This article, by Julie King, director of educational technology at The Buckley School (NYC), is the first in a series entitled “What Are The Currents of Connection?” There will be four articles, with the remaining three focused on: a) Are we underestimating the ability of today’s students to juggle narratives, curriculum, and experiences? b) Avenues of engagement: identities and assessment; and c) Who and where are our students online?
In a year that has seen students’ screen time grow exponentially, parents and educators alike are concerned about every minute children spend online. Educators often draw clear lines between learning online and playing online, but that division is far more blurred for students. If we, as educators, understand that curriculum is dynamic — informed by learners themselves — considering students’ digital identity development and community membership can create new avenues and spaces for student engagement in our classrooms.
Whether learning is mediated by screens or masks, or fully in-person, students’ digital identities and communities exist as an invisible current of thought and emotion in the classroom. Group texts and game notifications await students’ attention; references to their online lives pepper in-class conversations; and connections to who they are in digital spaces are evident in how they engage with curricula and classmates. The depth of identity development and sophistication of community interactions, if tapped by educators and woven into curricula, can engage learners in powerful ways.
Aspects of digital identity include designing avatars and characters, game platform identification, role identification, and even player style. Representations of digital identities can be based on realistic, imaginative, and aspirational perceptions of self. For gamers, designing an avatar can involve choosing physical appearance, selecting gestures, and costume elements — sometimes referred to literally as skins. On social media applications, filters allow users to craft unique reflections of themselves. The use of filters can range from humorous — “I’m not a cat” — to carefully curated flawless skin and body shapes.
Digital identities can also develop through the roles gamers choose to play, defined by the characters they choose to represent themselves and the ways they interact with others. Just as the representation of self can be realistic, imaginative, and aspirational, roles can be as well. When playing video games, players often choose one character to “main” or to play most often, from hero to sidekick to defender and more. In my recent research1, an 8th-grade boy, reflecting on his video gameplay, made an identity connection between the types of roles he chose in games (defenders) to his roles on sports teams and in offline communities.
The literacies of engagement in digital communities are often quite nuanced, allowing students to move from outsider to insider and, sometimes, back to outsider again. Group chats and other digital spaces are often anchored in distinct purposes, all unspoken but simultaneously clear to members of the group. As students move within and among these various communities, they must navigate understanding the audience, tone, frequency of contribution, and literacy expectations of each group. Member-generated norms and protocols manage the belonging of members of these digital communities. To fail to navigate these aspects of digital communities successfully can result in a digital isolation that spills over into students’ offline lives.
Engagement in digital communities requires participants to thoughtfully consider what they share, the medium to use (image, text, video), the audience for their content, and even when and how long their contribution is visible. The temporary nature of many posts such as fleeting stories on social media can communicate a significance — or lack of significance — to the content.
The depth and breadth of students’ digital identity development and community engagement are impressive, but how can they be tapped into for engagement in the classroom? Few educators may be interested in weaving curriculum with Discord servers or hosting classes in Animal Crossing, and the digital spaces students inhabit outside of school serve a unique purpose in their development as adolescents. However, there are ways educators can connect curriculum with an understanding of their students’ digital lives.
Mizuko Ito’s Connected Learning Framework2 offers a compelling view of the intersection of students’ relationships, interests, and opportunities for engagement. Meaningful engagement can arise from providing students the opportunity to connect the relationships and interests they share in their digital lives with their communities and classrooms. Understanding and acknowledging the value of their students’ digital lives helps teachers create learning experiences that empower students in ways that other instructional strategies may not.
In Social Studies and History classes, students can demonstrate learning about the roles individuals play in communities by drawing parallels with roles they see and play in their digital spaces. In English and Language Arts classes, students can deepen their understanding of audience and tone by considering their own contributions online. Information literacy and digital citizenship curricula are natural fits for tapping into students’ digital lives. One portion of the curriculum developed for a course titled “Digital Discourse” asked students to design an emoji that reflects a feeling they don’t find represented by the emoji available on their devices. Contributions from Middle School students included emojis representing feeling judged, exhausted, and stressed, prompting valuable conversations about their social and emotional lives.
As educators and parents continue conversations around digital learning and digital play, opportunities exist to reconsider the wall between these two buckets of screentime. Students’ academic and social lives are often intertwined, and their online and offline lives are as well. Providing opportunities for students to draw from their digital lives’ expertise can bring valuable perspectives to the curriculum in the classroom, whether they’re learning on campus or at home.
- King, Julie O, “Adolescent Literacy Practices and Reflections of Identity in Digital Communities” (2020). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI27831840. https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI27831840