Are You Being Catfished?

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Catfishing schemes, or romance scams, continue to plague social networking services. In fact, the issue has become so common that there’s a good chance that one of your recent “friend” requests actually came from a scammer versus someone who is actually interesting in pursuing a genuine friendship. Unfortunately, social networks on the whole seem content to turn a blind eye on the problem, despite the fact that people lose thousands of dollars to these types of scams every day. So, due to this alarming issue and utter lack of response from social networking sites, we’ve compiled a few tips, techniques and questions to ask yourself when evaluating an online profile. We hope that this information might prove be useful for both personal use and as an instructional tool.

Step 1: Assess the authenticity of the profile picture

This is really the easiest place to start. Drop the picture into Google’s reverse image search to see where else the image appears. TinEye, a dedicated reverse-image search engine, is also a great tool that can be used for to perform this search. If the picture is associated with many different names or profiles, it’s likely that you’re dealing with a scam account.

Step 2: Critique the bio

Catfishing accounts often use similar biographical components. Some red flags include:

  • A relationship status of “widowed” or “divorced” (obviously not all widowed or divorced people are catfishers, but this status in combination with other red flags might be an indication of a fake account)
  • A job that is of exceptional status and that may require a great deal of travel and/or periods without communication (e.g., military, engineer, oil worker, self-employed, shipping), making it easy for the scammer to make excuses for being absent, unavailable, or out of the country.
  • An “about” section that includes clichéd, romantic statements such as “looking for love” or statements that may stereotypically reinforce one’s integrity (as in this scammer profile below; also note that he describes himself as “God-fearing” and that there are obvious spelling mistakes in the name of the supposed alma mater – which we discuss more later):

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Step 3: Investigate the profile name

The name on the account can also be a clue about the legitimacy of the account:

  • Many catfishers seem to pull from a list of popular names. If you search for the profile name on Facebook and lots of other profiles with the same name and similar occupations pop up, you may want to look more closely. At the time of writing, numerous “Nelson Colbert” profiles appear on Facebook and all seem to be fake profiles made up similar components discussed so far (e.g., stolen profile photo, suspect occupation, etc.).

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  • Check to make sure that the name on the profile matches the name in the URL. Otherwise, it might be a sign that the scammer has had to change their profile name when a victim found them out.

3Google the profile name. Most people have at least some sort of digital footprint these days. Can you find the person? Does what you find match up with what they are telling you?

Step 4: Investigate the profile page

Some other elements of the profile to watch out for include:

  • Number of friends: Does the person have few friends? Do their friends interact authentically with them on their page, or do you only see the same people commenting/liking over and over again?
  • Types of friends: Often, if you are able to see the scammer’s friend list, it will consist overwhelmingly of people of the opposite gender (the target victims), as in this screenshot of a male scammer’s friend list:

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  • Age of the profile: Is the profile brand new, or is there a history of photo uploads, status updates, posts from others, etc? Also, note that profile posts can be backdated and locations can be faked (as seen in the image below) to make a profile seem like it has a longer history than it actually does. However, the year that the (Facebook) profile was created can’t be faked.

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  • Photos: Does the profile have only a few photos, or are there a variety of photos, including photos with others (watch out for pictures with children, as this can be part of the scam)? Do the photos look photoshopped (see “ghost dog” example below)?

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  • Mutual friends: Do you have any mutual friends? Note that having a small number of mutual friends isn’t necessarily a sign of legitimacy: scammers will sometimes friend a victim’s friends to make themselves seem more legit. If you have only a small number of mutual friends, it’s a good idea to contact those friends to see if they actually know the person. In many cases, your friend may have accepted the fake profile, due to less discerning personal protocols regarding “friending” or simply in error.
  • Language/grammar: Many scammers do not speak English as a first language. If you notice many spelling or grammar mistakes even though the person claims to be from an English-speaking country, proceed with caution.
  • Religious affiliation: Scammers will also often pose as devoutly religious individuals and sometimes use scripture or religious language to appear more trustworthy or to manipulate their victims through shared belief-systems. In fact, religion-specific dating sites such as Christian Mingle, JDate, or Shaadi are often used by scammers.

Step 5: Watch for tell-tale behaviours

Scammers often follow predictable patterns of behaviour, and there are some common red flags:

    • Use of a private messaging platform: A scammer will often quickly try to move the interactions over to email, SMS, or a different instant messaging platform. This is done so that if the original profile is identified as a fake account and removed by the social network, the scammer will not lose direct contact with their potential victim.
    • Rushing towards commitment: Scammers will try to move online relationships forward very quickly. It’s not uncommon for a catfisher to bring up marriage or to profess their love after only a few days or interactions; this helps to build a great sense of attachment and obligation, making victims more likely to agree to help the scammer later on.
    • Refusal to use video communication: Catfishers will often refuse to use anything but text or voice-based communication and will give excuses about poor connections to avoid having to Skype.
    • Out-of-sync, glitchy, or looped video: If a scammer does agree to video chat, their stream will generally be of very poor quality. This is because the scammer is usually using stolen footage that they found on Youtube or elsewhere online in order to fake a live conversation. In such cases, if audio is also present, it will appear to be out of sync with the video. Scammers may also cut video conversations short and complain of connectivity issues.
    • Repeated excuses to avoid meeting face to face: Catfishers will often make plans to meet up with their victims, but these plans will always fall through at the last minute for one reason or another.
    • Requests for compromising photos/videos: Often, scammers will request nude images or ask victims to participate in video chats of a sexual nature. These images or videos can then later be used to blackmail the victim, for instance, by threatening to send the files to the victim’s entire contact list or employer.
    • Emergencies: Once the catfisher has hooked their victim, they will likely be involved in some type of “emergency” situation. This might be an illness, loss of job, or the need to leave a location suddenly. In many cases, the scammer’s “children” may be involved.
    • Requests for money: This is obviously the top indication that you are dealing with a scammer. The request can take a variety of forms; two common techniques include advanced-fee fraud and requests for a money transfer through a company like Moneygram or Western Union (to make the money difficult to trace). Often, the victim will be told to send the money to someone other than the scammer (since the scammer is using a fake name).

Step 6: Ask for confirmation of identification

If you still aren’t completely sure whether or not you are dealing with a scammer, you can always ask for some form of confirmation.

  • Passport: Often scammers will provide a photoshopped passport as proof of identity (as in the image below). If the passport seems questionable, you can find images of real passports from various countries and compare them. You can also check out the passport photo guidelines for various countries (for instance, here are the US guidelines), which can help you determine if the photo meets the size/shape requirements.

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  • Real-time photo or video: To verify identity, you can ask the individual to provide a real-time photo (with a newspaper with that day’s date, or holding up a certain number of fingers) or to perform certain actions while on video (raise one hand, clap hands, etc.). As well, if the scammer does provide a photo, be sure to check for signs of photoshopping, like in this picture below where the head has been (poorly) photoshopped onto the body and thus seems inordinately large.

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  • At this point, we also can’t stress enough the need to use your common sense. If a profile just seems too good to be true, it unfortunately probably is (just like you don’t really have a secret relative who is the king of an African country and wants to share his wealth with you).

Step 7: Block, report, and warn others

Once you have determined that you are communicating with a scammer profile, there are a few steps you should take:

    • Report: Most social networking or dating sites have some sort of reporting tool. Often, reporting a profile will lead to it being taken down, preventing future scams on that account. As well, many victims report fake profiles to sites like Romance Scam or to Facebook groups set up to share information on scammers.
    • Block: Once you have reported the profile, you should unfriend and block the user. You may believe that the damage is already done, but if you do not unfriend and block the scammer, they will still have access to your photos, account info, and friends list. As well, people may see that you are friends with the scammer and take this as a sign that they can safely friend the account themselves.
    • Warn others: Another good step is to warn others in your circle of friends, especially if you notice that the scammer is attempting to connect with other members of your contact list.
    • Be vocal: Although there have been many attempts to improve policies at social networking services (we’re looking at you, Facebook), ultimately it will likely take a critical mass of complaints, media coverage, and awareness in order to achieve real change. So make you voice heard!

Other things to look out for:

  • Scammer “families”: In some cases, scammers will create an elaborate network of friends and family in order to bring legitimacy to the scammer profile. For instance, the fake Alex Gallart’s circle of contacts included his mother, friend, and daughter (of these, only the mother’s profile, Maria Gallart, is still up). In this case, scammers were actually using real photos of Alec’s family members to build the fake family.
  • Twinned accounts: One technique we’ve seen more of recently is when scammers create accounts that are essentially doubles of existing accounts. For instance, see these two photos:

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Scammers will use these profiles to connect with the real person’s friends and family, who simply think they are (re)connecting with the victim. Then, the scammer can use a variation on the “grandparent scam”in order to ask friends and family to send money to deal with an emergency.

The Curious Case of Srkj Rife, “Victim”-Turned-Harasser

Let me just preface all of this by saying: The Internet is an utterly crazy place.

As someone who reads a lot about digital citizenship, I’m familiar with many of the shadier things people do on the Internet. One particularly nasty activity is catfishing – that is, using a false digital identity to engage in online relationships – and one especially nefarious subset of catfishers is made up of people who use these scams to defraud others by entering into fake online relationships and then asking victims for money for a variety of made-up reasons. These scams are often run by groups of people abroad, frequently in Nigeria (hence the term “419 scam,” so-called because in the Nigerian Criminal Code, 419 is the number of the article related to fraud).

I’m particularly well-acquainted with this type of for-profit romance scam because I work with Alec Couros, whose photos and name are frequently used by scammers (we’ll get back to him in just a minute). We’ve joked a few times about creating a fake profile to try to catfish the catfishers, but we never actually set one up. So you can imagine my delight, last March, when I received a Facebook friend request from one Nelson Dozzy, who, upon further research, turned out to be a scammer account.

And that’s when I thought, Well hey, this could be fun! Why not catfish the catfisher?

Long story short (and yes, I really need to write a post about the hilarity that ensued), Nelson and I embarked on a whirlwind romance and were quickly “engaged,” but our online courtship came to an ugly end when I refused to send him $2000 to help him get “five million dollars awarded to him by the UN” out of Afghanistan (known as advance-fee fraud). Afterwards, I laughed about it, and then I moved on with my life.

Sadly, while catfishing the catfisher was a fun game for me, it’s not a laughing matter to many others. Obviously, for the victims of these scams, who sometimes lose thousands of dollars in addition to the heartbreak of discovering that their online romance was a lie, catfishing is no joke. But for those whose photos are frequently used by scammer accounts, the experience can quickly become equally nightmarish.

…Which takes me back to my friend Alec Couros. For Alec, dealing with catfishing verges on a full-time job. He literally receives hundreds of reports of profiles using his photos each week. Recently, he even created an information page to provide information for victims, and he’s also started a public Facebook page in an effort to get his profile verified (in hopes that this will make it easier to take down the fake accounts).

Because I co-teach and write frequently with Alec, I’ve gotten a firsthand look at just how exhausting and frustrating this situation is for him. In addition to reporting fake accounts, Alec also frequently has to deal with the victims, who contact him in varying states of distress, confusion, and anger. Despite his efforts to get Facebook to do something about this issue (and not just his efforts – Alan Levine has also been fighting hard to deal with this situation), the social network service has been totally unresponsive. In fact, Alec has had his own account suspended on more than one occasion over suspected fraudulent activity – but if a Facebook employee had taken two minutes to really look at the scammer accounts, it would have been glaringly obvious who the real Alec was.

To his credit, Alec handles all of this with much more grace than I would ever be able to, and he works tirelessly to educate others about the issue through blogging, news interviews, and other venues. But a few days ago, he was contacted by a particularly persistent victim, which he blogged about here (the context is important, so I’d suggest taking a moment to read his post if you haven’t already). After a few accusatory tweets, it seemed like she’d move on, as most of the victims do. But instead, the harassment has not only continued but also escalated.

See, this particular victim (we’ll call her Srkj, the odd pseudonym she uses on Twitter) appears to believe that Alec himself is, in fact, the scammer, and that he has simply fabricated the hundreds of other stories of scammers using his pictures. This is particularly ironic because Alec does a great deal of work in the area of positive digital citizenship – not to mention the fact that between being a full-time professor, giving keynotes around the world, and raising four kids, Alec barely has time to eat or sleep, let alone engage in diabolical scamming operations. Nevertheless, Srkj has made up her mind and launched a bizarre campaign that seems to be aimed at discrediting Alec and tarnishing his reputation:

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Despite Alec’s efforts to explain the situation, Srkj seems intent on sticking to her story, extending her campaign of harassment to Facebook as well. There, she has been sharing his informational blog post and Facebook page on her own wall alongside some disparaging commentary. She also left a comment on Alec’s Facebook page (the comment has since been hidden) attacking him quite viciously; I had originally planned to quote portions of her message to give a sense of the content, but upon re-reading it I found that it was actually too offensive (and, at times, incredibly vulgar) to include.

Given my own interest in digital identity, I’ve been following this saga pretty closely. And the whole thing has started to feel a little strange. So if you’ll bear with me, let me take you on a little journey into the bizarre world of our friend (well, not so much) Srkj.

The first hint of something being amiss was Srkj’s refusal to drop the issue, especially given that, by her own report, she had only been talking to the scammer for a few days. In fact, her interest in Alec seemed to have developed into a strange obsession: as of the date this was posted, a whopping 40 of 49 tweets on her account related to him (and the account dates back to 2013, eliminating the possibility that she created the account specifically to harass him).

The vehemence of the attack continues to be totally unwarranted and devoid of logic. For instance, this morning I noticed that Srkj had posted this tweet:

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Because Alec has blocked her, however, Srkj is not longer able to follow him, meaning that the only way for his face to keep “poping [sic] up” is for her to search for his username specifically while logged out. As well, when Alec sent Srkj a Youtube video showing how scammers use videos to “Skype” with their victims, she claimed that it was a fake video he had created just then in order to defend himself, and she keeps coming back to this argument:

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Frankly, this last tweet just confuses me, because I did check the date and it was posted last August. So unless Alec purchased a Delorean recently…

So, fueled by my own interest in the subject as well as annoyance on Alec’s behalf, I decided to do a little digging. I pride myself on being a bit of a professional cybersleuth, in that I can find just about anything online. But following the breadcrumbs in this mystery is perplexing.

Full disclosure: To be honest, it didn’t take me more than 30 minutes to track down Srkj’s real full name, age, address, list of misdemeanors… (yeah, I’m kinda good at this), and that was just using a regular search engine, not pulling from databases (such as state case files) in a deep web search. But I’m also aware that there is a big difference between doing a little snooping online (who among us hasn’t creeped the odd Facebook page or two?) and actually posting that information; public is not the same as publicized, and I’m not looking to start a cyber vigilantism campaign here. So while every piece of information that I discovered could easily be found by anyone with an Internet connection and some level of digital literacy, I have chosen not to link directly to articles, accounts, or other sites that would reveal the woman’s real name.

In any case, when I began to dig around online, the whole situation just got more and more bizarre. For one thing, while Srkj frequently uses the same photos, she is wildly inconsistent with usernames, going by at least four names that I can find, all linked together by commonalities. Some of this variance can be explained by married vs. maiden names, but not all of it. Try as I might, I absolutely cannot decipher where her consonant-heavy Twitter name comes from. Oddly, Srkj almost appears to have two separate digital identities under two separate names. Two Myspace pages, two Twitter accounts, but the photos and writing style suggest a clear link.

Okay…So Srkj isn’t very concerned about a consolidated digital footprint. So what?

Well, things just kept getting weirder. For one thing, Srkj appears to be well acquainted with the idea of catfishing. She is a member of the Romance Scammers on Facebook group, which is a group where victims work to take down other scammers (somewhat ironically, the group description reads: “how to get rid off [sic] scammers???? we are just more intelligent than them !!!!!!!”). On her Google plus profile, Srkj has posted about catfishing multiple times, including a video of a Nigerian scammer being arrested. All this begs the question of why she didn’t seem to get what was going on with Alec. Given this disconnect, I began to wonder if perhaps her site had actually been taken over by a scammer intent on discrediting Alec in order to make it easier to use his photos. Indeed, the Facebook post below seems to suggest that Srkj had concerns over her account security:

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But then Alec stumbled upon some new information: this post on the Romance Scammers group where Srkj actually admits to having been involved in scamming women herself.

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In case you aren’t keen on wading through that, the first part is the most interesting:

This man is a scammer I dealt with this person for 3 years.He had me send other woman’s money to him in nigeria.He claims he is a business man in nigeria selling land Rover parts.I was victim.And his last victim was candice l Adams he stole 1800 dollars from her sent to me to send back to him in nigeria.I didn’t send it back I kept it. Also a Tania Noell he stole 700.00 from her.I also have several recipts of money I sent to him under various Nigerian names.”

Essentially, Srkj just admitted to knowingly participating in this particular scam, both by sending other women’s money to him and by keeping money that another victim had sent to her. Oddly enough, no one else in the group seems to notice this; instead they are all intent on finding and bringing down the scammer.

And that appears to be a big cornerstone of Srkj’s battle: she is desperate to find the “real” scammer and believes she has zeroed in on him with Alec. This is perhaps quite obvious, but I feel I’d be remiss not to point out two major flaws in her judgment (that is, beyond the important fact that I, and countless others, know Alec well enough to say with certainty that he is not involved in a secret life of catfishing): first, on a very basic level, it just doesn’t make sense for someone involved in a scamming operation to use their own photos. But perhaps more importantly, it’s simply not possible to find the “real” scammer because these fake accounts are not isolated projects; rather, the accounts are most likely part of a large-scale operation with remarkably standardized operating procedures (there are even sites that collect the love letters used over and over by scammers).

But to return to Srkj, I admit that the revelation of her complicity, even participation, in catfishing activities initially seemed odd, given her own history as a victim. But as I dug deeper in my quest to learn more about Srkj, it started to make a bit more sense. The more I looked, the more it became apparent that our “victim” was in fact, well, not such a nice person. Her Facebook page (which appears to be mostly public) includes, among other things, evidence of an intolerance of immigrants (“Well if your not from here anyways start packing”); a link to this article about Obama’s move to penalize states that refuse to accept refugees, accompanied by the message “These refuges ain’t noughting more then born kilkers;” and this family portrait against a Confederate flag backdrop.

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Srkj’s recent past also includes two bizarre shoplifting incidents, in which she attempted to steal various food items from grocery stores: in one incident, her admittedly classy shoplifting included the theft of “lobster tails and shrimp,” while the other somewhat less classy incident involved hiding steaks and hams in her purse.

Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

To be clear, the picture of Srkj painted by her fragmented digital identity suggests that this is a woman who has had a difficult life. There are certainly indications that she is living on a very low income or perhaps social assistance, and her writing indicates a lower level of literacy. As well, mixed in with the hate speech are pictures that depict Srkj as a loving mother who cares a great deal about her family. Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

So why did I write this post? Ultimately, there are a few reasons. For one thing, I simply don’t believe that Srkj’s hateful and untrue messages should go unaddressed. Having dealt with my own share of online harassment, I am compelled to speak up about this, especially since Alec’s own efforts to deal with both this situation and the larger issue of catfishing have been largely unsuccessful. Also, part of my job involves teaching about digital citizenship and digital literacy, and I feel that exploring the complexities of this case – and having more conversations about these topics in general – is important in raising awareness; catfishers prey on those who lack the digital literacy to detect the scam, and so it’s critical that we educate others about this.

But ultimately, this story is much bigger than Alec or Srkj or even the catfishing rings. So I would like to add my voice to Alec’s and Alan’s in calling for social networks to step up in addressing scammer accounts. Certainly, the legal aspects of catfishing are tricky because these scams know no borders, but social networks have the power and ability to crack down on fraudulent accounts – it is simply not a priority to corporations for whom any growth in users (fake or otherwise) is seen as a sign of success. And that lack of interest in preventing what amounts to identity theft is a big problem for all of us, because without efforts from social networking services, the issue will only continue to grow. As Alec posted recently on Facebook:

“For those who haven’t been affected (or more likely don’t yet know that they’ve been affected), it’s difficult to fathom what a time-sucking, anxiety-causing, expletive-saying kind of experience this. Unless we get FB and other social media companies to act, this is the very near-future of our networked lives.”

Dissertation isolation: Say it ain’t so…

Three years ago, if you’d told me I would be writing a dissertation having anything to do with social media, I’d have laughed at you. Three years ago, I had just gotten a Twitter account and had used it…oh…maybe five times. Social media was a fun distraction, sure, but not much more.

Flickr photo shared by Marc_Smith under a Creative Commons ( BY) license

But for the past few days, I have been intently focused on finally getting my proverbial s*** together and finishing a draft of my dissertation which deals, in large part, with social media and digital identity. But I don’t always have the best attention span. I get distracted by many things – organizing my books, vacuuming, obsessing over how many steps my Fitbit has recorded today, and, of course, social media. Some might even say that social media, and the Internet in general, gets in the way of my productivity. And sure, sometimes it does. Did I really need to re-read that hilarious blog post about why procrastinators procrastinate for the twentieth time? Probably not (but if you haven’t read it, you really should…). Did I have to look through the trending hashtags on Twitter to learn that the odd one that I couldn’t parse was, inevitably, about more One Direction drama (I kid you not – every single time). Well, no.

But.

And that’s a big but (no pun intended).

But.

Social media is also a goldmine of incredible information. The vast majority of the citations in my third comprehensive exam paper, which was about digital identity, came from Twitter – well, more specifically, from what I dug up by searching for my Twitter handle + #identity in order to access the scores of articles on the subject that I had carefully curated from others’ sharing over time. And social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Today, I was writing about why it is so critical that all of us, but especially educators, speak out for social justice in online spaces, even though it is potentially risky (and, as in my case, can lead to being trolled in a not-so-nice way). And on one of my social media breaks, I came across this fantastic post by Bonnie Stewart about the way that social media shapes our world. To quote Bonnie:

“Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY.”

Thanks for the dissertation material, Bonnie!

Writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration.

So writing my dissertation has been incredibly hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. When I get into my groove, I am a prolific and rapid writer. But these days, I write mostly blog posts, and I find that my ability to write academically has been overtaken, in some ways, by my ability to blog. If I could blog my dissertation, I would. I’m a bit lost without the ability to hyperlink to other blogs or articles or people, and I feel that my writing suffers because of it. Because really, that’s the magic of social media, social writing, and Web 2.0: writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration. A good blog post is a good blog post because it links into a much wider web of knowledge, and it does so in a highly transparent and accessible way. Sure, we cite others in academic papers, but to access a cited work we would usually have to search for it in an academic database or – gasp – go to the library (I have helpfully linked to the Wikipedia page about libraries here in case you’ve forgotten what they are). The way we think about knowledge is changing, at least when it comes to the digital sphere: as David Weinberger said, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I even watched this shift play out in my research. What began as an ethnographic study/discourse analysis rapidly changed into something much more collaborative. Instead of me sitting alone and analyzing my participants’ words, we sat there and picked them apart together – both their words and, at times, mine. We constructed (well, in the case of my research, deconstructed) understandings collaboratively. And the experience was so much richer because of it.

In a particularly depressing moment of Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes, “We live as we dream – alone.” In many ways, academia seems still to embrace this worldview – it might as well read, “I write my dissertation as I dream – alone.” But just as the magic of Google Drive means I will never have to edit documents alone again, the magic of social media means that I no longer have to write, read, think, or be an “expert” in isolation. Maybe it’s time academia embraced this incredible connected culture that we live in just a little bit more and took up a more social form of learning. After all, “We participate, therefore we are.”

And hey, I might even find a way to work this blog post into my dissertation.

 

(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Developing a framework for teaching open courses

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Recently, we presented at OER15 in Cardiff, Wales, on the topic of developing a framework for open courses. In our session, we considered our experiences in facilitating MOOC type courses in order to think through and address the challenges that these types of courses present.

So first, a little background: It has been stated that there are two general categories of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs are large-scale MOOCs that often consist of video-delivered content and automated assessments. These MOOCs are often offered by institutions or by large-scale MOOC providers like edX and Coursera. cMOOCs, or Connectivist MOOCs, are network-based: they operate through a distributed pedagogy model, where the connections become as important as the content, knowledge is socially constructed by the group, and participants learn from each other. In many ways, these courses can be similar to learning on the open web: there is minimal guidance in terms of what is learned and when, and participants are instead free to engage with the course in whatever way they choose. Open boundary courses, meanwhile, are for-credit courses (such as those offered by a post-secondary institution) that are opened to the public on a non-credit basis. For instance, the ds106 Digital Storytelling course, originally based out of the University of Mary Washington, is also offered as an open boundary course. If you were to imagine the spectrum of openness in courses, it might look something like this:

Open Boundary Courses

For the purposes of this post, we take the term “open course” to include both open boundary courses and MOOCs (particularly cMOOCs).

Much of our insight into open courses comes from our work with three large, open courses: EC&I 831 (Social Media and Open Education), #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC. The latter two courses were both cMOOCs; #ETMOOC (a MOOC about educational technology) ran in the winter of 2013, and #DCMOOC (a MOOC about digital citizenship sponsored by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education) ran in the spring of 2014. EC&I 831, meanwhile, is a graduate level class at the University of Regina that was developed and then taught for the first time in 2007 and has run every year since. While the course has a core group of for-credit graduate students, it is also open to anyone – classes are held online and the link to the web-conferencing platform is tweeted out each week, so that anyone is free to join any given session. EC&I 831 is not a MOOC; instead, it is considered an open-boundary course, and it’s generally seen as one of the forerunners for the MOOC movement.

One of the common features of MOOCs is the high drop-out rate, which occurs for a variety of reasons. The drop-out rate is not in itself necessarily a negative: it may mean that students have the freedom to try out different courses (or other educational experiences) until they find one that fits their needs, or it may mean that students are choosing to audit only particular portions of courses rather than completing them in their entirety. However, some students drop out or engage very minimally with open courses not due to lack of interest or fit with their own needs but because the format and ethos of cMOOCs can be difficult to navigate for those who have not spent much time learning on the open web. However, with EC&I831, #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC, we have seen a significant level of engagement, persistence, and follow-through with the courses. Perhaps more importantly, many of the participants have stayed engaged with the course community and gone on to become leaders in their own networks; for instance, former participants in #ETMOOC organized their own 2nd year anniversary chat. So the question is, how do we take the strategies that led to positive and lasting outcomes in these courses and apply them to other large, open courses in order to help make participants’ experiences more positive, relevant, and beneficial in the long term?

Below, we identify seven elements of course design that we have used in our own open courses. Then, we suggest possible strategies for building a framework for open courses that might lead to more positive student involvement, in the hopes that these favourable experiences will lead students to continue learning and connecting in open, networked spaces.

  1. Semi-structured course environment

The challenge: The incredible choice of online spaces and tools can be overwhelming to those just starting to learn on the open web.

The strategy: In the open courses that we have facilitated, we help students to gradually ease into the greater digital world through the creation of a variety of interconnected course environments with varying levels of privacy. This can help to gradually “thin the walls” of the more traditional closed classroom environment:

Thinning the Walls

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write: “The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.” Keeping this in mind, we design the course environment as a bounded space for learning how to learn that exists within the larger space of the open web; we do this through a combination of different tools (small tools, loosely joined). While our use of specific tools has evolved and changed over time, what is important is the way in which the chosen tools work together in combination to ensure a particular set of affordances. In the current iteration, for instance, we allow for private interactions in a “safe” space by creating a Google Plus community for each of our courses, where students can pose questions, engage in discussion, and share resources. As well, we encourage students to develop their own spaces on the web, but we also employ mechanisms to keep these spaces interconnected in order to create a structure of support. For instance, students create their own personal blogs or ePortfolios, but these sites are aggregated using the FeedWordPress plugin so that posts also appear on a central course hub. Additionally, students develop individual Twitter accounts but remain connected through the creation of a Twitter list and the use of a course hashtag (for instance, #eci831). In this way, students are eased into the open web, but at the end of the course they are left with their own individually controlled spaces, which they can continue to use and expand or, alternatively, choose to delete entirely. The ability for students to continue to grow the networks that they have begun to build in class is markedly different from what happens with a traditional Learning/Content Management System (LMS/CMS), where the course is archived at the end of the semester and students start back at zero.

PLN vs. CMS

  1. Interest-based curriculum

The challenge: The overwhelming array of information available online can make it difficult to find a place to begin or a path to take.

The strategy: Martin Weller describes the wealth of knowledge online as a potential “pedagogy of abundance.” For learners who are more used to a structured curriculum, this can make getting started a challenge. However, learning is most meaningful when it is interest-based. So, in our courses, we want to avoid setting a strict scope and sequence type curriculum; instead, we encourage students to let their interests become the catalyst for learning. One particularly successful strategy has been the inclusion of student learning projects in our courses, where students are expected to learn a skill of their choice using online resources and then document the learning process. This allows students to choose a high interest topic, but it also ensures that all students are documenting their learning in a similar manner, which can provide a social glue as students discuss the methods and tools use for documentation (which is a digital literacy skill in itself). As well, weekly synchronous video conferencing sessions and weekly Twitter chats can keep students from feeling lost or disconnected.

  1. Assessment as learning/connection

The challenge: A lack of check-ins/endpoints in online learning can make the learning process seem nebulous.

The strategy: Traditional for-credit courses include assignments that allow students to demonstrate their learning; for instance, in EC&I 831, students create summaries of learning that let them to express their learning using the tools of the open web. These summaries also allow students to practice designing and sharing media in the collapsed context of our networked world, often leading to serendipitous feedback from others outside of the course. Although MOOC-type open courses do not have the same sort of endpoint (as the hope is that learning will continue beyond the course), implementing a similar type of checkpoint – a summary-type assessment that allows students to put tools and theory into practice – can be helpful to allow students to consolidate their learning as well as to connect further through sharing and participating in their newly build networks.

  1. Instructor support

The challenge: The large student-instructor ratio in large open courses can lead to students feeling lost and unsupported as they explore new forms of media.

The strategy: We’ve found that in large courses, it is helpful to have a variety of orientation sessions (for instance, a session on blogging or on using Twitter) in order to help students gain a level of comfort with course tools. This is especially important because students come to courses with an increasingly wide range of digital literacies and technological competencies; while students will work towards attaining a level of digital fluency throughout the course, these introductory sessions give students the basic skills they need in order to access the learning experience of the course.

As well, although we design courses to encourage a high level of peer feedback (or even feedback from others not officially participating in the course), it is important to ensure that all students are getting regular feedback and suggestions for improvement so that they are able to continue to grow; thus, it is helpful to ensure that the facilitation team include members who act as “community developers,” individuals who can comment on student blogs, interact with participants on Twitter and Google Plus, and address any questions that arise; in #ETMOOC, for instance, having a group of co-conspirators meant that the work of community development and course leadership did not fall on a single individual.

  1. Student community

The challenge: Newcomers to online networks can often feel isolated and alone.

The strategy: In a graduate course like EC&I 831, there is a core group of for-credit students with similar aims, and this creates an immediate, built-in Personal Learning Network (PLN). But in larger MOOCs, this core group doesn’t exist, and so facilitators need to work to build a student community through group-building activities. For instance, in #ETMOOC, facilitators organized and created a lipdub video in which course participants could take part. In another recent course, students started a Fitbit group, which allowed course participants to bond over a shared activity. Activities that help to create a sense of presence in the course (such as asking participants to write an introductory blog post or having students create short videos of themselves using a tool like Flipgrid) can help to build a sense of community. Importantly, such community-building activities also help students to build their own PLNs while adding an increased level of personal accountability that can encourage participants to continue with the course.

  1. Digital identity creation

The challenge: Missteps and mistakes can be amplified in digital spaces, where footprints are permanent and easily searchable.

The strategy: In a world where online reputation is becoming increasingly important, it is critical that we take control of our digital presence so that others don’t do so for us. As well, in order to participate more fully in MOOCs in particular and in a PLN in general, it’s important to declare oneself; what we get from our networks depends largely upon what we contribute to them, and it’s difficult to contribute without a digital presence. That might mean creating a blog, developing a Twitter presence, or engaging on other social networking sites. Supporting the development of students’ digital identities as part of open courses will not only help them to network as part of the course, but it will also serve them well in the long term.

  1. Democratizing the web

The challenge: Those new to digital spaces can be hesitant to voice their beliefs publicly due to the nature of digital artefacts, which can easily be shared, remixed, and taken out of context.

The strategy: As digital citizens, we have a responsibility to keep the web democratic and allow for equitable expression, but it can be difficult for non-dominant views to be voiced online due to fear of criticism or other negative repercussions. However, silence can often be taken as complicity, so we need to support students in open courses as they delve into potentially controversial topics, by fostering a community in which students feel more confident expressing viewpoints with the support of a group, and by using our own digital identities to model what it looks like to speak out for social justice issues online.

Although the nature of MOOCs and open courses can present difficulties for those who are new to learning on the open web, these strategies can help to give participants a foothold in the online world, which can, in turn, increase their chances for a meaningful experience that paves the way for a lifetime of learning.

In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.

Silence.001

Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

Developing Teacher Candidates in a Networked World

This post, co-authored with Alec Couros, originally appeared on the Canadian Education Association Blog.

Recently, pre-service teachers in two of our classes at the Faculty of Education,University Regina, participated in #saskedchat, a weekly Twitter chat hosted by and for Saskatchewan educators. Although the chat typically runs on Thursday nights, organizers scheduled a “special edition” of the chat on the topic of supporting new teachers. Almost instantly, our students were immersed in a global discussion about education – and what’s more, they were instantly connected to a large network of practicing teachers who were able to provide them with advice and tips for success. But while the Twitter chat was an enriching experience for our students, participation in events like these is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing new teachers to learn and flourish in a digital world.

As the field of education changes rapidly, it’s no longer enough for faculties of education to deliver static, technical courses on the methods of teaching. Instead, we need to help pre-service teachers develop the skills and understandings that will allow them to navigate and succeed in today’s global classrooms. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to help future teachers build the personal learning networks that will provide both the support system and continuous professional development opportunities needed to become and remain successful educators.

As instructors tasked to take on these challenges, we have focused on a number of key areas that support students’ successful entry into these new digital spaces. We’ve shared and described a few of these considerations below.

1. BUILD AN UNDERSTANDING OF OUR DIGITAL WORLD

Today’s young people are growing up in a media-rich and connected culture that is fundamentally different than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to the growing trend of posting ultrasound pictures and pregnancy selfies, astaggering 30% of children have a digital footprint before they are even born, and the average digital birth of children is at six months of age. Technology has altered every stage of life: it shapes the way we meet, how we communicate, our intimate relationships, the way we mourn, even our deaths.

If technology has shaped and altered every aspect of society, then learning is no different. Unfortunately, much of what we do in schools hasn’t changed to respond to these shifts in culture – many educators continue to teach the way they were taught and try to keep the digital world out of the classroom. But for today’s students, online and offline life is inseparable. Teachers need to understand the reality of students’ digital lives in order to make education relevant and engaging for today’s young people by bringing the digital into the classroom.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE INTERACTIONS IN DIGITAL SPACES

If we want teachers to open their classrooms to the world, we need to model effective and appropriate uses of connected spaces: both new and experienced teachers should have opportunities to see how lead learners interact in networks for professional learning. For instructors working with pre-service teachers, this means demonstrating appropriate interactions in spaces such as Twitter (as in our introductory #saskedchat example) or modeling the curation of a professional digital identity through an About.Me page or an academic blog. In the field, principals can model appropriate digital presence through the creation and maintenance of a professional social media presence, like Chris Lehmann’s Twitter account or Tony Sinanis’ weekly video updates.

Even those in the upper levels of educational leadership should be modeling what it looks like to learn and lead online; for example, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver School District, uses blogging to model transparency, open leadership, and lifelong learning.

Of course, in order to demonstrate high levels of connected learning, instructors (and other lead learners) must be able to leverage their own existing online networks. For example, in order to support our students and practicing teachers, we were able to tap into Alec’s considerable personal learning network to create a collaborative document of writing prompts for pre- and in-service educators. This means that lead learners must actively work to build their own networks so that they can be effective role models and collaborators.

3. DEMONSTRATE THE PEDAGOGICAL VALUE OF NETWORKS AND TOOLS

Just as instructors and other lead learners must demonstrate appropriate online interactions, they must also help new and experienced teachers understand the pedagogical value of networks and tools. In our classes, pre-service teachers research, create resource sites for, and present on various apps and programs, being sure to tie them into the curriculum (for instance, this site that discusses several apps to support language arts and this one that explores the use of iPads for inclusive education). These future teachers also have the chance to experience what it’s like to learn in a connected environment through our own use of various social media platforms and other tools in our post-secondary courses. For instance, we model the use of open learning and connected teaching throughcourse blog hubs and class Twitter hashtags, through the use of Google Plus communities and course sites for communication, and through the incorporation of Google Docs for professional collaboration.

Pre-service teachers must also be provided with rich exemplars from the field, showing practicing teachers’ innovative uses of technology to create connected classrooms that support 21st century learning. For instance, we introduce our students to the Global Read Aloud, Quadblogging, and Mystery Skype. We also discuss thepedagogical possibilities of Twitter and point to hashtags like #comments4kids (where teachers can post student blogs and ask for feedback from their online networks) or teacher-created resources that support the use of technology in the classroom (like this tweet about how to comment on blogs, shared by one of our graduate students).

4. DEVELOP PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS’ DIGITAL LITERACIES AND NETWORKED LITERACIES AND GUIDE THE DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR ONLINE IDENTITIES

Along with these examples of great digital pedagogy and online interaction, we need to prepare pre-service teachers to be great connected leaders themselves by helping them learn and create using different elements of digital literacies and pedagogies. In our classes, students explore what it means to take part in “anytime, anywhere” digital-age education by undertaking a Learning Project where they choose a skill to learn entirely online. They also create summaries of learning that highlight the skills and networked literacies they have learned throughout the semester. Additionally, since we want these new teachers to model appropriate online presence in their future classrooms, we ask our students to build professional e-portfolios in order to take control of their digital identities (some students even choose to buy their own domains) as they work to become digital residents rather than simply digital visitors.

5. UNPACK ISSUES OF POWER AND PRIVILEGE IN ONLINE SPACES

As we encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to bring the digital world into their classrooms, we must be sure to address oppression and inequity as they play out in online spaces. On a technical level, we need to help educators understand the legal aspects of terms of service agreements and the implications of big data when asking students to enter online worlds in their school work. Additionally, pre-service teachers are often hesitant to speak out about “touchy” subjects online, fearing that it might affect their future careers, but this type of silence on the part of educators creates a dangerous hidden curriculum that announces that these topics are unimportant. We need to have frank and open discussions about how gender or racial inequity can be both reinscribed and deconstructed online (for example, interrogating the GamerGate hashtag, discussing the events in Ferguson and the subsequent Black Twitter movements like #BlackLivesMatter, or examining the rise of #IdleNoMore). We also need to provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics in digital spaces both through course assignments and by providing support for student initiatives (such as the StarsRegina site set up by pre-service teachers to create a hub for information about anti-oppressive education). And as lead learners, we need to model the importance of having these discussions out in the open.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prepare both new and existing educators to teach in ways that take up the incredible affordances of our global community and digital spaces. But there are also so many inspiring examples of teachers, principals, and other lead learners doing great things online – we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s already being done around the world. What amazing things have you seen in your own learning community, and how are you helping the next generation of educators to be connected future leaders in our field?

Connect with Alec and Katia on Twitter to continue the conversation.

The 3 Minute Thesis

This weekend, I participated in the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the University of Regina. Although I didn’t win, the experience of putting together a three-minute version of my dissertation was a surprisingly helpful experience, because it forced me to really consolidate my thinking.

As part of the competition, we were allowed a single slide:

3MTslideHildebrandt

Below, you can find the text of my 3 minute speech, or check out the video (minus the very first line):

In higher education, more and more courses are taught entirely or partly online. But this can be problematic, because while online spaces can promote social justice, they can also perpetuate hate.

So take, for instance, a space like Twitter. Ugly, hateful hashtags are common, from #ThatsWhatSlutsSay to #NoMoreIslam.

On the other hand, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the issue only made it onto the national news once it started trending on Twitter.

So the question is, how do we ensure that online spaces in courses work to disrupt oppressive ideas rather than reinforcing them?

I teach future teachers in the Faculty of Education. One required course deals with anti-oppressive curriculum, or teaching for social justice. As part of the course, students participate in two online spaces: an individual blog, where students reflect publicly on course content, and a course hashtag, where students discuss class topics on Twitter. However, students express a lot of discomfort around discussing the “controversial” course content online, so they construct “neutral,” digital identities, which do nothing to challenge oppressive ideas.

And this is troubling, because if our students are online and not talking about social justice issues, the message conveyed is that the issues aren’t important.

So my research explores how we might help students to recognize how they unintentionally contribute to oppressive narratives in order to shift their online behaviour. Seven students participated in a series of conversations about digital identity and anti-oppressive education, and we worked together to unpack the underlying perceptions of teaching that shaped their understandings of both.

Some key themes emerged:

First, students described what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance: that is, holding two opposing ideas that cannot be reconciled. In this case, students wanted to be social justice advocates, but they also wanted to live up to stories of the good teacher as neutral. In order to reconcile this dissonance, students had to downplay the importance of social justice. Students also believed that speaking out for social justice would make them unhireable, because they would be perceived as biased or politically radical.

But not everything was discouraging:

While students felt that, individually, they did not have the power to speak out about social justice online, several noted that they did feel able to do so as part of the collective class group – one student described it as a “community of discomfort” that added a layer of safety. Also, students noted that the act of performing the role of anti-oppressive educator online as part of course requirements allowed them to try on that self until it eventually became a part of their identity.

Ultimately, my research suggests that there are indeed structures and supports that educators might use to transform online spaces into places of equity and societal betterment.

“Being nice doesn’t cut it anymore:” Conversations with pre-service teachers

Last week, I finally finished my research interviews. Yay…I think?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 5.55.37 PM

Qualitative research is a funny thing. After spending 4 or 5 hours with each of these students, I feel that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Over the past few months, I have been constantly overwhelmed by my research participants’ incredible insights and the amazing generosity they have shown with their time, meeting with me in the midst of their busy semesters. And now that it’s over, I feel a little lost and wish I could keep having these conversations (and I do have them, sometimes, but there’s something about that sacred time designated to nothing but the interviews).

Now that I’ve finished my interviews, I’ve started listening to the recordings, making notes, and going over the writing I did throughout the process. And I have just one word: “Data.” Here’s some of what I’ve thought about based on just a few of the first round of interviews.

This first round of conversations was geared towards developing biographical profiles of my participants, but already I am overwhelmed by the richness of the data that I have gathered. Because my research is about the ways that anti-oppressive education intersects with digital identity and digital spaces, these conversations delved into what Kevin Kumashiro terms “troubling knowledge” in his book Against Common Sense. We explored students’ childhoods, experiences with racism, feelings about the social justice-oriented curriculum in our Faculty of Education, and thoughts about teaching as a profession.

As I got to know each of the students better, their descriptions of their formative years were punctuated by moments of tension, discomfort, and realization. One student, describing her rural-Saskatchewan upbringing, told about how her mother would tell her and her siblings to go into a back bedroom and lock the door because an aboriginal person was at the door. Another thanked me for the difficult questions, noting that she had never thought about her earliest experiences of racism. A third student, attempting to describe what she felt she needed to be a successful teacher, went through a series of answers, each time unpacking and revising her responses as she questioned how her thinking might be oppressive or problematic, and finally settling on the idea that there was no perfect answer and that searching for one was a product of her own conditioning.

To be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Several things became clear in just these initial conversations. First, I was struck by the degree to which these students have embraced and committed to the idea of anti-oppressive education. One student noted that she has learned, in the past 2 years, that to be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.” Even when students’ initial reactions to a question were clearly influenced by dominant narratives of race, the students were able to identify these patterns in their own thinking when I pressed for clarification. For instance, one student, when asked whether she still saw racism in the program, immediately drew on the discourse of reverse-racism/sexism and noted that Aboriginal students and men were more likely to be accepted into the faculty; however, when I asked her a follow up question on this, she began to unpack her motivations for saying this. Clearly, we are doing something right in this program. Of course, I need to keep in mind the type of student who is actually willing to volunteer for research about anti-oppressive education, and I need to consider the degree to which my participants (many of whom are self-described teacher-pleasers) are taking up the role of good student and giving the “correct” answer.

I also noticed the significant amount of tension around teaching anti-oppressively and fears around job-loss or negative repercussions due to creating too much of a stir. Much of this stems, I believe, from what Deborah Britzman would describe as the common-sense discourse of the “good teacher” as neutral and objective – this ingrained understanding bumps up violently against public displays of advocacy for social justice ideals. This is the very same tension that inspired this research in the first place, and it is one that I struggle with myself each time I post to my Twitter account or write on my blog. Just writing this post is uncomfortable for me – it makes me vulnerable and opens me to attack or criticism. But I am reminded of a conversation about blogging on controversial topics that I had – on Twitter – with Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media and one of my committee members. After encountering some resistance from my students about posting online, I put the question out to my PLN: Why should pre-service teachers be blogging? Many answers flowed in, and at some point the discussion turned to what content should be made public and what should be kept private:

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Alec’s last tweet sums it up nicely, I think. What is considered controversial is always relative to the position of the individual – a person’s power and privilege determines the degree to which s/he can speak out against dominant narratives without negative fallout. 

What we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do

When I struggle to post online, I need to be mindful of my own privilege, which is perhaps limited in academia but is quite significant relative to that of many other people. For students, however, I wonder how the balance of power and vulnerability plays out with respect to anti-oppressive education, and I expect that this tension will increase and shift as we move into discussions of enacting social justice in open, online spaces.

And amidst all these other realizations, I found that after only one round of interviews, I have already had to think a great deal about the tension between what is public vs. publicized when it comes Twitter and other social media. These is certainly a precedent for PhD bloggers and for discussions of research on social media sites, but I still need to be cautious in respecting the rights of my participants by ensuring that I’ve shared my writing with them and that their own online writing cannot be traced back to them (unless they’ve opted not to be anonymous), while at the same time trying to enact my belief in the need to ensure that social justice does not go ignored in online spaces – for what we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do.