Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned

Several days ago, I submitted (and then corrected) final grades for my undergraduate online identity course. I am planning to teach the course again next semester and I’ll certainly be making some changes based on this first semester of the class.

First, Clay Shirky’s right: the first challenge when working with young students in discussions about their use of the Internet and other technologies is to help them understand just how different their uses of these technologies are compared to previous generations’. For many of the youngest students, cell phones, MySpace, and wireless Internet access have almost always existed and they have always been part of their lives. While for many of us these technologies and the ideas underlying them – flexible and changing ideas of privacy, incredibly public and intimate expressions of identity, and indexable, searchable, and permanent artifacts – are new and world-changing, for these students these ideas are old-hat and completely non-notable. Next semester, I need to work harder at the very beginning of the class to help my students understand how new and unexplored all of these technologies are for all of us. I’m not quite sure how to do that and figuring that out is my homework during the holiday break.

The final assignment elicited some surprising insight and ideas from my students. In a nutshell, they were to make policy recommendations for the use of social networking services (SNSes) for either a college admissions office or a company hiring new college graduates. The recommendations spanned the entire range of potential recommendations from “they must investigate the profile of every applicant” to “they can never investigate the profiles of applicants” with varying levels of quality support and rationale for the recommendations.

The most surprising and interesting recommendation, submitted by a few students, was that applicants should be able to decide whether or not their SNS profiles are fair game. That is not a recommendation I had anticipated and the justifications were very interesting. Essentially, these students really grabbed hold of some of the ideas we discussed and read that related to the active role we can take in shaping and understanding how we are presented and described online. I haven’t quite figured out how practical the recommendation is when scaled up to institutions or corporations that have thousands of applicants but it’s a great answer for this final assignment and it shows a wonderful grasp of some very important ideas.

I wish I had more time to tackle ideas of privacy and context.  That’s something else I will see if I can work into the course next semester although I am not very hopeful. Given the length of the course, it’s impossible to even touch on every important and interesting topic. I hope to expand the course to a full semester and teach in one of our living-learning centers next year with the hope that will allow me to add these topics and have enough time to explore them.

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