Online Learning Identities: Who are we on-line?

April 15, 2002

In news over the past 5 – 10 years we have witnessed stories of social deviants who have taken on roles of nurturing individuals in order to lure youth into misdirected acts. But do we even consider individuals may take on different personas in on-line learning environments?

In the synchronous on-line environment of the World Wide Web it is not unusual for individuals to use avatars, graphical representations, as a way to depict various moods, or to convey a side of themselves they want others to see. These graphical representations of oneself, cartoonish or otherwise, are often an effective means of disguising one’s true identity. This was evident in our class, as few of us could accurately guess which avatar belonged to who or why they choose a particular representation for themselves.

Asynchronously in on-line environments the use of written compositions and messages may be composed in such a clinical style as to also hide one’s self. This style may be used in an effort not offend others, or one may write in this manner in order to disguise one’s true character.

Further, in the article on students with disabilities the on-line environment of the written word allowed the students to be seen through their writings and thoughts without the necessity of exposing their physical form. However, a logical question for us to ask as we analyze these different on-line communication forms is whether this ability to remain anonymous in an on-line world is good or bad? And what implications does it have on power relationships?

While some would argue the Internet has democratized the world through it’s color and ethnic blindness, others like Hooks (1994) would argue that not exploring our differences and challenging assumptions about the dominant culture is a disservice to the individuals in a course. The issue of whiteness and the assumption that all individuals on-line are white is a characteristic we need to guard against. Although this may be a North American or Eurocentric view it is probably the norm for anyone engaged in a course offered through an institution of higher education in the United States. Also, with English being the predominant language of the Internet this gives those of us whose first language is English an unconscious advantage in the electronic world. For here we, English speaking individuals, can easily detect if someone is using English as a second language. This aspect alone makes it hard to hide behind the neutrality of the faceless electronic world.

This particular attribute of the Internet may be why we observe teenagers using a form of electronic dialog that is there’s alone and analogous to how an earlier generation used pig Latin. Here ethnic and cultural barriers are dropped as accurate grammar and spelling is not part of the on-line culture of teens.

So for safety sake or for fear of embarrassment should we hide our identities on-line or should we explore our differences and openly discuss power implications.

While we may consider on-line environments as neutral and democratic this may only be the view of the dominant class. Others, like the Chinese students studied by Tu (2001), may find parts of the on-line world very daunting

as they try to portray an enlightened image so not to lose face. Further, an issue to consider surrounding on-line identity is the possibility of

not identifying one’s self at all and simply lurking or only responding to the authority figure. An individual who chooses this communication strategy then becomes a hidden voice or one who feels they are inadequate of participating in the discussion. What are the power and cultural issues that this type of behavior highlights?

As some studies are starting to show one’s cultural values, views of power relationships

in education environments, and physical disabilities impact how individuals portray themselves on-line and how they interact on-line. Personally, I’m a lurker who typically observes a threaded discussion and then responds to the group in a lengthy e-mail that summarizes thoughts, or I only respond to the authority figure. This could be attributed more to my personality type, as defined by the Myers-Briggs inventory, than cultural values or how I perceive power relationships on-line. Here again is yet another factor that needs to be reviewed when we look at who we are on-line.

Obviously we cannot explore these issues in any length in a short paper, however, the aspect of whether one’s true identity on-line is good or bad in learning environments needs to be explored further to assist those of us involved in developing and delivering courses through the Internet.


Hooks, B., (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York, Routledge.

Tu, C. (2001). How Chinese Perceive Social Presence: An Examination of Interaction in Online Learning Environment. Education Media International, V38 (1), pp. 45-60.