in Ways of Thinking

Supporting Digital Identities in School

The #edublogsclub prompt this week is to reflect on a challenge in education.

In a recent post on personal identity, George Couros made the following comment:

We can no longer say we are preparing students for “the real world”, when what mean is ”the real world” that we grew up in, not recognizing current needs of today.

For Couros students should leave high school with:

  • A PLN
  • A digital portfolio
  • An page

This left me thinking about the challenge of digital identify in school. For many this debate quickly deteriorates into a battle between supposed traditional literacy and the more modern digital literacies. In this context, students having a blog and a member of a Facebook group is seen as a win. This problem is not discussed enough, especially what we mean by ‘real world’ and what we even mean by digital literacies? This includes where students set up their presence and the templated identities that are permitted in such spaces as Twitter and Facebook. Here then is my thinking on Couros’ leaving list.


I wonder what it means to leave school with a PLN? Is it being in a Facebook group with hundreds of other people? Is it being on Twitter? Or is a PLN an attitude? A way of being? A verb? Surely, there is no point having a network if you do not maintain it. Maybe schools should provide a safe space in which students can develop these skills? Personally, I was lucky enough to be invited into a private forum by my friends when I was younger and was able to learn so much in this environment. Although I have read a lot about the potential Mastadon, I am unsure about the reality of managing such a space in school. Maybe the answer is developing a school school wide hashtag. My solution is to use a social media styled theme within WordPress. This then provides the possibility for students to have a level of ownership, control and support.


Is it enough to leave school with a portfolio that has very little portability? A portfolio dependent on someone else’s space and upkeep? Although applications like Google Sites, Adobe Spark Page, Wix, Kidsblogs etc make it easy to create a site, this does not always mean that they are the best option. Students are often committed to platforms with limited means of moving. Audrey Watters talks about having a domain of one’s own, a space which you have some sort of control and influence. While Ian O’Byrne wonders about the prospect of this in schools. Whatever the specifics, we need to look past just giving students a space and think more ethically about the consequences of that space. It is for this reason that I think Edublogs is a positive platform in that it provides the balance between control and portability. Although something less complex like Jekyl maybe the ideal as the content can be easily adapted for any platform, WordPress is at least a start.

I find it interesting when people list a product over the process. Join Twitter vs. becoming a connected educator. Create an About.Me page vs have a splash page, that space that links to all your other presences on the web. I created an page years ago, feeling that was what I needed, but I have come to feel that I would prefer people start at my blog and go from there. I particularly like the way that Robert Schuetz maps out his identity on his blog. This then leaves me wondering why students cannot have aE page attached to their portfolio that acts as a ‘’ page? If not, create a space somewhere else, just do it somewhere that you have control over. If students have their own domains, maybe they could create an ‘about’ sub-domain and install a one-page HTML site there?

So those are my thoughts and I haven’t even touched on the IndieWeb or the potential of Tom Woodward’s API driven portfolio or the possibility that not everyone can share themselves online. I think that students should  leave school with a sense of ownership over their (online) learning, the skills needed to connect and engage within networks, as well as an appreciation of the way the web works. What about you? What should students leave with? What real world are you creating? As always, comments welcome.

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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator supporting the integration of technology and innovation. I have an interest in how collectively we can work to creating a better tomorrow.

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Supporting Digital Identities in School by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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  1. Where as I agree with all your insights into how George Couros should have gone with verbiage instead of platforms/products, I can understand where he was going. Too often when I talk with teachers about processes, philosophies in instruction, etc. I get immediately asked questions like what tool does that or what product accomplishes it. It seems the ideas of concepts are being lost in the question of the “what” and not the “why”.

    • Thanks Dan for commenting. I am wondering how we need to reframe the conversation to be more about the why or is it ok to simply focus on the what? It is hard to find a balance between the realities of teachers in the classroom vs. the ideals of educational technology.

  2. Hi Aaron,
    I left two super compressed comments as I read though your article and failed to really articulate my thinking. I appreciate your response to Couros, whose original post seemed to focused on \’personal branding\’ as a way of marketing the self which can close off possibilities for being an active citizen online. The idea that we should have our \’professional purposes\’ first in mind when we are online leads to the relative silence of many edtech / innovation gurus on political issues (Audrey Watters has written about this), which is an ironically inauthentic use of social media.

    I think your reference to the \’templated self\’ and the acknowledgement that not everyone can be online gives nuance to what is a complex issue.

    In particular, find Couros\’ suggestion that we need an page simplistic when there are more interesting projects, like \’domain of one\’s own\’. The idea that kids need a \’PLN\’ strikes me as edspeak and out of touch – I don\’t think any other profession talks in these terms, though they certainly care about learning throughout their careers.

    thanks for your thoughtful post,

    • Thank you for the comment and links to your own work. I think maybe we need more questions than answers. Maybe that would be a good place to start?

  3. Thanks for the spark, Aaron. The title of this post has grabbed my thought, interesting and clever. Having seen George present his thoughts on this, he is not tool centric, and only mentions spaces like for their low barrier to entry, and the value they provide as transparent learning spaces.

    This #edublogsclub series has me wrestling with a deeper question, “do we manipulate our digital learning spaces, or do they manipulate us?”

    My original intent with digital V/R mapping, thank you Dave White, was to invite social interaction in the pathways of my digital footprints. What it has become is a reflection activity. Where is my education occurring? Why is it in these spaces? How is my map changing over time? Am I driving this, or is it drving me? To what degree are we responsible for our templates? The fact that I don’t know will fuel my next blog post.

    • I do not think that ownership is either/or. I would prefer to consider it as an interrelated set of circumstances. I may not have complete autonomy, but surely I play a part within the puzzle? The challenge I think that we have is playing a bigger part. That I feel is the greater challenge.

  4. A thought provoking post. I think what is strong in the PLN idea is that is fluid. It can happen through current networks like Facebook, or school-controlled approaches like a handle or website. PLNs change over time but the skill of developing one I think, is the goal.
    The page is static, and in this fast changing environment it might be more useful to consider the role of the online identity for personal and professional purposes. Many young people can not separate what happens online and the reflection of negativity or positivity on their actual identity. We see this though tragedies caused by online bullying. Perhaps the skill of discerning online content about the self is invaluable.

    • The idea of dualism is so interesting. danah boyd argues that those who struggle online also struggle offline. I am not exactly sure that the solution is to divide the two. I think that a PLN is very fluid and moves on and offline, from platform to the next. I wonder if it is possible to foster a deliberate coalescent learning environment which fosters students well-being and learning both on and offline? (

      • Thanks for the link. How did the class blog progress? I agree of the dualism and fluidity and reflecting that in our choices. How do we teach self protection given the online/offline relationships for pln and image?

  5. Your post reminded me of a challenge I see every time Couros posts about students having those three aspects of a digital identity: no matter how much we as educators may encourage this, ultimately it is up to the students to make it part of their lives. I have been blogging with my students for some years now, and when it is not a class requirement, they stop posting. I think part of this digital presence that we want students to establish – the \”residency,\” as Robert Schuetz said in the recent blog post that led me here ( – is not always happening where we suggest. I know my students have an online presence – but it\’s on Instagram and Snapchat, not the blogsphere. Perhaps instead of dragging kids on vacation to where we think they should set up shop, we need to start following them to their preferred residences and help them turn those into sturdy, worthy places from which to venture out into the world.

    • I think that is such a wicked question Christina. Do we support ethical edtech or allow them to start where they are? The other question that this provokes for me is whether students always want us in such spaces?

    • This is certainly an intriguing way to look at it, but there’s another way to frame it as well. Students are on sites like Instagram and Snapchat because they’re connecting with their friends there. I doubt many (any?) are using those platforms for learning or engagement purposes, so attempting to engage with them there may not translate for educators. It may have the colloquial effect of “I’m on Snapchat because my parents aren’t; if my parents join I’m either going to block them or move to another platform they’re not on.” Something similar to this was seen in cultural teen use of Facebook as parents swarmed to the platform over the past decade. To slightly reframe it, how many high school teachers in the past have seen students in the hallways between classes socializing and thought to themselves, “I should go out and teach in the hallway, because that’s where the students are and they seem alert?”

      It might also shed some light on our perspectives to look at what happens at the end of a quarter or semester in most colleges. I always remember book sellback time and a large proportion of my friends and colleagues rushed to the bookstore to sell their textbooks back. (I’ll stipulate the book market has changed drastically in the past two decades since I was in University, but I think the cultural effect is still roughly equivalent.) As a bibliophile I could never bring myself to sell books back because I felt the books were a significant part of what I learned and I always kept them in my personal collection to refer back to later. Some friends I knew would keep occasional textbooks for their particular area of concentration knowing that they might refer back to them in later parts of their study. But generalizing to the whole, most students dumped their notes, notebooks, and even textbooks that they felt no longer had value to them. I highly suspect that something similar is happening to students who are “forced” to keep online presences for coursework. They look at it as a temporary online notebook which is disposable when the class is over and probably even more so if it’s a course they didn’t feel will greatly impact their future coursework.

      I personally find a huge amount of value in using my personal website as an ongoing commonplace book and refer back to it regularly as I collect more information and reshape my thoughts and perspectives on what I’ve read and learned over the years. Importantly, I have a lot of content that isn’t shared publicly on it as well. For me it’s become a daily tool for thinking and collecting as well as for searching. I suspect that this is also how Aaron is using his site as well. My use of it has also reached a fever pitch with my discovery of IndieWeb philosophies and technologies which greatly modify and extend how I’m now able to use my site compared to the thousands of others. I can do almost all of the things I could do on Facebook, Twitter, etc. including interacting with them directly and this makes it hugely more valuable to me.

      The other difference is that I use my personal site for almost everything including a wide variety of topics I’m working on. Most students are introduced to having (read: forced to maintain) a site for a single class. This means they can throw it all overboard once that single class is over. What happens if or when they’re induced to use such a thing in all of their classes? Perhaps this may be when the proverbial quarter drops? Eventually by using such a tool(s) they’ll figure out a way to make it actively add the value they’re seeking. This kernel may be part of the value of having a site as a living portfolio upon graduation.

      Another issue I often see, because I follow the space, is that many educational technologists see some value in these systems, but more often than not, they’re not self-dogfooding them the same way they expect their students to. While there are a few shining examples, generally many teachers and professors aren’t using their personal sites as personal learning networks, communications platforms, or even as social networks. Why should students be making the leap if their mentors and teachers aren’t? I can only name a small handful of active academic researchers who are heavily active in writing and very effectively sharing material online (and who aren’t directly in the edtech space). Many of them are succeeding in spite of the poor quality of their tools. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t think about one or more interesting thought leaders who I wish had even a modicum of online space much less a website that goes beyond the basic functionality of a broken business card. I’ve even offered to build for free some incredibly rich functional websites for researchers I’d love to follow more closely, but they just don’t see the value themselves.

      I won’t presume to speak for Aaron, but he’s certainly become part of my PLN in part because he posts such a rich panoply of content on a topic in which I’m interested, but also in larger part because his website supports webmentions which allows us a much easier and richer method of communicating back and forth on nearly opposite sides of the Earth. I suspect that I may be one of the very few who extracts even a fraction of the true value of what he publishes through a panoply of means. I might liken it to the value of a highly hand-crafted trade journal from a decade or more ago as he’s actively following, reading, and interacting with a variety of people in a space in which I’m very interested. I find I don’t have to work nearly as hard at it all because he’s actively filtering through and uncovering the best of the best already. Who is the equivalent beacon for our students? Where are those people?

      So the real question is how can we help direct students to similar types of resources for topics they’re personally interested in discovering more about? It may not be in their introduction to poetry class that they feel like it’s a pain doing daily posts about on a blog in which they’re not invested. (In fact it sounds to me just like the the online equivalent of a student being forced to write a 500 word essay in their lined composition book from the 1950’s.) But it’ll be on some topic, somewhere, and this is where the spark meets the fuel and the oxygen. But the missing part of the equation is often a panoply of missing technological features that impact the culture of learning. I personally think the webmention protocol is a major linkage that could help ease some of the burden, but then there’s also issues like identity, privacy, and all the other cultural baggage that needs to make the jump to online as seamlessly (or not) as it happens in the real world.

      I’ll have to expand upon it later, but perhaps we’re all looking for the online equivalent of being able to meld something like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Bloom’s Taxonomy? It’s certainly a major simplification, but it feels like the current state of the art is allowing us to put the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in an online setting (and we’re not even able to sell that part well to students), but we’re missing both its upper echelons as well as almost all of Maslow’s piece of the picture.

      With all this said, I’ll leave you all with a stunningly beautiful example of synthesis and creation from a Ph.D. student in mathematics I came across the other day on Instagram and the associated version she wrote about on her personal website.
      How could we bottle this to have our students analyzing, synthesizing, and then creating this way?