Last year in our statewide Celebrate Oklahoma Voices digital storytelling project, we had a “teachable moment” arise concerning student profile pictures and avatars. According to Wiktionary, an avatar in a computing context is:
A digital representation of a person or being.
The situation in our COV project last spring involved a high school student who joined our learning community at the invitation of her librarian as well as our project coordinators, and chose to use a photo of herself on her Ning personal profile page which was not appropriate for the context of our project. I contacted her librarian about this, she had a conversation with the student, and the student changed her photo to an uncontroversial avatar image. This situation was not a bad one– I think it was good, in fact, because it provided an opportunity for an important discussion relating to digital citizenship to take place. It also pointed to the fact that we needed social networking guidelines for our project. The student in question along a friend of hers were apparently viewing our COV learning community as they would a MySpace or Facebook personal page. That was not the right “frame” to use in this situation. As a result of these conversations, our project coordinators decided that students needed to use an avatar rather than a photograph on their personal profile pages. Adult educators could use either one. At the time project coordinators posted the following clarification in our learning community forum as “Guidelines for using this social networking site:”
All members under the age of 18 will be categorized as students and should use a computer generated avatar as their member image. We strongly encourage students to remove their date of birth and location from their profile. This can be accomplished by going to the My Settings link on the site. Please make sure you have parental permission to join this social networking site.
Blog postings, submitted videos and all content should be related to digital storytelling. Please keep your dialog and discussion appropriate for all audience members. We encourage everyone to join ALL appropriate learning communities realted to your profile. This can be accomplished using the icons on the right hand side of the site.
Thank you for participating.
This situation highlights the importance of discussing what constitutes an appropriate avatar or other profile image, both in a collaborative project space as well as on personal social networking websites. When visiting the WordPress.org support forums recently, I found the website Gravatar. It explains:
A gravatar, or globally recognized avatar, is quite simply an avatar image that follows you from weblog to weblog appearing beside your name when you comment on gravatar enabled sites. Avatars help identify your posts on web forums, so why not on weblogs?
After I setup my own free account on gravatar, I was asked to “rate” my avatar on the following scale, similar to the Motion Picture rating system for commercially published movies.
“Hard drug use?” Are the gravatar creators talking about “illegal drug use” with that phrase? I would argue that all student avatars should be “G” rated, particularly if the student is participating in an online learning community or collaborative project for school.
This is an important discussion to have with students of all ages who are participating in social networking activities at school and away from school. Because students already have background knowledge / schema for motion picture ratings, it could be good to use the ratings framework to discuss appropriate profile pictures and avatars. It might be good to explore the question:
Would it EVER be appropriate to use an avatar or profile picture which is not rated “G?” What are some possible consequences of using a “non-G-rated” avatar on a website which is tied / affiliated / linked to you and your online identity?
The PBS special from January 2008, “Growing Up Online” (individual chapters of the show are viewable online) is a good resource to utilize in a discussion like this with students. I have additional links and resources related to social networking available, as well as Internet Safety resources for parents. The Digital Dialog Ning is a learning community for educators, parents, and others interested in exploring and discussing issues like these.
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