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  Mobile computer devices have become ubiquitous in many countries and communities, print news media is fast being superceded by online news exchanges in online news and social media sites but not everyone has the digital skills to interrogate the veracity of what they read or see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
In your OWN DAMN LANGUAGE
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

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