Teacher Identity in Online Spaces

FBResearch on teacher identity regards both the construction and interpretation of identity as something that is highly complex, dynamic, and socially constructed. I started teaching 17 years ago, and my own identity has changed substantially over time. As a teacher educator, I have been so lucky to work with wonderful pre-service teachers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and now at the University of Sydney. Their practicum experiences are often integral to the development of their pedagogy and their identity, and Yolanda Lu and I explored this in our recent article in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education

In ‘Update your status: Exploring pre-service teacher identities in an online discussion group,’ we drew on both a relational as well as a performative view of identity. Prior research, for instance, has found that within online contexts, emoticons, avatars, acronyms and other linguistic variations on social interaction assist in creating a sense of an online identity and presence. Consequently, online identity as not only who you are in relation to others but also how you present yourself in the presence of others.

Our article focused on how a cohort of pre-service teachers used a closed Facebook group as a way to share resources, offer advice, and seek help during a block practicum placement. Because the nature of the placement meant that pre-service teachers were not taking university classes at the same time, they were very reliant upon their peers, as well as school-based and university-assigned mentors, for support. By examining the group, our study attempted to address a gap in research knowledge, as research to this date has been unable to investigate pre-service teacher identities in non-course endorsed or instructor occupied spaces.

A thematic and quantitative analysis of online postings by and interviews with group members provided insight into how identities performed and related to one another within the online discussion group. The findings indicate that one category of identities emerged from a commitment to the social expectations and values of the group, whilst another emerged out of a personal resistance towards the social norms of group participation and involvement.

Six percent of participant posts during the first practicum and 8.6% during the second practicum were requests for help regarding a range of practicum and university-related issues. Comparatively speaking, these requests for help constituted a relatively small portion of the codified online data. However, interviews with focal participants explicated their significance in terms of how the members related to and identified with once another within the online group. Notably, a significant number of posts included pre-service teachers responding to these requests, often by sharing resources, offering personal anecdotes, and identifying teaching strategies.

We argue that it’s important to consider whether or not online discussion groups are a safe and positive space for pre-service identity development – and whether or not teacher educators should colonise these spaces. Personally, I think it’s important for my own students to have an online space where they can freely engage with each other. At the same time, I know that their professional identity development depends upon having open lines of communication to me, to their mentor, and to their supervisor.

Photo by Johan Larsson

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