Constructing Identities in Online Encounters: A Study on Finnish and Greek Young Students' Digital Storytelling Practices

Constructing Identities in Online Encounters: A Study on Finnish and Greek Young Students' Digital Storytelling Practices

Marianna Vivitsou (Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/IJTEPD.2019010102


This article examines digital storytelling practices of 12-15-year-old students from Finland and Greece. In online settings, students construct virtual selves through video and text-based interactions with peers and, thus, perform identity work using English as the language of communication. This study examines digital storytelling as space of intertextuality where different speakers' utterances resignify the context of learning. The authors apply inductive analysis of interview data and a multimodal approach to digital stories as combinations of semiotic systems in order to link with a dynamic digital literacy. Findings indicate that the students use an impersonal, scientific-like style to explain how a chemical reaction happens in some stories. In others, they place the focus on human relationships with body language and gesture adding a personal style. However, rather than language, it is the way the story is performed and acted out that authenticates student work. This bears implications for both the teaching of English and the design of digital storytelling aiming for web-based peer exchanges.
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In order to address the requirements that web-based and digital technologies generate and the implications they bear on human communication, we need to combine perspectives from diverse fields. In education, for instance, the study of the integration of digital technologies into the classroom should widen its scope, adopt a non-finite view of digital literacy and relate to computer-mediated communication (CmC) research. While studies in CmC have supported the view that the computer is merely a facilitator of textual literacy (e.g., Warschauer & Kern, 2000), others have gone further and see the computer as transforming the way we think and the way we express what we think (Abelson & Sussman 1985). In this school of thought, the ability to retrieve, manipulate, re-purpose and share data assigns a certain type of agency to the user, while the screen does not only display symbols and texts. It also represents and recreates reality through multimedia technology (Hull & Katz, 2006; Lam, 2000; Kramsch, 2009; Murray, 1997). This view resonates the needs of the current era and calls for a non-unitary, non-finite digital literacy aiming to promote reflective ways of using technologies as well as the context of use. This approach attributes a dynamic element to digital literacy, is embedded in everyday life as social practice, and fits better with the contemporary need to develop a critical understanding of digital media (Buckingham, 2015; Engen et al., 2015; Lankshear and Knobel, 2015).

In order, therefore, to be able to tell between fake and true, it is not enough to educate competent computer users. Users should be agentic as well. Being literate gives the user such power. This view of digital literacy in relation to CmC not only enhances its capacity but also opens up the space for analytical modes of understanding, shift of perspective, and reality simulation (Murray, 1997, p. 284) through an examination of how users share, remix and repurpose content online. In this way, storytelling does not only become endless (Kramsch, 2009, p. 159; Hull and Katz, 2006). It is also meaningful.

Thus, this study views CmC to be intertwined with the need to enable digitally literate, agentic users, particularly now when advancement in social media promotes both consumption and production of content online. In order to take advantage of the productive possibilities of digital media, users need not only be able to make use of multimedia. They also need to appreciate encounters in virtual settings as instances of communication with real people. For example, users and, especially young people, need to be aware of what echo chambers are (Flaxman et al., 2016), and how algorithmic manipulations can lead to emotional contagion effects (Jouhki et al., 2016).

Storytelling with digital technologies is one such instance of communication with real people and can take place in multilingual, intercultural environments where language and other means (e.g., sound, body language etc.) are used to participate in specific speech communities (Norton and Toohey, 2011). This view echoes the Bakhtinian approach to interaction as combination of diverse styles and voices (1981) and fits well with intercultural web-mediated exchanges. On the one hand, digital stories encompass the perspectives of producers and audiences. On the other hand, such encounters support the consequentiality of choices necessary to maintain social identities and relationships (Pennycook, 2006; Thorne, 2010) beyond the linguistic and pragmatic focus of formal settings. In other words, in intercultural storytelling encounters online, the users find themselves in multilingual settings where language does not have to be the primary habitus. And yet, they pay attention to their choices of the language as they construct narratives as authors, narrators and computer users (Kramsch, 2009). They also pay attention to the ways they style their stories and how they act them out in order to make sense to the multilingual online community of peers. These peers are networked. They are also imagined. According to Norton and Toohey (2011), an imagined community assumes an imagined identity, one that offers a wide range of options for the future.

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