Elearning Magazine ICT in education and beyond

13May/110

Blogging & Identity – Part II: How does blogging affect one’s identity: A case study of MSc students from the University of Bristol

In the second part of this paper, I am going to talk about a small research that I carried out to explore the development of one’s professional identity through blogging.

Literature Review

Blogging is the practice of an individual or a group of individuals maintaining an online journal. A weblog (or “blog”) is a frequently updated personal online space (a type of Web page) where an author (“blogger”) publishes a series of “posts”, engages others in discussions of his or her posts, and collects and shares resources. (Luehmann, 2008, p 287) Blogs are usually maintained by individuals, for various reasons such as to reflect and describe their everyday lives, to share their interests, to exhibit their expertise, and so on. And depending on what the blogger writes and its visibility, he gets a set of followers (or collaborators) who are interested in what he or she writes. It could be family and friends for a personal blog and a group of wildlife photography enthusiasts for a wildlife photography blog. Thus, the blog induces a sense of focus, or “identity” which attracts a specific set of people or “community”. Bloggers write to a readership and not themselves […] the centrality of the idea of reality to blogging is directly connected to the identity of bloggers as non-professional writers who “publish” (not just write) their thoughts for others. (Rak, 2005)

Identity is the sense of recognition by self or others of a person. A person may have multiple identities. He might be a husband, a teacher, a golfer and a parent simultaneously. Thus, his identity is largely contextual; or in other words, his identity is “situated”. Situational identities are the attributions that are made about participants in a particular setting as a consequence of their actions. (Alexander Jr & Lauderdale, 1977, p 225) It is relevant to mention Goffman’s (1959) ideas of “performance” which refers to “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers.” While this performance takes place in a particular setting with a particular audience, Goffman labels this individual’s performance in front of the observers as the “front” part. Professional identity is one such “front” part among the professional audience, or “observers”; in other words, the professional identity is a situated identity where the attributions are made about the participants’ behaviour in a professional setting. This could be observed in an office setting, meetings, conferences and anything related to one’s professional work. With the advent of Internet and Communication Technologies, we can now observe one’s professional behaviour online as well, extending the traditional professional settings that have been predominantly in the physical world. The advent of online professional networks like Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com) and the professional affordances of social networking tools like twitter (http://www.twitter.com) and blogging has made the representation of one’s professional identity online vital. These online professional networks, or in other words, “digital communities of practice” or in Gee’s (2005, p 27) words “affinity groups” provide opportunities for oneself to be perceived in a “certain way” or in other words, to develop one’s “identity”.

The practice of blogging provides rich opportunities for Reflection and Meta-Cognition. The externalization of inner conversations and reflective thinking makes this content available for review and development, thus encouraging and amplifying the acquisition of better skills for self-observation and intentional change. (Efimova & Fiedler, 2004, p. 493) This process of reflection and meta-cognition plays a significant role in learning and identity development. Specifically, this process takes place over a period of time, as the blogger updates his or her blog periodically. Thus, this process forms a “trajectory” of learning and meaning making. An identity is a trajectory in time that incorporates both past and future into the meaning of the present. (Wenger, 1998, p 163)

Research Question and Methodology

The research question I attempted to answer was “How does blogging shape one’s professional identity?” To explore the research question in hand, I chose three bloggers – Eugene, Dhani and Professor Susan Robertson. Eugene is my ETS course mate and a teacher at a school in Bath. He blogs about learning, teaching, technology enhanced learning and education in general. Dhani is my ETS course mate from Brunei. He blogs about photography. Susan is a professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Bristol. She blogs about Global Higher Education and Knowledge Economy. I chose them because they all blog voluntarily and maintain professional blogs. Although Dhani is not a professional photographer, I can categorize his blog as professional in the sense that he is serious about photography and what he writes in his blog. I constructed a set of questions that explore various aspects of identity building such as Virtual and Real identity, reflection, audience, credibility, community building, learning, and expression. I chose these aspects because they were the ones identified in an exploratory case study research conducted by Luehmann (2008) on the usage of blog by Ms. Frizzle, an urban middle school science teacher. In a way, this research builds on its findings, although in a completely different setting. (For the questions, please refer Appendix).

Data Collection and Analysis

I collected data via two methods - Email Transcripts and face to face interview. I did a face to face interview with Dhani because of his availability. It was a semi-structured interview, with the same set of questions as mentioned in the appendix. I sent the questionnaire to be filled in by email to Eugene and Susan because of lack of availability of time. Therefore, we need to bear in mind that I could not collect as much data as I wanted. There might also be a difference in the quality of data collected through email as opposed to a face to face interview as email does not provide an option of following up an answer and exploring something in detail. But nevertheless, the data that I have gathered does provide significant insights, which I will cover in the following sections.

I designed the questionnaire with specific areas that I wanted to cover in mind. Hence, it was fairly straightforward to categorize the data into these areas. (Please refer Research Methodology section for the set of areas I cover)

Research Findings

I am going to present my research findings below in terms of the various aspects of identity building I set to explore.

Virtual vs. Real Identity

The participants felt that their virtual identities were limited in what they reveal about their personalities. While Dhani felt that the virtual identity tends to revolve around the “discourse” of photography since his blog is focused on photography, Eugene felt the need to present himself professionally in his blog since he knows his blog were being read by other teachers and students. Dr. Susan Robertson, however, has a stronger sense of virtual identity as she equates it to her academic identity. “This is my real academic identity. Knowing who I am gives me credibility”.

It is relevant to talk about Gee’s idea of projective identity. “[…] to project one’s values and desires onto the virtual character and seeing the virtual character as one’s own project in the making, a creature whom I imbue with a certain trajectory through time defined by my aspirations for what I want that character to be and become.” (Gee, 2003, p 55) Although the virtual character, as specified by Gee denoting video game characters, is not applicable in a blogging scenario, the idea of projecting one’s own values onto the virtual character and shaping the character to what the player wants to become is very much relevant to the idea of relating and shaping one’s identity online.

Reflection

While I wanted to explore the personal reflection of the participants in the process of blogging, I was surprised to discover how they relate reflection to their audience. Dhani said he checks his blog posts after he’s written it and ensure it is sensible. And if he discovers any mistakes later on, he did not bother to edit it since he felt the audience would not care. It is interesting to notice the influence the audience has on his reflective behaviour. While this influence is indirect in Dhani’s case, it is more direct in Eugene and Susan’s case. Susan felt that reflection happens when she sees comments on her blog posts. Eugene shared the same opinion. “The most important reflection is through comments and replies to them which makes the whole process much more interesting and interactive”.

Another interesting insight emerged from their answers concerning reflection. Susan liked to reflect about the link of her posts with the previous posts. I would like to highlight Wenger’s “learning trajectories” here. “As we go through a succession of forms of participation, our identities form trajectories, both within and across communities of practice”. (Wenger, 1998, p 154) Eugene felt reading and learning from fellow bloggers helped in reflecting on his own blogging practice.

Audience

The aspect of consideration to audience brought out three different perspectives from each of the participant. Dhani gave more importance to the number of visitors visiting his blog. He felt he was “motivated” when he knows a lot of people read his blog. “I can see like people are actually visiting my blog and that’s partly like a motivation for me to continue writing.” He also felt the comments from his audience played an important role in motivating him to blog. Susan was particular about the content, when it comes to the audience. She said she was very conscious about her audience and felt her audience “expect rigor, yet accessibility”. Eugene spoke about engaging his audience and re-iterated the importance of presenting himself professionally in his blog in order to cater to his specific audience. While Susan views her blogging practice more as a medium to express her professional self, Eugene views his blog as a means to build a professional community, with his professional identity being a part of it. “Engagement in practice is a double source of identification: we invest ourselves in what we do and at the same time we invest ourselves in our relations with other people. […] we build communities of practice through this process” (Wenger, 1998, p 192)

Credibility

Again, each of the participants had a different take on the matter of gaining credibility through blogging. Dhani felt that the presence of authentic material and his background information on the blog would help establish his credibility as a serious blogger. Susan saw blogging as a way of reaching a wider audience, which in turn will build her credibility over a larger number of people. Eugene saw blogging as an opportunity to identify himself within the professional community that he is trying to build. He cited an example where his blog was promoted by a blogging community named Purpos/ed (http://www.purposed.org.uk) “Especially recently with the www.purposed.org.uk campaign. It has made me a part of the community and assumptions are made about the people involved e.g. you had to be blogging.”

Community building

There was a strong sense of community building and belonging for all the participants in light of their blogging practice. Dhani felt he was part of the online blogging community and photography community. He also observed that since he took a break from blogging for a while, he felt he was not sure if he still felt belonging to the photography community; this highlights his perspective that being part of a community of practice entails continual engagement. In a sense, he has become a “newcomer” once again in the community where he was once an old-timer. Susan and Eugene felt that they have successfully built a community of like-minded individuals or in Wenger’s words, a “community of practice.”

Learning

All the participants felt there was significant learning involved around their blogging practice. Dhani felt that the comments of his audience on his photos help him learn how good his work is. Susan felt she learns a lot from unknown people who happen to know more about a particular issue. “We learn lots, particularly from people we don’t know, and who make themselves known to us around a particular issue.” Eugene felt that he learns from his discussions through the comments from his audience. We have already discussed Wenger’s “learning trajectories”. It is relevant to introduce two other types of trajectories here: “Inbound trajectories” and “Insider trajectories.” In Susan’s case, the unknown people, or “newcomers” participated in issues known to them. Or in Wenger’s words, “Inbound trajectories: Newcomers are joining the community with the prospect of becoming full participants in its practice. Their identities are invested in their future participation, even though their present participation may be peripheral.” (Wenger, 1998, p 154) In Eugene’s case, learning and meaning making happens continuously, as part of his discussions with his fellow members or in other words, negotiations inside his practice. “Insider trajectories: The formation of identity does not end with full membership. The evolution of the practice continues – new events, new demands, new inventions, and new generations all create occasions for renegotiating one’s identity.” (Wenger, 1998, p 154)

Expression

The blogs served as a medium of expression of the beliefs of the participants. Dhani felt he could propagate his view that good photographs can be taken from any camera, while Eugene felt he could express his ideas and views on education. “I don’t hide it if I disagree with something or somebody especially the Government.” Susan felt her blog was more to map what is going on in her professional world. “The blog is to map what is going on, and shape sometimes what is going on in the sector.” It is interesting to note her assertion, that her voice is significant and it can affect what is going on in her sector, or in other words, her practice. She also felt she could add her personal opinions on what is going on in her sector. “[…] Such as I was in Bologna recently and I am now going to do an entry on the European universities at the cross roads… And am likely to introduce a personal element into the entry.” Such an expression of a strong voice in her blog can be paralleled to an experienced member in a community asserting his or her beliefs and attempting to shape the shared beliefs of the members and in turn shape the practice. “As a way of asserting their membership, they may very well attempt to change the community’s regime so that it includes their experience. Toward this end, they have to negotiate its meaning with their community of practice.” (Wenger, 1998, p 138)

Conclusion

There is significant evidence from the mini research that I conducted that there is a definite role that blogging plays in influencing one’s professional identity. Although the sample size is very small, the fact that each of the participants is from different walks of life and has distinct blogging practices makes the findings more interesting. Each of the participant felt blogging has given them a sense of identity, as we could see the participants’ response in each of the aspects of identity building I have presented in this essay. Quoting Eugene, “I don’t feel like I had learned much for a long time, not formally at least and the MA and blogging has helped to re-establish this part of my identity. I don’t think that was intended.” It was also evident that the concept of identity is tightly integrated within the community of reference, thus rendering my results well in line with Wenger’s views on community and identity. There has not been much research carried out directly on the role of blogging in one’s professional identity development. I hope this paper adds something to this research area and provides some insights for future researches that might be undertaken in this area.

References

Pierre Dillenbourg, Michael Baker, Agnes Blaye & Claire O'Malley (1995)"The Evolution of Research on Collaborative Learning"' In P. Reimann & H. Spada (Eds). Learning in humans and machines. Towards an interdisciplinary learning science, 189- 211. London: Pergamon.

Clark, Herbert H.; Brennan, Susan E. (1991), "Grounding in communication", in Resnick, L. B.; Levine, J. M.; Teasley, J. S. D., Perspectives on socially shared cognition, American Psychological Association.

Luehmann, A.L. (2008) “Using Blogging in Support of Teacher Professional Identity Development: A Case Study”, The journal of the learning sciences, New York: Routledge.

Rak, J. (2005) “The Digital Queer: Weblogs and Internet Identity”, Biography – Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2005, p 10.

Erving Goffman, The presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: The Overlook Press, p 20.

Alexander Jr, C.N; Lauderdale P. (1977) “Situated Identities and Social Influence”, Sociometry, Vol. 40, No. 3, Washington: American Sociological Association.

Effmova, L., & Fiedler, S. (2004) Learning webs: Learning in weblog networks. Paper presented at IADIS International Conference “Web Based Communities 2004,” Lisbon, Portugal.

Gee, J.P. (2003) “Learning and Identity”, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Appendix

Questionnaire:

1. Whats your blog URL?
2. How frequently do you blog?
3. What do you blog about?
4. Please comment on your virtual identity vs. Real identity
5. Comment on your reflective practices when/after writing a blog post
6. How conscious you are about your audience?
7. Do you think blogging establishes your credibility among your audience? Why?
8. Do you think your blog makes you build/ be a part of a community? Please explain.
9. Do you ask for/offer help in your blog? If yes, how do you think it helps you?
10. Do you think you learn from your audience? How?
11. Do you follow other bloggers? If yes, do you interact through their blogs? Why?
12. Does blogging help you critique and organize yourself? If yes, how?
13. Does blogging help you explore and exchange ideas and resources? If yes, how?
14. Do you use your blog to propagate your ideas/values/beliefs? Please explain
15. Do you express your personal life in your professional blogs as well? What are your thoughts on that?
16. Do you think your blogging practice so far has given a sense of identity? If yes, is that something you aimed to achieve?
17. Did blogging influence your confidence? If yes, how?
18. Do you think you are organized and self-disciplined when it comes to blogging? Does it reflect how you organize yourself in other areas of your life as well?

16Apr/111

Blogging & Identity – Part I: How does blogging affect one’s identity: A case study of MSc students from the University of Bristol

Traditionally, Community can be defined as a “group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” (Oxford Dictionary).  However, with the advent of digital technologies, there is a fundamental shift in how people communicate and organize themselves.  The adoption of social networking websites like facebook and twitter by people on a large scale means the geographical boundaries have become less distinguished; the prominence of location in defining a community is becoming lesser as opposed to what the members of a community share in common.  This has led to the coining of term “Community of Practice” by Etienne Wenger, which he defines as “Groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (ewenger.com).  In the following sections, I am going to talk about my course group – MSc ETS at the University of Bristol – as a community of practice (CoP), and explain a project that my group did together in light of the principles of CoP, as advocated by Wenger.

Video Project

As part of our coursework, my classmates were asked to do a small research project in groups of 3. The objective of the project is to come up with a short 10 minute video explaining the research in question and its findings.   The research question that my group (me, Tina and Montserrat) chose was “How does blogging influence our classmates’ identity?”  We chose this question because we wanted to explore a bit about how our classmates felt about blogging, since we have been asked to blog compulsorily in blackboard, our virtual learning environment.  We were also curious to know if the practice of blogging played any role in our classmates’ identity development.  We came up with a list of questions to explore their blogging practices and their perceptions on how the practice shaped their identities.  We did face to face interviews of 6 of our classmates and video recorded the interviews.  We chose to do face to face interview because we thought face to face interviews could elicit more in-depth response from the participants than a focus group would.  After recording the interview, we then edited the video in the order of answers of each of our classmates to each of the questions we had asked.  Once we had the video in sequence of questions and answers, we could analyze their answers and come up with our research findings.  Discussed below is the process we went through during the research project.

Dimensions of Communities of Practice

According to Wenger, there are three main dimensions to the communities of practice.  They are:

  1. Mutual Engagement
  2. A joint enterprise
  3. A shared repertoire

I will proceed to relate my group’s experience in relation to the principles mentioned above.

Mutual Engagement

“The first characteristic of practice as the source of coherence of a community is the mutual engagement of participants.” (Wenger, 1998, p 73) Just the presence of a group of people with common characteristics alone does not guarantee a community of practice.  It is the engagement that counts.  In our case, we are from the same course, attending same lectures and working on similar assignments over the past six months.  Thus, we tend to interact with each other frequently and discuss similar things, or in other words, have engaging conversations. Specifically in our video project, our group was particularly engaged in the creation of the video project.  Each of us felt included in the project.  It is important to note that being engaged does not necessarily contribute to homogeneity.  Each of us had our own ideas and that diversity was important in coming up with a work that could be seen as a product of teamwork.  Tina brought focus on the quality of video, whereas I helped on using the tools to share our work with each other.  Montserrat focused on the organization of the content of the research.   While our roles were not really clearly defined, and we did overlapping work more often than not, it is important to think about the diverse focuses and thought processes we bring into the work.  The work was not always smooth either.  There were some conflicts and tensions, particularly around the way we worked as individuals.  While Tina expected the 3 of us to be physically present during work, I differed on that account that I did not want to be physically present unless it is necessary.  However, we did find a way to overcome such differences and adjusted our expectations from each other to ensure we moved on.

Joint Enterprise

By Joint Enterprise, Wenger means handling negotiations and having mutual accountability within the community.  We had to negotiate our expectations, our priorities and the outcomes continually throughout the lifecycle of the project.  For example, one of the interviews that we shot did not have the right color balance and the video looked quite bleak.  Tina insisted on shooting again whereas I and Montserrat wanted to stick with it, because the interviewee had given such a good interview that it would have been hard to reproduce.  Finally, we did figure out a way to balance the color and make the video look good, thus satisfying every one of us.  Meeting time is another area where we had to negotiate continuously, as we all had our own agenda outside the project.  Over the period of 4 weeks that we had worked on the project, we did manage to learn each other’s style and worked accordingly and got the job done.

“Negotiating a joint enterprise gives rise to relations of mutual accountability among those involved. “ (Wenger, 1998, p 81) There was a mutual accountability amongst us towards completing the project on schedule, with quality and purpose.  We did respect each other’s time and effort and took responsibility for our actions.  It’s relevant to mention Collaboration vs. Co-operation here.  Collaboration is doing things together at the same time, whereas Co-operation is dividing labour and working asynchronously.  Dillenbourg (1999) suggests that synchronous communication might be considered to be an implicit part of collaborative activity and co-operation is more often associated with asynchronous communication. While Co-operation was my preferred way of working, Tina preferred working collaboratively.  And we did not have grounding on what to expect before beginning to work, which led to some friction initially.  Grounding (Clark & Brennan, 1991) refers to the "mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions" that forms the basis of communication between people.

Shared Repertoire

Shared Repertoire represents “routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions, or concepts that the community has produced or adopted in the course of its existence, and which have become part of its practice.” In relation to our project, we did not really come up with a shared repertoire as our period of engagement was short.  However, there were a few words emerged; “Blackboard is special”, for example.  These were the words used by a participant in one of the interviews that we found funny and kept telling each other, which over a period of time, became part of our communication within our project.  We also used facebook for communication, which ended up being the most extensively used tool in our shared repertoire.

Thus, even though the research project that we did was of a very small duration, we could relate very much our activities within the framework of Communities of Practice as proposed by Wenger.

Research Findings & Reflections

We found out from our research that our classmates felt academic blogging did not shape or influence their identities as much as professional blogging does.  This was partly due to the academic blog being made compulsory, thereby our classmates feeling obligated to do it; the scope of writing was limited around our academics and there was not room for expressing personal interests.  This was also due to the blackboard being perceived as “unfriendly”.  Our classmates had difficulties in following each others’ blogs and comments since there were no subscribe or email alerts present.

I will discuss a relevant research in Part 2 in the coming weeks, that explores more about identity development through blogging, focusing on one's professional practice.

References

 

(2011) ‘community’, Oxford Dictionaries.  at URL: http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0167020#m_en_gb0167020 (viewed 05/04/11)

(2011) ‘communities of practice’, at URL:  http://www.ewenger.com/theory/ (viewed 15/04/11)

Wenger, E. (1998) Community, Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press.