Navigating Identity—Reimagining Oneself Online
10.5.09 | “It was an ‘aha’ moment for us,” Panganiban says, a coordinator for RezEd, a hub for researchers and practitioners. RezEd is a project of Global Kids funded by MacArthur. “Those young people who have restrictions in their real lives saw the virtual world as liberating. They saw they had something to offer other kids because of their own experiences. Instead of feeling like second-class citizens, they realized they could use that experience to help other kids and say, ‘This is a choice you don’t want to make.’”
Identity is fluid online, and managing one’s identity and realizing its porousness is one of the skills that young people must learn while navigating the digital world. The 2009 HASTAC competition winners, such as MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economics), work to foster this and other “new” skills that children will need in the emerging participatory culture they inhabit.
The researchers behind MILLEE, in fact, found the same thing that Panganiban did but this time halfway around the world. They gave cell phones to children in a small village in India that were loaded with a game to help them learn English. When left to themselves, the children felt free to interact according to their skills rather than their socially prescribed place in the strict societal structure of India, says researcher Deepti Chittamura.
“One of the power users was a lower-caste child, and higher-caste children went to him to ask for help. They couldn’t do that in the village. They needed a protected space,” she says. “We hope it means that when they grow up to be adults, they will be a little more open to communicating across castes.”
The MILLEE researchers also saw gender differences and reworked the game to accommodate them. Girls had less access to the family cell phone and so tended to have less uninterrupted time to play. In response, the researchers created micro sections of the game that could be played for a few minutes at a time. Girls also were more likely to take turns and share the phones. The boys, however, preferred to play against one another, which led the researchers to network the phones via Bluetooth so the boys could share a screen.
At RezEd, the incarcerated youth were among the most successful and enthusiastic users of the social entrepreneurship program, which also attracted children who participated via school and after-school programs.
Just as the children in India were able to operate outside their caste in their virtual world, the incarcerated youth organized themselves according to their skills and talents and focused on the goal of becoming more engaged citizens.
“In the virtual world, they were not kids in jail,” Panganiban says.
Instead, they could create powerful avatars for themselves, such as robots, that gave them the gravitas to “explore ideas about how to help others not get into their situation,” he says.
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