Guarding our digital identities

It is 2018 and the age of ‘Big Brother’ is upon us.

When I was a teenager, the Matric year group of 1984 at our school studied George Orwell’s novel of the same name.  Those of us in the lower year groups were treated to references to the story all through the year via artwork, posters, writings, presentations and dramatisations of extracts in school assemblies.  Even though we didn’t study it, the disturbing message of that prophetic novel crept into our classes so we were broadly aware of the storyline and the dark message it contained.  It was the age before the internet became widespread, the school (a well off state sponsored white-only school in a lovely suburb of Cape Town) had a few Apple Mac computers for a few programming minded pupils to use.  None of us had mobile phones.  But this was Apartheid South Africa and we were all conscious that covert Government surveillance happened even if we didn’t necessarily notice it every day.  We were becoming politically aware and some of us were starting to question the injustices of the black / white / coloured divide enforced on our daily lives.  The message of that novel about propaganda manipulation and control via computer technology seemed unreal yet profoundly and frighteningly true – this could happen in the future as we knew that technology was developing faster than laws and ethics could keep up to protect people from exploitation and disaster.

So much has happened since that time as technology has advanced at ever increasing speed.  Mobile computer devices have become ubiquitous in many countries and communities, print news media is fast being superceded by online news exchanges in online news and social media sites but not everyone has the digital skills to interrogate the veracity of what they read or see online.  I’ve written before about the importance of teaching research skills to children, encouraging their natural curiosity while teaching them the principles of probing questioning of facts, interpretation of data and why I think the UK curriculum doesn’t cover this sufficiently well or early enough.

The internet age has meant that a vast amount of information is now available at the click of a button or tap of a finger on a screen, providing a huge library of knowledge, alternative facts or shop of delights.  So many new connections between people in different communities, regions and nations have become much easier to make – so much swifter than penpals communicating via pen, letter and stamp of snail mail.  We can exchange opinions and facts almost instantly with people we will never meet, sharing hobbies, games, interests, pastimes and skills as well as emotional support. So many positive and fun things have happened and continue to happen as a result of these new online technologies and tools.

My children have grown up with computers and mobile phones, though they didn’t get their own mobile phones until secondary school.  21st century schools often set homework which requires pupils to use computers. Social media apps are pervasive and addictive, especially with peer pressure in the mix making personal mobile phones potent tools for bullying and intimidation.  Every parent has the problem of weighing up how early or late to allow their children access to such tools and how to teach their children about safe responsible use of the internet, especially if they are less than sure themselves.

Our digital identities have become commercially valuable to hugely powerful companies who have immense influence about what kind of service they provide as well as the terms and conditions of using those apps and services. Governments and private companies are exploiting these tools for political purposes, using covert surveillance and manipulation of public opinion, this is especially easy to do if people are ignorant of basic good online practice or are too trusting or gullible. Even if we create online accounts on various platforms using pseudonyms to try and protect our identities depending on the context in which we use those online platforms, it is still possible for those controlling the systems we use to discover our identities hidden behind a cover name and to make use of this data and what we share for their own purposes.  Especially disturbing is how this is used in cyber warfare to divide public opinion, fan the flames of distrust and hate between groups, religions, cultures and countries.  There are reports this is done via covert setups such as bot farms which latch on to popular hashtags then twist messages to confuse people; disrupting conversations and debates sometimes with devastating results. The forthcoming EU General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) are compelling EU countries and countries who trade with them to face up to their responsibilities regarding the handling of personal data which they hold about people, this may offer more protection and clarity of our right to privacy though may be difficult to enforce.

Teaching people how to use these modern online technologies safely, responsibly and openly is never more urgent than now in the face of all this frightening online activity. It is hard for those of us in Open Education who embrace and promote the concept of open access, open sharing and open online education to counter the negativity and dangers which can so easily outweight the good aspects of the online world.  We try to practice openness which can be risky depending on the situation, we have discovered that a blended mix of open and closed practice is needed to fit the particular context.  The ideal is to be completely open, the reality is to be as open as sensibly possible and when appropriate to explain why we have chosen a particular mix, to encourage others who are tentatively contemplating the merits and potential pitfalls of open educational practice.  Designing learning activities to teach topics in a subject which make good use of the internet and social media is challenging.  Yet it also offers the opportunity to embed teaching about digital identities, open educational resources and practices.

The internet allows us to participate in a class being taught by someone in another country. We can sit on the periphery of a class as we cannot see or hear all the conversations in the physical classroom unless they are shared via a video link, however we can contribute via social media synchronously or asynchronously, possibly enriching or disrupting that lesson by our virtual presence as we share observations and artefacts via images or links to resources.  We cannot know the extent of the impact of our presence on the students whose class we have been invited to join virtually, it may be tenuous or profound, different for each individual.  The potential for learning isn’t limited to the students, those of us who join these learning activities as guest participants also learn and may be inspired to explore avenues we may never have contemplated before as our own cultural world view is challenged and expanded.  It is intellectually rewarding and fun, though can also feel vaguely intrusive (gate crashing the class), depending on how the guest involvement is mediated by the teacher.

I participated briefly in one such international class by contributing a photograph of an item from an unusual angle, as requested by the teacher, the academic Maha Bali, whose fascinating keynote at the OER17 conference in London last year got many of us reevaluating cultural and gender identities, online privacy, accessibility and context of open educational practices.  The photo activity was only one element of the Twitter Scavenger hunt for the Intercultural Learning Class she had designed for her Cairo based students, which she shared via her blog and Twitter several days in advance when she invited her Twitter connections to contribute if they could.  I liked that in her class design she acknowledged the reluctance of some students to create a social media account, students were not excluded if they didn’t create an account, they paired up with others, so mobile phone use could be a face to face group social activity.  The class activities included creating an alternative job or career for themselves as well as reading specific sources in advance or during the lesson.  They tweeted their responses or shared their favourite quote from these sources, tagging the author and a particular hashtag to engage in online discussions. Both the students and the online guests were invited to share a photo of a weird view of an item and guess what the item might be, encouraging online engagement with strangers from many cultures and several countries in a relatively controlled and friendly way.

Image I shared for #DigitalGuardiansEg

Image I shared for #DigitalGuardiansEg – guesses included “a game of some sort?” (@Ayah_Egypt) and “Art piece of some kind? Wall art?” (@el_venter)

One of the resources I was able to read before heading off to work (I shared my photo just before commuting) was the poem I’m Not Angry at You by Maha Bali which explores the topics of cultural divide, colonial attitudes, power, the imposition of language and culture, as well as misguided assumptions about how others think and feel. My favourite quote from the poem, which I didn’t share on twitter at the time of the class, was:

“I’ll tell you what makes me angry
I’m angry when I tell you my story
And you change it
Because you think you know it better
You don’t
Because you think you can express it better
You can’t
That’s YOU colonizing ME ”

I found myself telling my daughter about the class activity and the poem as I drove her to school.  Later I recalled my favourite Open University course A216 (Art and its histories) which devoted a whole unit of the course to cultural otherness including colonial attitudes to African art and culture. That course had reawoken my dormant interest in the art, designs and scenes of my childhood very vividly (Cape Town Market Square filled with colour, music and fabric stalls, bushman paintings in Lesotho, white washed Cape Dutch art galleries and natural history displays) and how these had been reinterpreted and rewritten by Western views.  My perspective is filtered through the lens of a white South Africa born and raised British person who has lived in the northern hemisphere all her adult life, yet with a deep appreciation for Africa, its histories, art and peoples.

I have shared some of my own creations and historical researches in public online, either via a semi anonymous blog with a pseudonym about a particular hobby or more openly via social media: Twitter, this blog and Facebook with my real name.  I’ve been conscious of limitations and risks regarding digital identity and privacy as well as the inherent need in this modern online age of educating people to engage in responsible and respectful ways in online spaces.  Thank you Maha Bali for inviting the world to engage in your online class activity which explored this topic and for making it accessible to many of us who do not speak your language.  As one guest participant commented “I thought I was playing a guessing game this morning, but instead my very worldview has been shaken! #DigitalGuardiansEg” (@jmgordon, via Twitter, 8 February 2018) [edit: though I believe this was said as a joke, @jmgordon has said she “truly appreciated being reminded that things are not necessarily how they seem to me”].

And in case you were wondering what the image I shared is all about, it touches on some of the topics I have covered in this blog post.  It depicts a joint creation built by my husband and me over a period of several years in our spare time, inspired by our love of music, art and places special to us.  You can read more about it on my husband’s pipe organ website if you are interested.

32 keyless street organ with hand carved and painted facade

32 keyless street organ with hand carved and painted facade, mounted on a Silver cross pram chassis

The contents of this blog post has been created and shared using a Creative Commons ShareAlike Non-commercial licence which means others can remix, tweak and build upon this work non-commercially as long as they credit me and licence their new creations under the identical terms.  If you reuse any part of this blog post including photos or text please use the following attribution to credit me:  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Anna C Page
For more information about Creative Commons licences see

Testing children

I grew up with a school system (not in the UK) in which testing from early on was a normal part of the school day however none of it was to measure the school or the teachers as far as we knew – it was all done as part of the overall pedagogy – the teachers used short tests to gauge how much we had grasped concepts, facts or ideas. We had comprehension tests in English lessons, short maths tests in maths lessons (including some speed tests), times tables (which we recited in class together regularly – some rote learning was helpful for being able to do sums faster) and spelling tests (we took the list of words home to practice and did the test the next day).

We learned from an early age to cope with a small amount of ‘test’ stress in class on an almost daily basis though certainly the first 2 years at school largely concentrated on learning by playing (among all the toys and educational games we used I remember a much loved dolls house in the classroom on my first year and another dolls house in my second year classroom). From about my fourth year at school we had mid and end of year examinations in several subjects – they were short at that age, as we got older they got longer. We had to pass the exams to pass the year and occasionally some children were kept back to repeat the year (this was South African state education during apartheid).

By secondary school we were well versed in testing and examinations. I cannot say we loved it – we did not – though sometimes testing was done in games which were fun, however because they were well designed, properly thought out for the level of material we were covering it did not feel to a child of average intelligence that they were out to trip us up or worse being used to measure our teachers and potentially penalize our school (maybe they were used in this way but we were not aware of it) – teachers encouraged us to work hard and revise for examinations – we accepted this as normal.  Teaching to the test was not an issue as testing was just one aspect of many ways our teachers were assessing our understanding (class discussions, taking it in turns to read passages aloud, group activities and writing summaries of topics were some of the other ways they were quietly observing and assessing us in a normal school day and our school reports reflected their observations as well as test scores).  We had an enormous variety of different types of learning activities including film shows, overhead projector pictures and diagrams, art and music classes, games and physical education, so the more mundane activities were interspersed with exciting ones.  We learned how to interrogate the available information, discuss it and think about implications.  Our teachers were treated as professionals who had been trained to teach children according to the best methods of the time and their professionalism was recognised and accepted by the government.

I cannot say how those tests and examinations were received by children with dyslexia or visual impairment.  We did not have any blind children in our school as all blind, deaf, severely physically or cognitively disabled children were sent to special schools – they were not integrated into mainstream schools.  I do recall a friend in our class who was disabled with a heart problem (a hole in her heart), her strength was not sufficient for her to participate in sports however she had a bright mind and kept up with classwork as far as I could tell.  There probably were some dyslexic children in the school and I do not know what, if anything, was done to help them, it wasn’t something I was particularly aware of then.  Some people had more trouble with spelling or writing than I did – possibly they were dyslexic however most of the teachers I experienced treated struggling children kindly and did not make an example of them (there were exceptions – and they were invariably teachers I disliked for their meanness).

I realise that I was privileged in the height of the apartheid era – this was state education for white children whereas our black neighbours had a narrower curriculum, less funding for their schools (therefore less variety and fewer resources) and some teachers who may not have had the best training, though I’m sure their dedication to their pupils would have been just as strong as the care most of my teachers gave us.  Those children will have encountered regular testing too and despite all the additional difficulties they faced they worked hard to achieve something at school, though there was a distinct difference between pass rates at white and black schools at that time.

The current anguish about SATS tests in primary schools in the UK is a sad indictment of a series of Governments who have sought to interfere with the professional judgement of the teaching profession, for ideological rather than sound pedagogical reasons.  Imposing unexpectedly harder tests on children who are not accustomed to that style of teaching and learning is cruel and wrong.  Poorly constructed tests such as the current SATS and SPaG are not properly integrated into the curriculum and ignore the professional judgement of teachers who know their children best.  The results of SATS should not be taken in isolation of the rounded picture of each child which the teachers have from observation and daily teaching. But unfortunately they’re used to judge teachers and schools and are not a fair indication of children’s learning.  The SATS which my younger daughter did at the end of Year 6 were not used by her secondary school when she started Year 7 – they immediately tested the children again themselves.  Their sole purpose seems to be for Government league tables.

Narrowing the secondary curriculum to focus only on STEM subjects to the detriment of Art, Music, Drama and vocational subjects which are known to help the understanding of Science, Maths and Technology subjects is appallingly short-sighted (unless it is a deliberate ploy to produce a generation of children who cannot think for themselves and do not appreciate culture) – my younger daughter is experiencing this narrowed curriculum in secondary school, comparing her Year 7 school subject choices and timetable with those enjoyed by her elder sister 8 years ago is sobering.  We are doing our best to give her as much music and art in her extramural activities as possible, but not every parent has the means to afford music or art or drama or dancing or gym lessons or cultural outings, so reducing these in school time is a travesty.

Tests and examinations done properly by professionals who understand how children learn have a place in the overall mix of assessment that can be used to measure learning.  Done badly, in a poor attempt to ‘improve standards’, punitive testing which relies on learning and remembering facts without necessarily understanding them will cause long term lasting damage to many children, discouraging them and destroying their enjoyment of learning, reading and writing.  It will be very difficult, time consuming and expensive to repair the damage.


Libraries and homework in the internet age

My 12 year old daughter in Year 7 (first year at secondary school in the UK) was given some history homework.  She was asked to create a fictional Facebook profile for Martin Luther.  Not Martin Luther King, the human rights activist.  Martin Luther, the great religious reformer.  The school has an online homework management system which the children login to collect their homework instructions or any updates.  Apparently the teacher had said the template for the Facebook page would be on the system but when my daughter logged in she could not find it.  It is not the first time a teacher at the school has asked her to create a fictional Facebook profile for a character (the previous occasion was for English).  On that occasion I showed her my Facebook profile so she could see what sort of information was included and she drew out a profile on paper using pen and pencil.  She does not have a Facebook profile of her own yet.

My approach on this occasion was to take my daughter to our local library to research Martin Luther.  Yes, I know, the vast majority of children of her age these days would go straight to the internet (probably using Google), do a search for ‘Martin Luther’, find an overwhelming amount of information on a variety of different websites, some of which would be confusing or wrong, would pull out some ‘facts’, create a profile (copying their own profile layout even though officially they should not have Facebook until they are 13 according to Facebook rules) and job would be done.  But what would they learn from this?  Anything about Martin Luther and his time apart from basic facts?  Anything about the provenance of the sources of information (an important concept in history research)?  Anything about how to reference material properly?  Anything about how not to plagiarize someone else’s work?  What about how to search to get the right sort of information needed quickly and effectively? I do not know the purpose of this piece of homework because the information about it is not on the online homework system and she didn’t write anything down in class.  On the face of it this piece of homework panders to the notion of making the topic ‘relevant or fun for modern children’ by using the concept of a powerful online social tool they probably know about (and might be using even if under age).  Maybe I’m being needlessly old fashioned about using a popular social media tool as a route into understanding historical characters.  I will explain my reservations.

Online research to create something like a Facebook profile of a historical character (showing a couple of status updates) risks encouraging surface learning rather than delving into what caused certain events to happen or a character to behave in a certain way, unless it is followed up with other useful activities which explore the topic in more depth in subsequent lessons.  Most children faced with this assignment would recoil at the sight of Wikipedia which can be densely technical though probably mostly accurate (depending on the subject and who had contributed to it online), they would also find other sites with the essential information about Martin Luther (including his 95 theses posted on the Cathedral door in 1517, his education, place of birth, jobs and quotes).  They might even find something about him which makes them pause and think was he really a reformer when some of his views seem to jar with modern sensibilities (for example the place of women in society).  Some children of this age encountering such a vast array of information about him would be able to assimilate this into a Facebook profile which gets to the heart of the character (and would be interesting for a teacher to mark).  Some children, like my daughter, would ask a parent for advice or help first, with varying degrees of success (some parents may know little about the topic or not know where to start).  Other children would do it as a fast as possible without much investigation.  Or they might ignore the homework completely.  Many children will not have access to the internet at home or will have to share a family computer with siblings, some will have no books at home at all or may not have easy access to a library where they can look in books or search the internet on library computers.  Homework at the best of times can be problematic for some children and making most homework rely upon the internet access increases the amount of time children spend in front of a screen and could make them regard books as antiquated sources of information not worthy of their attention.  This means they miss out on the richness of learning how to interrogate paper based information, a useful skill even in the internet age.

By its very nature creating a Facebook profile as a tool for gathering information about a person and understanding their motivations is not going to encourage a child to reference their sources.  There is no place for this on Facebook so why would this even be a passing thought for a child unless the teacher specifically asks them to provide a list of sources they used as part of the activity.  For historical and scientific research purposes knowing how to record a reference is a useful skill especially if you are going to write about and publish your research.  I was taught this skill at primary school in dedicated library lessons.  Our school (in white apartheid South Africa) was fortunate enough to have an excellent library full of books.  We had good teachers.  We were taught the Dewey decimal system, how to search a catalogue and how to do research to write a paragraph or an essay pulling information from at least 3 difference sources.  We were taught how to write a list of references using the Harvard style and how to use the index of a book to find information fast within that book.  We were also taught how to precis a paragraph to make it shorter yet still containing the essential information without changing the meaning, a useful editing skill. In addition we practiced rewriting a paragraph from a book so it contained the original facts or meanings but without directly copying it word for word, we could only quote short extracts not whole paragraphs unless we referenced the source and explained what we thought about it, to show that we had learned something when thinking about and investigating the subject.

In secondary school we honed these skills further as our writing became more sophisticated, it was not easy and the most annoying part was writing everything out by hand and having to rewrite it when we wanted to change the order of sentences or paragraphs.  However writing by hand did help to embed information in our minds and seemed to help some of us organise our thoughts – planning an essay became essential to save rewriting too many times.  So we learned how to gather all the information first, highlight the links between them and discover a narrative.  We learned how to weigh up conflicting evidence about something and make a decision about what to include in a report, essay or project.  We discovered new concepts and ideas. This learning was mediated and enhanced by our teachers who taught us to question, debate and discuss what we researched, they often provided curated resources or a set of instructions and a series of questions we needed to answer to get us started.

Learning this way took time, partly in class, partly at home, in school or a public library.  We also had subject textbooks which we were usually able to take home from school if there were sufficient copies,  this made it possible for parents to see what their children would be learning about that term.  It did mean that it was easy to refer only to the textbook for source material but on many occasions our teachers would encourage us to find other sources to interrogate the ‘facts’ in the textbooks to give us a broader view.  For history in particular this encouragement to question might be one of the many reasons the apartheid regime eventually fell apart as more and more of us in ‘white’ privileged schools questioned the validity and morality of giving us a good education while our black peers in segregated schools were given a separate much narrower syllabus with limited learning resources and were protesting for equality (the 1976 Soweto uprising being the most well known event).  For example my practice examination essay on the African National Congress in preparation for my Matric was a personal turning point because my history teacher gave it an outstanding mark and asked me to “please not write like that in the examination” as the school would be investigated for teaching us to question the official apartheid government story about the ANC (he said it with some pride – he was clearly pleased with me).  It was a sobering realization of the stark divisions in that country where equal opportunities for a good education did not exist because of a terrible ideology.

Homework for the twenty first century child is just as much of a bugbear as it was in previous centuries though some of the tools and resources are different.  My daughter has a laptop, she can type out her homework, though she also hand writes or draws homework, depending on what is set.  She could potentially copy and paste anything from the internet and pass it off as her own unless her teacher runs anti plagiarism software to check the source of her work (if electronic) or we her parents check when she finishes her homework.  She can skim topics to find facts using online search tools and find/highlight tools on the browser.  She can find photos and other images to easily paste into her homework (she has never been told to paste in the source URL or copyright information, she knows nothing about Intellectual Property rights or licences such as Creative Commons which allow copying with attribution, except what I have started to explain).   So the laptop and the internet provides her with powerful tools to get her homework done quickly but she is often overwhelmed by too many choices, dense unmediated information and sometimes a hazy recollection of exactly what the teacher explained of how to go about finding what she needs to complete the homework properly – not paying attention in class is common to all generations!

So we went to the library.  We asked a professional* librarian, who used a computer to search the catalogue (not the card index catalogue of my childhood libraries) but only came up with books about Martin Luther King.  However the librarians were very helpful, they were able to point us to several books (in the children’s section of the library) which contained the essential information plus explanations.  One book, Volume 11 of the Children’s Britannica, had a section (and an image) on Martin Luther explained in clear language understandable to children.  The librarian very helpfully gave my daughter a pencil and paper to copy out essential facts, however we did end up photocopying the pages (20 pence a copy) to bring home when she had done some writing and had become fed up with the paper sliding about on the table (we should have brought her laptop or a pad of paper).  I showed her how to use an index in the other books to find out if Martin Luther was included and whether the information was sufficient to make it worth taking a book out of the library to use at home.  While she was writing some facts from the encyclopedia (which could not be borrowed) I followed up some of the sources in one of the books and talked them through with her when she stopped writing.  One piece of information helped with questioning the extent of the ‘reformer’ reputation and I could see her considering this carefully.  It was a pleasure to bounce ideas off each other and to see the spark of comprehension in her face as we discussed what she was discovering in the books.

Yes, we could have used these investigation techniques on the internet.  However, with a local library (saved once by a huge public campaign in the face of drastic public funding cuts while many others are being closed) containing real books, the opportunity to teach her how to do paper-based research and the chance to get away from a screen, it was good to help her with this piece of homework using a more traditional method.

Maybe we will use the internet to find out if there are any good documentaries about Martin Luther she could watch.  But maybe this is something they will do at school – I don’t know how long the class will be spending on this topic, so we don’t know how much she needs to research.

She could probably compile a short essay on the information she gathers about Martin Luther in addition to the set homework of creating a fictional Facebook profile for a man whose only social media tool was a large notice posted on the door of a Cathedral (a very busy public place in his time). Maybe that is what the teacher will say about this activity in class when they hand their in homework for marking.  I hope she does learn more on this topic in school than the basic information she gathered today for a Facebook profile creation activity and this was just the start of a good exploration of a fascinating period of history.  I also hope she is taught some good research techniques at school though I will do my best to pass on the research skills and knowledge I have not forgotten because it was taught well all those years ago.

*I have been told the librarians on duty may have been Library Assistants

The contents of this blog post has been created and shared using a Creative Commons ShareAlike Non-commercial licence which means others can remix, tweak and build upon this work non-commercially as long as they credit me and licence their new creations under the identical terms.  If you reuse any part of this blog post including photos or text please use the following attribution to credit me:  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Anna C Page
For more information about Creative Commons licences see