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Digital Identity Development
September 12, 2012 - 4:06pm

Math, writing, science, history and a variety of additional topics are generally included in the core curricula for higher education institutions. They are the building blocks of education. Standards that have evolved over time. We tend to acknowledge their importance. Ideally, students will achieve a baseline of knowledge and skills that form the foundations of their educational experience.

As students develop their traditional academic abilities, another area of development has emerged. Digital identity may be the next addition to “the core.” The manner in which we engage, share, promote, and present ourselves online has become a major facet in many of our lives. No longer seen as being separate from “real life,” an individual’s digital identity is intricately connected to their overall identity. Developing the ability to use digital communication/interaction channels isn’t about the dusty rhetoric of “natives” versus “immigrants.” Instead, digital identity development occurs via a broader context. It’s about having a shared baseline of knowledge.

Currently, social media are the dominant set of interactional spheres where digital identities are made manifest. Critical development is taking place and higher education needs to be incorporating proactive digital identity development opportunities. Institutions should be teaching students about the importance of context in online communications, the fluidity of privacy, awareness of nuance, and the power of community-building through social media.

Balance is necessary. All too often, schools take a reactive and/or risk averse stance on digital identity. We should be encouraging critical dialogue about how we engage with one another. Critical discourse about social media requires critical awareness of digital identity.

One of the aspects of digital identity that we are just starting to acknowledge is the evolution of our culture of judging. For example, when an 18 year-old student heads off to college, are we going to fault them for their immature Facebook postings that they posted when they were 12? Digital identity development is a door that swings both ways. Students are learning and growing in tandem with faculty and staff. In the near future, judging someone’s social media postings from their pre-college days may be significantly reduced.

Another aspect of digital identity is access and sharing. Social media sites promote sharing. Good, bad, or ugly, we share a lot of our lives online these days. However, it’s important to note that social media are not the cause of our behavior, they are merely the public conduit. Acknowledging mistakes and dissonance is an important aspect of digital identity. Individual development, after all, takes time.

It’s no longer optional for institutions (and their administrators) to passively engage students via social media. Actively creating learning spaces that foster positive development of digital identity should be our mandate. It hasn’t been created (yet), but the addition of digital identity to the current canon of student development theories seems like a logical evolution. Student Affairs practitioners can play an important role in both theory and practice. Developing intentional learning spaces about digital identity will not only benefit a student during their college experience, but it will also aid them as they enter into a world that has become increasingly-centered around the concept of digital wisdom/fluency.

 

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