Participate 1.1.1 – Character Traits Reconsidered #eteachertool

Character Traits 2Participate 1.1.1 asks what character traits should digital citizens emulate and recognize. When I first posted, I posited that the ideal citizen participates in online forums and actively creates material, balances online participation with participation in the real world, and reaches out to establish friendships online. I still believe that. Online teachers should recognize and praise new thoughts, active discussions, and friendly exchanges. But, when I first tackled this issue, there were two complications I overlooked:

  1. Character traits are invisible to the observer.
  2. The question assumes that it is possible to form a generalization about digital citizens.

I’d like to explore both complications, before delving into the question, “Who are these digital citizens in my class?”

Character Traits are Invisible.

You might assume an English teacher wrote this question because the term “character trait” is what readers and writers use to discuss characters as they are represented in literature. When teachers ask students to “analyze a character” or to “identify the character traits,” students must look at how the character behaves, what the character thinks, how the author describes the character’s appearance and actions, and how the other characters interact with the target character. How would you describe Iago? What character traits make Mrs. Habersham both tragic and comic? The same analysis might be conducted with people from real life: Based on your reading of Letter from Birmingham Jail, what three character traits do you think best describe Martin Luther King Jr.? If the narrator and/or author doesn’t directly describe the character, students must make inferences using textual evidence: a character’s actions and reactions.

FootprintsOnline, the majority of actions and reactions happen asynchronously and both create some sort of artifact: a post, a “like,” a retweet, a picture, a link, etc. So, the only way to infer a person’s character online is by looking at the digital footprints.  Therefore, the process of determining character traits is more like a hunter tracking an animal: we can answer what and where, we can estimate when, but who created the track and the intention behind the track is largely speculation.

The Supreme Court encountered this same problem this year with the case Elonis v. United States, the case “on whether conviction of threatening another person over interstate lines (under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c)) requires proof of subjective intent to threaten, or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening” (Wikipedia). Specifically, Elonis posted violent Facebook posts about his ex-wife, but did not tag her in them. She took them as threats as did the lower courts, but he claimed they were rap lyrics. In the end, the Supreme Court sided with Elonis, and Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.” Ultimately, determining the intention behind a post, tweet, picture, or any digital artifact must consider both the audience’s interpretation, the author’s “mental state,” and the chosen platform or channel by which the message was conveyed.

The Internet provides many different communication channels that allows individuals to slip on and try out different personas. On Twitter, I might present myself as a tech-savvy educator through STEM and virtual learning tweets, but on Facebook, I might present myself as a goofball through pictures. Within the learning management system, I might present myself as an edtech enthusiast by providing links to the newest web tools, but within my blog, I might view technology with a more skeptical eye by describing the flaws of these web tools.

Online teachers only get a small sliver of students’ lives and digital output, and we should refrain from making assumptions about a person based on a single action. One tweet might be the result of a deliberated decision or a spur-of-the-moment joke. Furthermore, many students are using the Internet to play with different identities. They’re still figuring out who they are, and so they’re trying on many different personas.

Our digital world allows us to separate and channel those layers of personality, so to see the whole onion, or to make inferences about character traits, we have to find and assemble the layers.

Our digital world allows us to separate and channel those layers of personality, so to see the whole onion, or to make inferences about character traits, we have to find and assemble the layers.

If we think back to the movie Shrek, we remember that ogres are like onions, because they both have layers. Our digital world allows us to separate and channel those layers of personality, so to see the whole onion, or to make inferences about character traits, we have to find and assemble the layers. It’s kind of like ordering a Bloomin’ Onion and then trying to picture the original plant.

We use the evidence before us to make assumptions about the creator. Yet, we are imperfect judges because of our tools, our access, and our perspective. Also related is how our desire to know someone online can become invasive. To what extent do we rely on algorithms to tell us a digital citizen’s character traits? To what extent to do we allow citizens to speak for themselves? And how does access to technology limit their ability to speak?  I’ll return to this concept in my next post which will deal with how online teachers can help nurture positive traits in students online by emphasizing engagement and action.

Making Generalizations about Digital Citizens

I can’t think of any medium? media? network? platform? that offers the same variety of interaction and participation as the Internet. From bloggers to developers, from gamers to lurkers, from debunkers to social advocates, from YouTube channel stars to listicle junkies, from MOOC students to podcasters…. I could go on. Each person has his or her own relationship with the web, and different relationships value different traits. We are all dual citizens of multiple communities, each with its own standards and values. Making generalizations about what character traits would be best for all communities is difficult and maybe harmful. In the real world, in most countries, drivers drive on the right side of the road, but this would be a problem in London. So, when online, do as one would in Rome. If pressed, the only universally beneficial character trait, and admittedly it’s more like a motto, would harken back to Hippocrates: Do no harm.

Who are these digital citizens anyway?

Who takes online courses? Who wants them? Who needs them? Under what conditions? With what familial and technical support? With what time constraints? What do these students value in their lives? How do they want to be perceived by me, their teacher, and by their peers?

All of this shapes the character traits they have. All of this shapes the character traits they display and will develop throughout the course of a semester.

Modified from "Mara Mosaic: Compete" by 旅者 河童 on Flickr

Modified from “Mara Mosaic: Compete” by
旅者 河童 on Flickr

My students: A Mosaic

Look at a mosaic from enough distance, and you see a unified picture, but close up, the picture becomes unstable, and your eye focuses on individual daubs of paint or miniaturized photographs. So too with any group of individuals.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at the Georgia Virtual School. My students are between 12 and 14 years old. They have access to a computer or tablet, and they need to pass my class. They want flexibility. They believe online learning will be easy. And I think that is as much as I can say about the group as a whole.

Some are home schooled; some are not. The home schooled students mostly enroll in the fall and spring semesters, which both use biweekly assignment due dates. Their parents or family members ask questions about the class and respond to emails reliably. They have a computer at home and a mobile device for when they travel. Some students are pursuing careers in athletics or the arts, and they use online learning to free up their days for intensive practice and extensive travel. Other students use online learning because it allows them to stay home. For whatever reason, the local school was not a good match, and online classes provide a feasible alternative.

My summer school students differ remarkably. For the most part, they are enrolled at their local schools, but need my class before continuing to high school. Their parents and family members also ask questions and respond to class updates. Most students have never been home schooled. Most turn in assignments late, or not at all. My summer school students, for 8th grade Language Arts, are mostly struggling with it. And my heart is breaking.

For some it seems how to work online is a challenge and access to technology is a problem. For example, tablets are good for apps, but they are not well suited for composition. Other students lack support systems at home; most often the website is more confusing to parents than to students. Then finally, there’s just the student who didn’t do the work last year, so doing all of the assignments on time is a challenge. Based on this alone, what character traits would I use to describe them? Are they lazy or busy? Are they apathetic or confused? Are they active participants or not? It’s hard to tell.

It’s a generalization, but students who fail any class do so partly because they haven’t figured out this whole school thing. Online learning seems to benefit those who understand “school” well and can use the system to their advantage. Perhaps personalized learning is only good if the student already has a general idea of how learning happens in the first place. Maybe an apt comparison is personalized learning is like giving an artist the freedom to paint using oils, acrylics, or watercolor. Experienced artists already know the strengths and weaknesses of all of the tools, whereas an inexperienced artist doesn’t want to make the wrong decision, and so the choice actually hampers creative output.

What one character trait separates successful online students from those who struggle: being able to “get” school. Yes, part of doing well in school is participation, balance, creativity, honesty, curiosity, grit, kindness, open-mindedness, but if students don’t know how to work within the system, they still struggle.

“When in Rome…”

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