Online Identities in Virtual Worlds

Online Identities in Virtual Worlds

Andrew Power (Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Ireland) and Gráinne Kirwan (Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Ireland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-879-1.ch003


Online identities need not reflect the true identity of the user. Relatively little is known about the use of online identities during e-learning and blended learning programmes, and if these reflect the students’ true self. Online identities may impact on student achievement and satisfaction and as such are an important consideration for educators. Following an overview of the relevant literature regarding online identities, this paper describes findings from a survey of students currently engaged in a programme delivered using these techniques and where an awareness of online identities is to the fore. Several strengths and weaknesses of online identities in education are identified, and while students generally felt that they were portraying their own true identity online, many felt that others in the group were not. Implications for practice are described.
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Some work has been done on the impact of online teaching on the role and identity of educators (Wallace, 2002) which has shown that the identity of academics can be blurred as the educational process becomes ‘productised’. This distancing of the teacher from the student has been an aspect of e-learning that has tried to be addressed in a number of ways in the past. Email contact, video conferences, and individualised assignments, have all sought to bridge the gap left by the absence of face-to-face teaching. Using virtual environments appears to offer a solution to the one-to-many learning experience which can be offered to greater numbers at greater distances without the loss of a sense of personal contact.

Teachers are beginning to use social networks to hold distance education classes and report that the discussion can get livelier when students assume a digital persona (Foster, 2007, p. 24). Over one hundred and fifty colleges in the USA have some form of presence in Second Life, as do colleges from more than a dozen other countries. Foster (2007, p. 26) goes on to describe the different approaches of educators in the fields of architecture, ethnography, creative writing, literature, and technology in their use of virtual environments to promote better learning.

Studies of computer-mediated communication in the 1980s suggested that email removed many of the clues such as gender, age, race, social status and facial expression which we use to identify with each other. This reduced the inhibitions of participants (Williams, 2007, p. 7). Three-dimensional virtual environments, and the ability to represent oneself as an avatar, have provided opportunities not just to hide these clues but to create alternative ones. The visual representation of self, and the ability to alter it, has introduced a new dimension to communication within online communities.

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