Laura Gibbs

Digital Literacy: Teaching, Not Policing

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Aug 27, 2017

As I explained in another post, I am having a blast with my Aesop adventure at Creighton University, using their Canvas course space to connect with the students there: 

Bringing Social Media in Canvas to a Face-to-Face Class 


I did have one misadventure, though, and that was when I wanted to upload a fox image to use there in my Profile. I had already created a new dedicated Twitter account for the class:


AesopsBooks Twitter screenshot


To match up with that Twitter account, I decided that I would use that same fox image for the Aesop Canvas course. I always use some kind of fox image for my social media avatar, and I've done so since I first started networking online with Ning back in 2007. That's actually because of Aesop: I chose the fox as my avatar because the fox is the great trickster character of the fables. I'm using Dr. Sesus's Fox-in-Socks here at the Canvas Community, which is also the avatar I use for my OnlineMythIndia class Twitter account.


Some background...


Why don't I just use a headshot? I honestly never even considered using a headshot; right from the start it seemed to me that the Internet is a way you can build an identity in a digital way, different from the way you create an impression in real life. To me, headshots online were an attempt to imitate real life (kind of poorly, since the headshot is so static compared to what people's faces are really like), whereas choosing some other kind of photograph or cartoon or design could make an actual "statement" in a way that a headshot is not really a statement. I understand why some people might want to tie their online identity to their real life by using a headshot, but for me, I wanted something different: my online identity is something I construct, and part of the way I construct that is by making creative use of an image avatar.


Then, when I started teaching fully online, I wanted to extend that same freedom to my students: some of them choose to use headshots, but some of them prefer to make a statement, and some of them actually prefer NOT to use a headshot. For people who are shy or maybe concerned about their body image, online courses can provide a welcome freedom to leave body insecurities behind and choose something different.


So, I always made sure to use a non-headshot as my avatar in our course spaces so that students would understand that I certainly do not require headshots, although of course it is fine if they choose to use a headshot. Some do, some don't. It's the same with their names: they might use their official name of record, or a different name (a nickname, their middle name, or a pseudonym), or perhaps just their initials. It's all fine with me. One of the things I really like about Canvas compared to D2L is that students can choose their display name in Canvas, and I make sure to promote that feature.


And then here's what happened to my fox...


I created my profile and uploaded the same fox I was using at the Twitter account. I was really happy with how that looked since I also had the Twitter account running in the Canvas course. The professors had asked me to create the first discussion board prompt, so I did that, and the first thing I asked students to do before replying at the discussion board was to update their profile.


The next day, when I logged on to do some more work at the course site, I was surprised that I had a grey-head avatar again. I grabbed the fox photo from my Twitter profile and uploaded it again. I thought maybe I had just forgotten to save it properly (there are some pages at Canvas where the Save button is down at the bottom and I just forget to save). All looked good: there was my fox in the profile page, and also at the discussion board.


Students started posting replies at the discussion board, and when I got those notifications and clicked in to the board, I saw I was a gray head again.


That was starting to seem really odd, but whatever, I uploaded the fox image again.


It's official...


Then, the message arrived in my Canvas inbox:


canvas message screenshot


I'll admit that I found this completely outrageous, but I'm just a guest in the system. So, I wrote back to thank the administrator for having sent me the message (even though no communication was solicited), and I'm still not sure why they kept removing the image without sending me the message to start with. 


My thoughts...


So, if I were a faculty member at the school (which obviously I am not), I would complain vociferously about this restriction:


1. Authority. How did the Academic Technology Committee acquire the authority to censor online activity in a way that has no parallel with classroom activity? Is there a dress code that applies to students in classrooms? And do the dress code police visit every classroom, looking to see what people are wearing and hauling people out of the classroom if they are not wearing "appropriate" clothing? I think not. I searched the university's website for "dress code" and found various documents; apparently the School of Pharmacy and School of Dentistry have some dress codes because of public contact between pharmacy students and patients, which makes sense. There does not appear to be any campus-wide dress code that applies to all people at all times. How then did there come to be an image "code" that applies to all profile images?


2. Arbitrariness. Why would you arbitrarily restrict online identity to headshots only? There are, of course, arguments in favor of headshots: headshots are useful if, for example, your goal is to facilitate recognizing a student in class based on having seen their picture online. Headshots may also be appropriate if your goal is to create a pre-professional online presence, comparable to the way the Pharmacy students dress professionally to interact with patients. And that's fine. But just because there are good reasons to use a headshot does not mean it is the ONLY option. I did not upload a fox photo by accident or out of ignorance or because I am reckless. I had good reasons for my choice based on the class content and on the Twitter account I would be using for the class, etc.


3. Education, not policing. As I see it, the choice of image is about being thoughtful, choosing the image that suits your purpose(s). Instead of imposing an arbitrary standard on everyone, I think the goal of any educational institution should be just that, education. This type of policing is not educational: instead of summarily removing someone's chosen image, there needs to be a dialogue which results in learning. If a person went to the trouble of uploading an image to their profile, presumably they had some reason that prompted them to do so (as I did). Instead of arbitrarily removing their image, it is an opportunity for dialogue, so that you can learn why the person did what they did. What was the person's reason for uploading the image they chosen? In terms of student images, is there some potential problem that the student was not aware of? That is where the dialogue can happen.


An example. In all the years I have been teaching online, working with literally thousands of students in those 15+ years, I have only seen one student upload an image that caused me some concern; it was a personal image that looked like it was meant to be a sexual come-on, and when I asked the student about it, she told me it was the image she used on all the dating sites where she had profiles. I explained that she might want to choose a different profile image for class, and that it was a good idea to think about the purpose of different website profiles so that she could choose the right image for each kind of profile she might create. It was one of those teachable moments, and I was glad to have the opportunity to talk to her about this important aspect of life online. This was back in around 2008; I am guessing that students today are much more aware of this kind of thing. But if not, well, it's our job to help them be aware.


What's funny about the Creighton rules is that the image this student had uploaded was a headshot, so under their one-size-fits-all rules, they would not have been able to remove it. Hmmmm. Perhaps that is what the vague "subject to administrative removal" phrase is for. And just how risque would be too risque? How generic does generic have to be? Hmmmmm again.


In any case, I found the whole experience very disappointing. Instead of asking me whether I had uploaded the fox image by accident or on purpose (a legitimate question that would have allowed me to explain my purpose), the IT administrator removed it, and removed it again, and again, without even contacting me, and then when they did make contact, it was not to initiate a dialogue. Just the opposite; no reply of any kind was solicited.


A related topic: display names.


Then, out of curiosity, I went to see if we were allowed to choose our display names.




So, once again, despite the fact that there are many (MANY) legitimate reasons why students might want or even need to change their display name, that option is shut down. 


TRUST: I think it is essential.


As someone with a career in teaching along with a brief stint working for campus IT at my school, I've always preferred to trust people to do the right thing. This doesn't mean they will always do the right thing; even I am not that naive.

But I prefer to deal with problems when they arise. Not to assume the worst and lock things down based on the mere possibility that a problem might arise.


And even if something does not go as it should, I still want to assume that it was a mistake or a misunderstanding, something that we can clarify through dialogue. 


TRUST. It's an essential ingredient in teaching. And I also think it's a pretty useful ingredient in IT too.


I am very glad that at my school the approach has been to grant us freedoms by default: we choose our profile images, we choose our display names, we can even choose to create our own course spaces (which is how I have created my Widget Warehouse, Growth Mindset course, etc. etc.). Our IT staff trusts us to do these things, and of course if there is some kind of problem, they can contact us about it, and then proceed as needed.


~ ~ ~


Meanwhile, I did finally upload my headshot in the profile.


But I still wish it were a fox.