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If you are on Twitter, or have listened to the news, at some point you will have come across the dark side of social media. The dehumanising effect of social media can be a heavy toll for teachers to take. We are of course, the group of professionals whose sole job is to help prepare our pupils for life. Only to have some of those people take to social media to crucify us over some of the most innocuous and trivial ‘crimes’. Our digital identity can have more impact on us than what real life events do.

Here are three examples:

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The first is Carla Lockhart, a DUP MP from Northern Ireland in the UK parliament. She recently quoted John Hume in the UK parliament. John Hume was an SDLP politician who had a crucial role in the Good Friday Agreement. Ms Lockhart, the MP in question can rarely do anything right. Any comment, of any type, on any matter, is generally met with a flurry of online abuse.

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The second is a teaching example. Katharine Birbalsingh is a name that may be known to a few. She is the headmistress and Founder of Michaela Community School in England. A charter school in Wembley,  with a second school planned for opening in Stevenage in 2024.  Ms Birbalsingh is ’notorious’, (dare I say, infamous? Let me be clear, these are not my beliefs – but how she is viewed more publicly) for being known as Britain’s strictest headteacher. How is this even decided – is there a competition you can enter? Is there an awards ceremony? Recently she has featured in the news a couple of times this year – unfortunately not for the achievements of her school, but silly little things that matter much more to the people who comment on Twitter, rather than those who work with her and know her personally.

Her crimes? In the first example, Katharine hit the news for expressing an opinion on the concept of original sin and how it relates to children needing to be taught how to be good. The irony of the twitter storm that erupted from this (in my opinion) served to prove her point. Regardless of your view on the Christian belief, children do need to be taught right from wrong, but the twitter masses demanded she be sacked from every type of job she had, has or might have in the future. Interestingly, she highlighted that while not a Christian herself, she felt some sympathy for what Christians might go through on a daily basis for their beliefs.

The example I’ve cited from Katharine is another example. Her school featured in a TV show (which I hear is good, but I haven’t got round to watching it yet, there’s one thing on the summer to do list) but some people picked up on an incorrectly cited quotation by Winston Churchill: “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it’s the courage that counts.” Yes he probably didn’t say that exact quote, there are digital tonnes of quotes that are probably incorrectly attributed. But it’s what happened afterwards that is what I want to highlight. People called for this principal to resign/be fired from her job. This is part of our life now. What happens with our digital identity is just as much us as our right hand.

But let that sink in for a minute: losing your job for misquoting.

How many mistakes do you make in a day while teaching? Is that a lesson we want our pupils to learn? An extreme fear of failure? In teaching ICT I thrive on as aspect of failure, when my pupils ‘fail’ in programming (and I don’t use that word in class), that’s when I can review their code with them and show them where they went wrong-that’s when the learning happens because they don’t make that same mistake again, or if they do, they know how to fix it!

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My third example is from a person who I have come have some new respect for, in how he speaks, the content he puts out and for how it has challenged me. In one way, I’ve included him purely for a sense of balance. The first two examples (quite by accident) are both female, and so I wanted to show this happens to men also – not for gender equivalence, but that it can and does happen to men. I would be interested to see just how that balance works out – are women much more targeted on social media than men? I’m genuinely not sure. And while I could easily believe that it is, the dark nature of social media at present would make me think twice before giving an opinion. It could well be that women in the public eye may attract more visible abuse, but having observed the way social media has moved over the last 18 months, it is now much more polarised and so it’s my genuine belief that anyone who presents an individual point of view that is contrary to the ‘groupthink’ is open season for ridicule and abuse.

Anyway, this third example comes from Jordan B. Peterson. He commented on the recent cover of Sports Illustrated and how the model (Yuma Nu) on the front cover was “not beautiful.” Having observed the reaction to this, it could be concluded that if we are now to find everything beautiful, then

  1. It cheapens actual beauty
  2. Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, it’s in what the collective tells us it is.
  3. I (along with a lot of men, and I suppose women too by default) are going to get into trouble with their partners and spouses for finding things beautiful that we probably wouldn’t have commented on previously.

The one word that runs through each of these examples is insanity. I mean, it is not sane that everything a woman says (Lockhart or Birbalsingh) is met with such vitriol or opposition. Most opponents to Birbalsingh are not qualified or employed teachers, so we could question the credibility of the opposition. Lockhart is an elected MP and so might naturally find opposition to her political viewpoint – but at least it involves topics that affect us in society. MPs are to represent the voice of the people (although we could easily debate about how you best represent someone that physically hates you). Peterson was commenting on whether he found a specific woman attractive, in light of what the media is forcing upon us. I suspect there are people who won’t find that model attractive, there will be an equal amount of people who do find her attractive, but that isn’t the issue here – it’s not even whether the media can enforce views upon us without consideration, reflection or critical evaluation. It’s the reaction of people on social media and how that forms our digital identity.

It matters because our digital identity is becoming more prominent, and increasingly, is how we are identified in this internet-connected world. When we think about the circles of people we know – family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, other professionals, people we interact with online, it is our digital identity that will be on most occasions how we are viewed – even by those who might know us best, what we say online resonates in the real world. In my own life, because of family, distance and job responsibilities, I don’t see many of my university friends. It is my online presence that they see of me, and this will inevitably impact their view of me. Much of this of course, is within my control, but some is not – it is beyond my control. It’s my responsibility therefore, to take control of my digital identity and manage it constantly. I don’t always succeed at this – there are people online who I know I should not engage with, but then the stars align negatively and I respond on a topic to a person that I know better than to engage with. We’ve all been there – I hope!

The same is true of our students. Probably even more so. As adults, our careers are mostly established and we are now mature enough to understand the importance of our digital identity in our careers (although not immune from making poor choices/statements online). Despite seeing a lot of comments online that invoke a response in my head – I am (mostly) mature enough to keep it there, or to make a reasoned response. Do our students possess this ability? Is everything they post online advantageous to their ambitions and life goals? Regardless of the answer, it is part of our role as teachers to help them. For the vast majority of our students now, their first interaction and appearance on social media began just after they were born. Fast forward through the years and we have countless birthday pictures, first day of the new school year photographs, and numerous other milestones or everyday occurrences that are recorded by their parents. In many instances, without their consent. Our children exist online in a much stronger form before they utter their first word. As parents we have a role to play here – and this double role as parents/teachers mean that our voice is doubly important. As teachers we have a duty and obligation to talk to, teach and guide our students in how to navigate this ever-changing digital landscape. We need to be more purposeful in our digital identities and how these are expressed in the world.

In a previous job, I had the role of being a course co-ordinator of a university course. As part of this, students on the course had to complete a work placement. On one occasion I had an employer contact me and inform me about the social media content of one of our students. He was happy to take the student on placement, but asked me to get the student to reel in his social media activity. The student had not made his account private, and so everything was publicly accessible, including his weekend activities. His social media presence impacted his suitability as an employee. Employers were looking and saw that if he wasn’t secure in his social media dealings, how could he be trusted with company dealings – which need to be private/secret/discreet? It’s a valid question.

The solution for me as course director was to prepare social media training for our tutorial classes – in part, this showed students how to make their accounts private and present information on why they should consider what they post, how social media can impact employment and how to create a positive social media platform that can work as a second advertisement of them and their ability in the workplace. In what was a fortuitous occurrence (but not for the person in question) a senior manager in the organisation made a sectarian remark on Twitter a number of weeks later and was subsequently removed (fired or resigned I’m not sure) but it allowed me to show first-hand local examples of how our digital identity can impact our daily lives.

4 Ways To Manage Your Digital Identity

What Can You Find About Yourself Right Now?

Have you ever searched your name on Google? What did you find? Or if you have somehow resisted until now, what do you think you might find? When I search for myself I find more about an actor from Teen Wolf, a Scottish footballer, or an engineer from Ballymena, Northern Ireland. I knew about the Scottish footballer, but the actor and gas engineer are a surprise – particularly the engineer, particularly because he lives quite close to me. We usually have a pretty good idea of what is online about us – most of it will have been generated by you or by others who know you. Blog posts, social media posts, perhaps images from conferences, articles, or videos – including those awful dance TikTok videos! It might surprise you at what you will find (but hopefully not too much).

So if you haven’t already, go Google yourself. But don’t stop on the first page of results – go further and deeper to see what you can find about yourself. Look at the images, videos and news. Be sure to use different variations of your name. Different spellings, middle initials, even narrowing results by location – there’s little point paying attention to someone who shares your name in Australia, when you’re based in the UK (and vice versa). This can give you a good idea of what is online already. If there is nothing to find, then you have a clean slate to start from. It’s particularly important to know what is online for us as teachers – if there is something that is slanderous or potentially damaging to your career then it needs dealt with. Sometimes, some of our pupils can act without thinking through the consequences or full meaning of certain actions, so it is best to know because then it can be addressed and removed. Sometimes, it’s not the pupils acting childishly, it can be the parents, so be careful, take records of anything you find and never engage with the post.

I would recommend setting up Google Alerts so that you can see what is being posted. You should do this often, although as I’m going to assume that you’re not a celebrity, then an alert for once every other month should be enough. Let’s put the power of search to your advantage.  You can set up several different searches for name, brand, books, anything really and the results are delivered to my inbox each day. This allows you to harness the power of Google to monitor your own brand image. Positive or negative (it’s the negative that we would be most concerned about), you can keep a check on what is being said (if anything) online.

Take Control of Your Online Image!

Now that you know how to Google yourself and see what is online, it’s now time to take control of our digital identity. Here are some  simple  but effective things you can do:

  • Write a bio-If you don’t already have one, write one! I’m not talking about your Twitter bio either. Write several different variations: 50/75/100 words are perfect for conference session proposals and social media; then you can have bios over 100 words for anything else you want to use it for (like a personal website). Once this is complete, you should use the relevant bio anywhere there is a place for it. This will set a consistent persona of who you are and go some way to ensure you aren’t mistaken for anyone who hits notoriety with the same name as you (it happens more than you think, and almost always on Twitter).
  • Get a headshot-Don’t waste your money on professional headshots (unless you have a photographer friend). Your mobile device will take images that are high resolution, and with a little filter action you can produce some great images. You will need a friend to take the photos for you – don’t take a selfie and never have you arms in the shot (it gives away that you’re holding the phone). They should look professional, so definitely no cheese or cringe. You might like to climb mountains, or love your cat more than life itself, but we just want to see what you look like. My current picture that I use across multiple sites.
  • Get your own landing page– Set up a personal website or single webpage. About.me can be useful for this. It’s a simple webpage that you can customise with your bio, image and links to anything you want anyone to know about you. I would recommend if you’re going to do this, that you use it as a signpost to your website – set one up and make it about all the teaching topics you love. I went a bit further because I wanted to separate my love of EdTech from my personal website, but one is an extension of the other.

Now you can use these bio details on all the apps and sites you use like Twitter, your blog, your website, CV, anywhere you want people to find out who you are. And the more you use this bio and your image, the more they will show prominently in search results. The key is consistency.

Privacy, Privacy, Privacy!

Now that you are using these apps and sites you will want to spend time with the privacy settings of each of them. It’s important to know precisely what information you share can be seen publicly and what that platform does with your information. Take Twitter for example. You can choose to show or not show your birthday, location or be found by your mobile number. Many of these services also allow third party apps to access your information (Facebook is a great example of this.) You will want to check what apps have access to your profiles and how much. (Maybe it’s time to revoke access of Farmville from your Facebook page.)

Privacy policies are typically full of legalese but don’t let that deter you from knowing what is happening to you and your students data, your images and your information before you use anything. (Perhaps we could all learn from a recent app that, if you used it, now has the rights to use your image at anytime, anywhere, forever, just by loading an image into it.) Review these policies and talk to your classes about them too. Given their younger age, it’s much more important for them to know how their data, images and information are used both in the classroom and outside, as this will be in place for many, many years to come.

Share, Share, Share!

A great way for you to build your educational digital identity is to not only set up a consistent bio with headshot and landing pages but also contribute to the wider body of existing knowledge. You could start a blog (like with this one) and share what you are doing in your classroom, what you are learning and reading or ideas you have. Taking part in Twitter chats or anything you post on social media with widely used hashtags can also be a great way to build your digital identity. Some of the common hashtags I use include: #edutwitter, #edtech, #educationaltechnology. This gets your posts out to a wider audience. If you have presented at a conference? Then post the presentation and/or notes to your website and blog about it! Share your Twitter profile at the conference to invite followers and further build your audience. Anything you create you want to share with the world post it.

The same applies to our students. They need to have the same opportunities now to build their digital identities. As I said earlier, given their younger age, it’s much more important that they build a positive digital identity as this will last longer than ours! Get them to look at which topics/causes they are interested in and start building content around that. Our aim is to emphasise and build positive experiences into our pupils lives. That way, even if they do make a mistake (which they will, and they need to be able to), it will be outweighed by their main focus. Creating a website can take a few minutes and has become as easy as sending email. All this can be a part of a comprehensive digital citizenship programme that teaches students how live the best digital life possible. This can then impact their job opportunities for the better – when employers (inevitably) look up their applicants online, this will be the results they receive. If we can control the answer and present it to make it make us look good, then why wouldn’t we?

Conclusion

The internet will be with us forever and will find new ways to infiltrate our physical lives (think about what smartwatches can currently do but then fast-forward five to ten years. What we post, what we comment on, and what we publish will live on long after we are gone. So while we are here and in control let’s do all we can to manage and protect our digital identity. And help our students do the same!

Share your comments, thoughts and experiences in the comments section!

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