Online Learner Identity – final NLC Hotseat

Managing your online learner identity

Kamakshi Rajagopal, Adriana Berlanga, and Peter Sloep March 19th – 23rd

This promises to be an interesting final Hotseat before the Networked Learning Conference due to take place in Maastricht next month.

Kamakshi Rajagopal has started the discussion off with these questions:

  • Is our online learner identity really important for learning?
  • Can we learn something about ourselves from the digital traces we are leaving on the Web? Can it tell something about how we are learning?
  • Do we put only true information on the Web? Do we have double, triple, etc. identities? Is that ok or not?
  • How does our online learner identity relate to our offline learner identity?
  • What are the options we have to manage our online learner identity?
  • Is the management of a learner identity an issue of technology, an issue of awareness, an issue of learner skills, or all of them?
  • How can we deal with privacy, maximising the benefit to the learner and minimising the risk of information misuse?

I’m looking forward to following the discussion.

Recording of Etienne Wenger’s talk

Here is the link to the talk given by Etienne Wenger to Lancaster University, UK last month – Learning in and across landscapes of practice.

This is a long talk and there is a lot in it to digest. Etienne talks about social learning theory, identity, communities of practice, power, knowledge and learning in the 21st century – too much to comment on here – but these are some of the notes I jotted down (for my own purposes – not intended as a report) at the time.


  • Theory in social sciences is a way of talking about the world.
  • Theories that try to explain everything tend to be reductionist. Reducing the human experience to one thing is not very helpful.
  • Theories need to define what they are good for and find plug and play connections to other theories.


  • Identity is a filter to decide whether to invest in a community or not.
  • How do you manage your identity in  world which is so complex and where there are so many mountains to climb?
  • The burden of identity is shifting towards the person. There is a breakdown of the parallelism between identity and community.

Learning and boundaries

  • Any history of learning creates boundaries between those who are part of the learning and those who are not. The world is full of boundaries. They are not avoidable. We need to travel across practices and boundaries.
  • Travelling across hills and valleys of landscapes of practice is what makes the world an interesting place.
  • Boundaries can lead to learning potential, but also potential for misunderstandings.


  • Practice is what brings people together.
  • No practice can fully design the learning of another.
  • All practices are part of the system and have to negotiate boundaries.
  • Practice is a response to design not an output of design.

Communities of practice

  • CoPs have implications for organisations as they might be working under the radar of vertical accountability of the organisation (working on a horizontal dimension)
  • Communities of practice cannot be built. Only members can build communities. But they can be enabled.
  • A CoP is a learning partnership. A group may or may not be a learning partnership. A team is not usually a community of practice.
  • A CoP is a vehicle by which an organisation can place its strategic development in the hands of the practitioners.
  • A classroom is not a CoP. It is instructional design.

Knowledge and learning

  • Knowledge is power. Learning is a claim to competence. Learning is power in both directions.
  • Learning is its own enemy. The paradox is that learning gives you power, but that power also limits your learning.
  • Power and knowledge are always part of the equation. Learning is achieving a state of knowledgeability.
  • The view of curriculum in institutions is ‘to fill it up’. CoP theory view of curriculum is that learning has to follow construction of meaning, not precede it.

These notes do not do justice to Etienne’s talk – so it is good to have the link to be able to listen to it again. Thanks to Lancaster University for sharing the link.

A dark night of identity

I have spent the last 24 hours at a conference in Birmingham.  I found this a highly stimulating event. Once again, Etienne Wenger was the keynote speaker, but this time he was speaking specifically about the meaning of learning, to an audience of mostly Higher Education academics.

I find Etienne inspiring to listen to. There are many things I could have picked to quote from his keynote today – but this is one that struck me as relevant to the process of reflective learning and in particular to my learning.

He said:

‘Any serious learning will take you through a dark night of your identity’.

I can absolutely relate to this and how this relates to the transformative aspect of deep learning and knowledge being troublesome. According to Etienne, we need to be able to cross a boundary and know how to engage enough on the other side of a boundary.

Does this stir you as much as it stirs me?

Establishing a Community Identity

In my last post I was thinking about some of the issues that surround the sustainability of a community. Thanks to Carmen, John and Keith for their thought-provoking comments. I am still thinking about these issues. I understand that communities need time to emerge and that a community culture is such that members are autonomous and can choose to engage from the core or periphery as they wish. My understanding is that as a ‘rule of thumb’, we can expect about 10% of an online community to be active at any one time (see Nancy White’s website) – so does the level of participation need to be carefully monitored?

In a community I am active in, we have asked the community to discuss what the community identity should be and have set up a wiki to do this.  One member has engaged with this and suggested that the purpose of the community should be to exert an influence on the higher and further education sector and therefore the community should maintain its title as a special interest group (SIG) for those interested in e-learner experiences.  On the wiki she has written:

The reason I thought it was worth keeping as a SIG was because, based on our research, we might seek to influence as a group (although where, and when, and how remains moot, as does what might be meant by ‘political’ decisions).  Describing us solely in terms of people who share a concern or passion seems to disenfranchise us of any potential influence.  I don’t think being a SIG stops us from also being a community of practice.

This wiki discussion has made me realise that if we are to think about a community in terms of one which has a political agenda, it must be a very different animal from one which has, for example, a mutual support agenda, which might be how you would describe some ‘parenting’ communities.

It does seem to be critical to determine the purpose of the community if it is to be sustainable. I can now see that I will have to go and read up on how politics and power work in a community of practice.

Sustaining Communities

The subject of the research paper that I have recently submitted (with a colleague)  is the challenges facing ‘artificially’ created communities. By this we mean communities that are set up as  part of a funded project. We found that there are significant challenges, as you would expect,  to be faced when the funding ceases. The project may have attracted a lot of interest and if an online site has been set up in association with the project, then this interest may have come from across the world.  So what to do with all these people, now that the funding has been withdrawn and the management team is no longer being paid for their efforts? Does this management team have any responsibilities to the wider, larger community that it might unexpectedly have created and if so what are these responsibilities? Should they be obliged to move into voluntary community work when this is not what they originally signed up for? How does the community perceive its responsibilities? So at this stage, when funding ceases, the community faces a crisis of identity which includes determining who the community is for, who should lead it, and what will be the purpose of the community if it is to continue but no longer as a project.

I am writing about this because these thoughts around this research also resonate with experiences on the connectivism and connectivist knowledge course and on the Connectivism Technology Web 2.0 Education Learning and Research Ning site (community?) set up by Sui Fai John Mak.

On the connectivism course there was some discussion about the distinctions between a course, a network and a community. It was clearly a course, but for some it was also a network and for others it was also a learning community. The idea of ‘community’ brings with it a great deal sharing and collaborative negotiation of meaning, which in turn helps people to make relationships more than just simple connections. The relationships that were made on the connectivism course are still alive for some people ( I wonder how many?), but whilst individual one-to-one relationships can be relatively easily sustained, group relationships and a sense of community need a degree of organisation and leadership to be sustained. John has taken this on and people have joined the Ning site, but whilst organisation and leadership is certainly not lacking, as yet there has been little interaction which lies at the heart of an effective community. So I wonder what people were hoping for when joining the Ning site.

‘All learning begins with a connection’

George has posted a useful summary of the course so far in which he says ‘All learning begins with a connection’, which has prompted me to consider the reasons why and the circumstances under which it might not be possible to make connections.

Robin Heyden has a post on her blog Stepping Stones about the personal qualities that might be needed to make connections, which brings up the interesting consideration of the introvert, the ‘lurker’ and the shy person and whether this particular personality type makes fewer or less effective connections. I suspect that their strength might be in being the ‘weak ties’. We musn’t forget too that people can be making conceptual connections as opposed to social connections.

Of course as is pointed out in the Moodle thread – Do networks cause the end of geography? – huge numbers of people around the world do not even have electricity, so that in itself would prevent digital connections – although I think we have established that you do not need to be online to be connected.

Then there are the people with disabilities – physical, mental or social – that might prevent effective learning connections from being made.

I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog that emotion and an ability to understand norms might also affect a person’s ability to make connections.

I haven’t yet got my head round how identity is linked to the ability to make connections. If we assume that identity is both influenced by the network and in turn influences the network, then what is the effect on identity of not making connections?

Still thinking…….

Identity in the network

George’s presentation this week is very timely, as I have been trying to sort out in my own mind the role of identity in a network. I have trawled the Moodle forums for references to identity and there has only been limited discussion of this. There has been some discussion of how you can create your identity or multiple identities online – see Pat Parslow’s post . But I don’t think this is in question. I haven’t yet looked through the blogs. I don’t think I know a quick and easy way to do this.

How do you establish your identity in an online network?  Etienne Wenger (Sept 28th 2008, forum post) in discussing identity, learning and meaningfulness writes:

“The question of identity is central to learning both because learning changes our ability to participate in the world, and therefore our identity. And conversely a central principle to social learning theory is that knowledge has to be “lived” in a space of meaningfulness by the person, and therefore knowledge cannot be separated in practice from the identity that can live this knowledge as an experience of engaging in the world and making meaning.

George has said in his presentation that the ‘need for individual recognition’ cannot be ignored and that the basis of collective intelligence is a recognition of the self.  George also has a slide where he says that the ‘self’ (a word which he sometimes appears to be using interchangeably with ‘identity’) is shaped and expressed by socialisation, and says elsewhere in his presentation that people seek to retain their identity in network and group situations.

So is identity fixed, i.e. something we can bring to the network or group, or is it always changing, being shaped by the group or network and in turn shaping the group or network? The latter makes more sense to me, i.e. that it is not fixed and if so it is not something that can be retained. 

It seems to me that a lot of what we are observing in this course is people trying to establish an identity. Some appear to be finding this easier than others. Would it be fair to say that the better connected you are the easier it is to establish an identity? Would it also be fair to say that the group offers more opportunities for this than the network and that the group is instrumental is assisting people to find their identity?

This should be an interesting week.