So whereas the students see the dangers of metamorphosing online and perceive a lack of control over their identity, the tutors seem to be happy but acknowledge that they behaviour in a more authoritarian manner. Bayne asks if this is a reflection of the equalising, democratising power of the internet, with the tutors exaggerating their behaviour online in an effort to recreate the face-to-face environment of the classroom, applying traditional pedagogies instead of recognising the transformative nature of the internet.
I must say I was quite surprised by these comments as they do not correlate with the views of tutors and teachers working online that I have heard. Again, may be this study is showing its age. I certainly like to think so.
Bayne, S. (2005) 'The identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace', in Land, R. & Bayne, S. (Eds.), Education in cyberspace, pp.26-41,
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.