When Students See Themselves As Digital

tulane-21st-century-assessmentAn Identity Crisis: When Students See Themselves As Digital

by Terry Heick

Students that have more control than ever over their own identity have, unsurprisingly, lost control of that identity.

Coldly, and as a matter of “settings,” they are able to dictate when, how, where, and by whom they are seen. Connectivity has closed the walls of the world around them–or at least made them transparent–until they have zero room to wiggle and squirm. And that’s a real problem in an era of big data, digital branding, and always-on expression. More than any other time in human history, students have an identity problem.

The Quantification Of A Person

If you tweet something, and no one RTs or favorites, did you really say anything at all? Is your value–and the value of your voice as an educator–dependent on how many followers you have? The prideful answer is “no,” but if you’re not seen or heard or engaged with or responded to, you’re forced to recalibrate your goals and ideas. For an adult, that’s accessible; for teenagers, it’s a problem.

Students define themselves through rejection and assimilation, just like adults. What we refuse to be a part of matters just as much as what groups and memberships we choose to disappear into. We refuse political party X or ed reform agenda Y while quietly slipping into a kind of tech avante garde. If we loathe Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh passionately enough, that becomes more important than who we do listen to.

In lieu of the little wiggling and well-endowed app icons, students today are in a rough place. When the internet first allowed social media, and social media allowed a digital and social identity, the presence of a student was primarily physical. That is, a student, seen mostly and interfaced with mostly in person, created a facsimile of themselves online. Through minor features, such as avatars, bios, status updates, and carefully-and-actively-curated-pseudo-human-digital-networks, students used a communication and sharing tool, which directly and indirectly etched out a kind of “identity.”

Before the normalization of technology-addiction and the fetishization of being “connected,” that identity was more of a novel function or complementary tool than living space. But for students that rabidly send and receive versions of themselves and others through facebook, Instagram, Vine, tumblr, snapchat, and other emerging social channels, they’re (unwittingly?) coding an identity that not only is not within their control, but never was by design. The images and words–the social templates–have had the power all long.

By the quantification and commodification of a student’s “identity,” that identity becomes other. Over there. Not self. It’s not an identity anyone from even 20 years ago would recognize.

flickeringbrad-need-humanitiesDigital Identity Is Packaged Identity

How students see themselves is the starting point for learning.

More narrowly (the illusion goes), how they see themselves as learners is increasingly up for simple reconfiguration. What you post, who you tag, your avatar, you emojis, spelling, syntax, all digital expressions of self. The non-social internet is gone; social transactions are the single greatest currency of connected, digital spaces. It’s not purely social, nor is it merely media. It’s certainly more than commerce or media consumption, but it’s strangely none of this. It’s the careful packaging of consumable spectacle.

Social media is one of the few places sharing is anything but–as much of an opportunity to distribute some artifact that expresses you as you see yourself, each link or video or message an opportunity to further stain yourself into the social glass of the world. Leaning heavily on Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Susan Cox wrote recently on Salon: 

“It may not be as cool as we imagined it in sleek ’90s sci-fi, but we really are creatures existing in multiple dimensions, transcending space and time with our cybernetic reach. And who controls where your body ends and begins as this unholy fusion of man and machine? Those technologies through which you interface, of course, offering you the shape of your digital self, such as the Facebook profile. Sometimes the reduction of your person to Facebook’s arbitrary determinations can be uncomfortable and insulting. Facebook has redefined the standard of what information should be immediately known about you as a person.”

Identity, in learning, is like breathing. It’s not a cause of learning, like curiosity. Nor is it purely an effect of learning, like understanding. Nor is it something strangely both, like literacy. It’s simultaneously a symptom and a catalyst.

Identity is the learner insofar as they see themselves and are seen by others. It’s a fluid and ongoing transaction. Identity itself is an effect of self-knowledge, but they’re not the same thing. Identity is insecure and visual and terrifying and orchestrated and familial and emotional, accepted and created in equal amounts.

And, increasingly, it’s a digital-first sequence.

A Digital-First Pattern Of Identity

If identity is “the distinguishing personality or personality of an individual,” then that which is most able to distinguish one student from another will be seen as valuable, and will be a proving ground for the testing, forging, and struggle with identity. Though all students exist first and foremost in a physical space–a home, classroom, etc., they simultaneously exist online, a much broader and more carefully orchestrated scale.

Students’ torsos, arms, legs, and heads are sometimes here and sometimes there, but they’re always online. Facebook doesn’t fade in and out based on user need, but rather justifies itself and creates its own rules and needs for being. This means that users that seek to create an identity through such a social channel–twitter, for example–necessarily do so first through an existing pattern of followers, likes, avatar, and retweets.

In 2015, digital identity precedes and proceeds physical identity. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway writes:

“The cyborg (ed note: think digitally-connected students today) is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world.”

The problem with Haraway’s theory is one of context. Claiming, in a theory, that essentialist theories are inadequate to describe a world where nature fuses with the artificial is broken for what it assumes–that nature and the artificial have fused, which of course isn’t possible even in metaphorical terms. If it’s artificial, it can’t be natural. The only place where natural and artificial identities even seem to merge is within artificial (and digital) spaces.

“The crux of the issue boils down to this: Is Facebook’s normalization of hyper-transparency and information-oriented mode of self-definition conditioning young people to be submissive toward institutionalized forms of subject formation? Does it quell unrest in response to those power structures invested in telling you who and what you are? Will the young people of the future question social values if they are trained from a young age by technological demands to express their person in a corporately constructed template?”

Aha! This is where it starts to get interesting–is it not just social frameworks, or tech-driven identity, but corporate-breathing purpose manifest through social and tech that children believe define them? That’s a grotesque intersection.

Students that, for example, prefer their digital identity to their physical identity necessitate a compelling response to rethink that pattern. The challenge for teachers becomes, then, helping students forge an identity that’s whole. The complexity of the human experience is reflected in the nuance of digital identity, but the source of that reflection is something that you can reach out and hold.

Identity may be digital, but people never are.

An Identity Crisis: When Students See Themselves As Digital; adapted image attribution flickr users flickeringbrad and tulanepublicrelations


  • I really enjoyed this post because it highlights the
    importance of identity within the classroom and demonstrates how learning and
    identity intersects at the school level. With the digital space exploding with
    innovation, I’ve always wondered how social networking cites affect and
    influence identity and self- esteem. This article particularly interested me
    for its ability to describe learners’ identity as a fluid ongoing transaction
    where identity is influenced by how the learner sees him/herself and how others
    see him/her. Specifically, how our digital identity today precedes our physical
    identity. I experience this everyday- I enjoy updating my Instagram, Facebook,
    and Snapchat accounts. I like to be seen, but I only like it when it is on my
    own terms. For example, I hate when people upload unflattering pictures of me but
    am also aware that anyone who knows me relatively well has seen me at my best
    and worst. While I am relatively confident in my physical identity, I find
    confidence in my digital identity- it reinforces the confidence I have in
    myself. So I agree, today teachers ARE challenged with helping students form an
    identity that is whole. I further investigated this idea of a fractured
    identity within the classroom and found it to be a negative reality for college
    women in STEM fields. In the Ahlqvist, London, Rosenthal (2013) study on
    unstable identity compatibility and the success of women in STEM fields,
    researchers examined how women who are more perceptive of threat cues (high in
    gender RS) and who experience more frequent damage to their self-perception may
    undermines the success of women in STEM fields. They found that higher gender
    RS to be related to larger within-person fluctuations in the perceived
    compatibility between gender and STEM identities. Specifically, they found that
    instability predicted lower feelings of subjective belonging as well as lower
    academic performance in STEM courses the following semester. The researchers
    argue that the instability stemmed from discouragement that occurs when the
    student sees a lack of female role models among her instructors or finds that
    she is one of few women in her chose field. Similarly, they argue that
    instability might result from exposure to subtle cues of incompatibility such
    as video games or posters depicting traditionally male interests. What they
    truly argue is that a student’s sense of identity is dynamic and constantly
    shifting. In a time where identity is increasingly fractured, can teacher’s
    utilize digital media to engage students in order to promote a healthy and
    whole sense of identity when it comes to learning? I think they can. Teachers
    should utilize the power of digital identity to promote stable identities. For
    example, teachers should make Facebook groups for women in STEM majors and use
    them as a space for women to come together and find a sense of belonging.
    Similarly, the digital space should be utilized to neutralize gender cues.
    Certain initiatives, like GoldieBlox toys and Always’s LikeAGirl campaign, have
    started to work on bridging the gender gap. It would be incredible to see if
    educators can work with the digital space to promote positive and stable
    identities that can help students flourish in the classroom.

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