Shift happens again (and this time it’s personal)

In the EDEN plenary session this morning, Lani Gunawardena talked about language, identity and gender in synchronous cybercultures. She's from the University of New Mexico and her research focuses on how students and the general public from two cultures, Moroccan (n=55) and Sri Lankan (n=50), communicated through live chat with people they didn’t know. Lani argues that identity plays a key role in trust building, self disclosure and the way language forms were used to generate a sense of immediacy. Identity she says, is expressed by age, sex and location. The continual shifting and malleability of personal online identities seemed to be a pervasive phenomenon, she discovered.

Anonymity gave participants more freedom to express themselves online and enabled them to avoid all of the above. Stereotyping she claims, takes place more easily in text only environments. Mohammed for example, was labelled a ‘terrorist’ by some other users, so a change of name to ‘Green Python’ sanitised his identity and enabled him to connect more readily. Some users changed their online identities to appeal to, and connect with different audiences. Some posed as Europeans and even changed their gender so they would not be marginalised by other online users.

The techniques online chatters use to detect imposters involve asking a series of questions and then repeat them later on to check consistency. Mobile phones are also used to verify the authenticity of the person at ‘the other end’. Over emphasis and exaggeration is often an indicator that someone has manipulated their identity online.

Self disclosure and trust building enhance social presence Lani argued, and interestingly, anonymity increased the ability to self disclose personal details. However, it also encouraged superficial relationships to grow at the expense of deeper social ties. The use of idioms increased when users felt they could begin to trust each other. Emoticons were used to convey meaning when text alone was insufficient, but interestingly mobile phones and other devices were used to increase a sense of social presence and immediacy.

This was quite an interesting study, but it remains to be seen how this kind of knowledge can be used to improve or even transform the delivery of e-learning. It is a limited study given the small samples size, and may be overly prescriptive in its conclusions. However, it highlights some important principles for educators to consider when they embark on the use of synchronous methods.


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