Guiding student development online

There is a generational gap in understanding how online environments relate to our world, our education and our development. Digital visitors, those that have come to use technology later in life, predominantly view the virtual world as a medium to communicate and as a tool to achieve a particular goal/outcome.

The opposing view is one of integration and immersion. These digital natives view technology as being an essential component of their real-world experiences. Technology is ubiquitous in their lives, and their perception of the world is created through a merging of real and virtual experiences.

To be able to effectively support student development therefore requires an understanding and acceptance of the second perspective on digital life; the integrated one. In addition planning for student development requires strategies that can encompass both their digital and real-world lives.

Fortunately, there already exists a body of research related to student development and teachers simply need to apply and adapt them to real and virtual interactions in order to assist student development.

Identity and development

The work of Erik Erikson is essential to understand how identity is formed during the teenage years. Describing identity formation as one of eight psychosocial processes, Erikson argues that between the ages of twelve and nineteen the individual attempts to understand if and how they are accepted and respected by the family, peers and society.

Virtual community therefore can be used to allow teenagers to experiment with their identities and how they relate to their peers and the larger world. These domains can be relatively safe environments for students to experiment with identity, not constrained by real-world expectations and judgements.

Supporting identity development using online environments can be achieved by:

  • Offering diverse role models in these communities to demonstrate that there are many ways to be accepted, respected, successful and satisfied.
  • Challenging students with activities and questions that encourage them to make a value judgement, both related to their selves and in relation to the values of others.
  • Allow students space to form a sense of their personal identity by tolerating changes to their goals and priorities.

Improving social skills and norms

Social norms

Students bring sets of pre-packaged social norms, expectations and behaviours to the classroom. Teachers typically utilise these norms and gradually shape them towards their view of what is positive classroom and social behaviour. Similar methods can be used in online environments, with teachers setting ground rules, monitoring and shaping better behaviour and encouraging more effective interactions.

Guidance in group work

Teenagers need time to figure out the complex interactions, group dynamics and goals as well as the needs, and expectations, of each individual in the group. As teachers we know that understanding and teaching the rules of the game is important, but time consuming. Adding another layer to this where the teacher need to observe, support and resolve problems online thankfully isn’t needed.

By identifying and outlining group roles for students (leader, communications officer, salesman etc.) the teacher can demonstrate different roles and personas to students. This can help eliminates much of the confusion surrounding group dynamics and allows a safe zone for students to experiment with a variety of identities.

Moral development

As with social norms, current theories and strategies for moral development can also be integrated into virtual environments. Taking Gilligan’s model of moral development, the goal is to have students undertake thoughts, actions and reactions, based around reflection, that lead to benefits for themselves and others.

In summary

  • Student identity development occurs between 12 and 19, their teenage years.
  • Teachers can support their identity development as well as their development socially and morally
  • Developmental supports should be extended to the virtual world as this is an important part of student lives.

These articles are inspired by my MA study and the readings around its Technology in Learning course.