Reinterpreting the ‘Self’ in Online Higher Education
Kyle Harley, KUWC Tutor
As online educators, we all reshape our identified ‘self’ when transitioning from on-site teaching to an online medium. In my role as tutor, this transition was gradual. It never really set in until one late night while tutoring, a question popped into my head, “Who are you?” After digging out the book to read the exact passage, I remember that one of my favorite characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Caterpillar, held a conversation with Alice that applies directly to my, and I suspect ‘our,’ predicament:
“Who are you? said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I ca’n’t explain myself. I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar. (Carrol, 1981, p. 34)
Whether we like it or not when we work online, our students and fellow coworkers, do not “see” in the same way we were used to while physically in the classroom. Technology helps with the assimilation process through programs that temporarily allow face-to-face communication, but does that really make a difference in the long run? Who are we? How do we define ourselves as online educators?
Luckily, the answer remains quite simple: We are the digital replicas of our perceived self, and that can come with both a host of solutions and further complications when interacting with our students.
Upon tutoring for the first time online, I realized, whether I liked it or not, I was simply a projection of whatever ‘self’ I wanted to identify with while in that session. These students do not know my face. How can we solidify exactly who our true “self” is? The only true response to this question rests with the individual educator.
This message hit home rather sternly when reviewing a student’s paper on cyber bullying. This student felt that individuals who participated in online bullying were expressing themselves in a digital form that contradicted their physical ‘self.’ This paper made me realize that the only physical ‘things’ separating myself from the student consisted of two screens that, when turned off, reflect our images of our actual ‘self’ right back to us. Needless to say, I was not happy with the reflection in the fading computer screen.
The reason I found myself so unhappy with the ‘self’ in my screen revolved around my inconsistencies when helping students. When I say inconsistencies, I do not mean that some were helped and others were not; instead, I mean that I approached each student differently, almost awkwardly. What sort of ‘self’ was I creating?
I asked myself: “Are you actually being yourself in front of these students?” My answer, “No, I was not being my actual ‘self’ with these students.”
The beauty, and to others the beast, of online education really boils down to our limited ability to actively express our true ‘selves’ in an online educational medium—to actually ‘interact’ with individual students. Sure, we can project ourselves onto screens to put a name to a face, but that identified ‘self’ only lasts as long as the broadcast. Our job, just as when we were in front of students on-site, really should focus on one objective: helping the students accomplish their goals.
We all wear many hats per day—whether we are placing our parenting hat on or our horror-movie loving hat atop our head, at the end of the day, our job remains the same: to simply help students. It took some time to realize that the digital ‘self’ need not be such a prominent figure in an online medium. Instead, and I wish I would have possessed this knowledge when first starting, our ‘self’ in online higher education remains secondary to our presupposed ‘self’ on behalf of the students: educators.
I have since identified my online ‘self,’ and I am actually proud of what I see now. Through these tiny moments of just asking myself a silly quote from a children’s story, I now know, when I shut off my screen and see my reflection, I am looking at an online educator that does not need a physical ‘self’ to help these students succeed. When you shut off your screen, what sort of reflection do you see through our very own looking-glass?
Carrol, L. (1981). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Bantam Dell.