Digital participation is now more or less mandatory. Few are the people that remain anonymous online without leaving digital traces. Teaching and learning increasingly take place in digital realms… Canvas… Google docs… Reflective blogs on the learning process. And these are not digital interactions of the web 1.0 variety, where we interact as visitors, finding information via online tools and then leaving. As teachers and learners, we are increasingly encouraged, if not required to interact as residents using web 2.0 technology. We are inhabiting digital spaces in ways that not only leave traces but shape our whole online personas.
To the outside world, our online content is, to all intents and purposes, who we are. Content = person. This was perhaps also true in a pre-digital world but it now appears more evident. The academy has long pretended that knowledge exists independent of the knower hence the tradition of writing in the third person. In the contemporary digital imaginary it is increasingly difficult to do this.
This is anxiety producing for some people. And rightly so. Comments, stories and ideas, once shared, can be connected to us forever. Digital mistakes are harder to take back, erase, or apologise for than analogue ones. A slip of the keyboard is not the same as a slip of the tongue. An ill-worded tweet can lead to public shaming which can destroy relationships, reputations, careers and lives (Ronson 2015).
This becomes even more terrifying when we pause to think how values and beliefs (both personal and societal) evolve over time. Ideas and opinions that were once common, normal or acceptable may not be any more. What if something we publish online now turns out to be offensive in the future?
It is possible to discuss these anxieties in light of William Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Perry’s theory suggested that college students go through four stages of cognitive and moral development:
- Dualism is the belief that every problem has a right and a wrong answer. In this stage the student’s goal is to learn the right answer from an external authority.
- Multiplicity is the recognition that there may be multiple different answers to a problem. Hence students must trust their inner voices to find answers.
- During relativism students recognise that some answers are better than others, depending on context.
- Commitment is the stage in which students accept uncertainty as part of life but commit to their own views on what constitute the right answers to various problems.
Part of what Perry calls commitment is realising that commitment is an ongoing, unfolding, evolving activity. That means, rather than choosing a particular viewpoint and sticking to it forever, we can and should change our minds when presented with new evidence or information about a problem. Our ideas and opinions will, hence, naturally evolve over time. And this is something to be applauded.
Digital publishing offers greater opportunities for our ideas and opinions to evolve than traditional academic journals do. The academic journal article is a snapshot of research from a moment in time. It is frozen, unchanging, for ever more. When new information comes to light, it can take years to get that information “out there” using traditional academic publishing methods. Even if one doesn’t go back and edit the contents of old comments, stories and ideas, a regularly updated blog or twitter feed, for example, can show the evolution of one’s ideas to anyone who cares to look.
In conclusion, we should embrace our potentially embarrassing digital traces rather than being afraid of them. They may well illustrate that we are cognitively and morally well-developed (and developing) individuals and academics.
It is worth noting that students may be as anxious about this as we are, despite assumptions to the contrary. Addressing and explicating our own anxieties should also allow us to empathise with theirs.