Friday, March 09, 2007

Identity Production and Online Portfolios

I recently read a paper online entitled, "Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace." In this article, based on a speech made at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 19, 2006, the author addresses three issues related to MySpace: identity production, hanging out and digital publics.
The dynamics of identity production play out visibly on MySpace. Profiles are digital bodies, public displays of identity where people can explore impression management [2]. Because the digital world requires people to write themselves into being [3], profiles provide an opportunity to craft the intended expression through language, imagery and media....

What we're seeing right now is a cultural shift due to the introduction of a new medium and the emergence of greater restrictions on youth mobility and access. The long-term implications of this are unclear. Regardless of what will come, youth are doing what they've always done - repurposing new mediums in order to learn about social culture.

Technology will have an effect because the underlying architecture and the opportunities afforded are fundamentally different. But youth will continue to work out identity issues, hang out and create spaces that are their own, regardless of what technologies are available.
A colleague of mine completed a dissertation a year ago, where she studied the implementation of electronic portfolios created using very different tools in two different Teacher Education programs. In one university, the students were taught to use a free web page editing tool (Composer) and were encouraged to individualize their portfolios. That university had developed a separate assessment management system to collect and manage the accountability data, which was not very obvious to the students. In the second university, the students were forced to purchase an account for 4-to-6 years in one of the commercial systems, and were provided with highly prescriptive assignments in a system "specifically designed to impose uniformity on the portfolio task." My colleague is presenting a case study at the SITE conference about the frustrations of a student in that second university, who was an experienced MySpace user, and used that experience to customize her portfolio, despite the constraints of the system.

In one of my more recent blog entries, I shared an email from an educator who indicated that she was looking for a portfolio system that would allow students to individualize their portfolios (among other criteria). She also wanted it to be interactive, to support multimedia, to be secure, to allow assessment, and to be portable (i.e. students can take it with them when they leave). When a tool is developed, the tool developers have to prioritize their development efforts, to provide the most important tools that their clients say they need. That's why most of the ePortfolio tool developers have created very good assessment management systems, that collect data that institutions need for accountability and summative assessment. But in the order of priority, the needs of the learner, for an environment where they can express their own individuality through their portfolios, is often left on the "wish list" for future development (or not even considered).

In my opinion, this situation is the result of programmers and technology experts developing what they think is an efficient system for collecting this data, not a tool that facilitates individuality and creativity. Perhaps the technicians don't recognize the psychological need for adolescents (and post-adolescents) to establish a unique identity, both face-to-face and online. In my current research, I am finding that MySpace is so popular because it encourages and enables individuality and creativity in addition to the social networking that also drives that system.

In my review of the many tools out there, I found that there were many tradeoffs between usability and creativity, qualities that I think are very important to maintain student engagement. To their credit, the better commercial ePortfolio providers are addressing these usability issues as they continuously modify their software. But it is a challenge to balance competing priorities with limited resources.

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