This week Leigh Blackall, Educational Designer from the Digital Learning Team in the College of Design and Social Context writes about the issue of online identity and continuity
Who are you?
Shall we start with a quick Google search on your name? Web, image, video, news, and scholar.
I do it as a matter of course when considering new people to work with, or in preparation for applying for work. I want to know what a person looks like; to gain some insight into how they work online (or not); to get an overview on the sorts of things they have done in the past; and to get a sense for what their identity is, online. There is a significance to me, in what is revealed in such a search and what is not.
Is it too simple to say that an online folio is a search result for a person’s or project’s name, and an online workspace is the Internet as a whole? This online workspace is not a single publishing platform or content management system – the Internet is the platform. Some of us might be a bit stuck on this, but this perspective becoming mainstream is probably inevitable if it’s not already a reality.
Most people who do a search on their name come to realise that the search result is essentially the first page of their online identity – their folio. It could be personal, it could be professional, often it’s both. Their next realisation might be that the way they work online, the processes, platforms, linkages and associations in the data that they generate, all has an impact on their portfolio-as-a-search-result. Their search terms and saved bookmarks, the media they upload and download, their playlists, click-through history, viewing times, purchase history, GPS location, and strength of linkage to other people, collaborators and projects. All this data is built up around us as we work online, and can be used to create, shape and grow a personalised and professional workspace. It can be harnessed to improve the quality and efficiency of our work. Our search results on topics of inquiry can become more targeted, or recommendations and linkages can be made more relevant. This includes advertisers and surveillance agencies of course, which at this point in time at least, we might consider as our symbiotic relationship.
You’re a machine
In 2004, Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson created a video about this future that we now live in. They called it the Evolving Personalised Information Construct (EPIC2014). Their video starts in black, with a flickering light in the distance. A narrator reads, “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times…”
In 2007 Dr Michael Wesch expanded on this topic and published the incredibly popular video, The Machine is Using Us, now at nearly one million seven hundred thousand views. This video explained an EPIC hypertext reality, 7 years before Sloan and Thompson thought it would come to pass.
While we’re talking about Michael, check out his online folio. As you do that, it’s worth considering how the strength of Michael’s online identity impacts on those that link to him, such as his students at Kansas State University.
A cog in a wheel
In the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University, a range of educational development projects are interested in this line of inquiry, and in the kinds of operating principles that might inform the design of learning activities and assessment tasks. Tasks that ask people to manage their online workspaces, professional identities and portfolios.
At RMIT though, like many other universities, a specified workspace is provided that impacts on this conception of a professional identity, precisely because it has become a central and major entity of the Internet – Google.
To some, Google is a good platform choice. It is a very relevant and effective toolset in a university that needs to show ‘industry relevance’, productivity gains and expenditure savings. To some others though, they think that RMIT should be more concerned about data sovereignty and maintaining local IT skills. They would ask, “should an offshore advertising company with questionable links to surveillance agencies be getting intimate access to data about a large population base, especially a university one?”
Who are you tomorrow?
As we ask people to use the Internet in their work, and in RMIT’s case – Google in particular, we’re asking people to shape their online workspace into a personalised space with professional relevance. Their connection to us is recorded, their connection to each other is recorded, what they do with their online identity all combines to teach “The Machine” to use them, and be used by them.
What happens to these online identities when the people leave though? Their accounts are disabled! They’re effectively deleted, or held in limbo until that person comes back into the organisation.
What about people who have already built themselves an online workspace, a professional identity and folio? Should they stop with that and rebuild another one? Won’t they dilute their online identities, especially students, casuals, contractors and other transients?
Additionally, if RMIT continues to limit the functionality of an RMIT/Google account by not enabling Youtube accounts, Maps, Classroom or the use of Addons for instance, what impact is that decision having on the account holder’s development of a professional workspace and online folio?
All this seems at considerable odds with RMIT’s graduate capabilities around Lifelong Learning.
A temporary role
I’ve raised these RMIT/Google account issues with anyone willing to talk about them, on behalf of the projects I’m assisting with, in the hope of better understanding RMIT’s position and conceiving a workable solution. I’ve had a few things pointed out to me so far:
- Perhaps managing multiple online identities is a critical literacy, and a student account is a ‘practice’ space before developing their real workspace. Related to this is the reality that industry workspaces are also going to prescribe an account that contributes to the complexity around a person’s online identity and workspace.
- RMIT is a large and international organisation and needs to implement a system that can work consistently across that organisation. Our partners in Vietnam for example, have not agreed to the full use of a product like Google, citing performance and other issues.
- An account with @rmit.edu.au is branded RMIT, and what a person does with that account impacts the RMIT brand and RMIT’s liability.
- There are legal implications for RMIT accounts using Youtube channels or Addons, relating to Intellectual Property.
Practically though, when a staff member or a student needs or wants a Youtube account, or to turn on an Addon, or to Create a Map, they simply work around the limitations and use their own Google accounts. I’ve been advised that there is no policy or procedure in RMIT that would regulate or prevent such practice.
Youtube for instance, the third or fourth most used website by Australians, and not just for watching funny cat videos either, has long been sociologically important*, a media phenomenon over the past 10 years with significant cultural impact*. RMIT’s teachers, researchers, students and administrators should have by-now developed deep critical awareness around this. But they have not on the whole, not while their RMIT accounts can’t engage it. RMIT remains technically disengaged.
Retain something of yourself
With all these realities, issues and workarounds in mind, we might then consider the idea of advising people to primarily use their own accounts over their RMIT provided ones, because the development of online workspaces and folios are long term projects starting now, and continuing well beyond their life as students and staff members.
To most, this suggestion will appear too subversive, “taking a long walk off the reservation”, as a good colleague puts it. But in another light it might only be a minor conceptual shift. It is certainly inline with the practical realities at universities that are not deploying Google accounts. The staff and students at those universities simply use Google like any other external web service when required. One that is not limited by the University-wide settings or legalities over an account that in reality is on loan to them and never really ‘owned’ by the user who’s identity it actually is!
A BYO account has longer term benefits for transient people in the university, such as students, casual and part time staff – which I hear is most of us now.
Celebrate the awareness
To conclude this never ending libertarian dilemma then, if it is deemed inappropriate that an offshore advertising corporation with links to foreign surveillance agencies has deep ties to the research data and communications within a university; and if the university that is using that service does not enable the full features of that service anyway – thereby impacting on the productivity, professional identity and portfolio of its staff and graduates, it might be better to do away with the limited service and make arrangements for services that do better in terms of data sovereignty and personal responsibility and control (if that exists, look to the open source, open data and hacker communities for committed innovation in this space).
So, the university drops Google so that we can use Google. Better still, the university seeks out a partnership and invests in communication and documentation services that genuinely give us some options outside the profit and surveillance driven motives. In the meantime, we might make it our responsibility to raise awareness around all of this. We’ll design learning activities and assessment tasks that help people manage their online identities and establish life-long learning efficacy. And we’ll celebrate the readiness of our staff and graduates by citing the confidence of their online work practices and the self evident strength of their portfolios…
*Note: “An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube” by Michael Wesch may not be currently available due to copyright challenges in your country.
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