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:”

Student Members:
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.

All Members:
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.

Avatar ratings on Gravatar

“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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6 Responses to Discussing avatar and profile picture propriety with students

  1. Beth Still says:

    I teach at a very small school in western Nebraska. Half of the day I spend teaching f2f and the other half of the day I teach online classes. I wanted to bring these two groups of students together so I decided to set up a Ning. It is only open to students who are enrolled at alternative high school or who are taking an online class. I stipulated that they must include a picture of themselves. Now I am second guessing myself. I insisted on the picture because I have a much easier time connecting with the people in my PLC who provided pictures of themselves. But, I also have been able to connect with those who supply an avatar. I just don’t want them to keep the generic default image. I am one of those people who have to have some image in my head to connect with the words.

    Thoughts on this? I want the Ning to be successful so I want to do it right from the beginning. Any suggestions on good sites for teens to use to create an avatar?

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Beth: There are quite a few websites out there for creating avatars, meez is one I’ve looked at briefly. If you are setting up your Ning so it closed to the outside world for even viewing (using a “walled garden” approach) then I think you can feel a bit more comfortable having students use photos on their profile pages. Still, it is important for students to learn safe Internet behavior through practice, and I think the best idea is to have students use avatars of some kind instead of photos. They can still be creative, show their individuality, etc– but it is much safer than using a photo. Whatever students use in your Ning as an avatar or profile image is also likely to be used by them elsewhere as an IM avatar, avatar on their facebook page, etc.

    Yahoo has an avatar creation website as well you might want to check out. Before you recommend an avatar site to students, however, I recommend you thoroughly check out the site including the example / recent avatars others have created.

    I think your idea of using a Ning to join the two communities of students together is a great one, and this conversation is certainly an important one to have with student as well as adult participants. I’d encourage you to consider getting other adults involved who can help you monitor and moderate the learning environment. Also I strongly encourage you to check out Think.com, which is a free learning environment for students and teachers that includes many social networking features. When you setup your account you can decide if you want to permit students to connect beyond your school or not. I published a podcast interview with Cheryl Oakes back in May of 2006 that you might want to also check out to learn more about the site.

  3. I’d say consequences for inappropriate avatars should be based on a one strike and you’re out…provided that the facilitator/teacher has done his job in reinforcing/modeling appropriate behavior.

  4. Beth Still says:

    I will spend some time checking out the avatar sites you recommended. Suggestions from others are welcomed!

    I am curious if students will be more willing to join the Ning (it is voluntary) if they are required to use an avatar instead of their picture. Many of my students would rather use an avatar anyway. I want their experience in the Ning to be positive. If there is no pressure to post their actual picture then more students might decide to participate.

    Thank you for getting me to put more thought into this project. There will be 3 other teachers and a principal who are moderators. I hope that all 100 or so students will participate on a regular basis and take the initiative to form groups. We place an emphasis on digital citizenship at my school so I do not anticipate any issues. However, if issues arise we will turn them into teaching moments!

  5. Beth Still says:

    Thank you for getting me to put more thought into this project. I want it to get off to a great start.

    I have a feeling my students would rather use an avatar instead of an actual picture of themselves. I think it will encourage the students who are self-conscious to participate.

    I am not too worried about them posting an avatar that is inappropriate. There are four teachers and one principal who will monitor the Ning. We stress the importance of digital citizenship so I do not think there will be any issues with inappropriate avatars. They will be well aware of the consequences ahead of time. If there are issues then we will turn them into teaching moments!

  6. Cheryl Oakes says:

    Bryan,I agree with you on the one strike policy, providing the facilitator has done a good job. Remember, we are starting mid stream with some of our students. They have been living in the wild internet, and now suddenly their teachers have caught up with them. I use “mistakes” as teachable moments with my 5, 6, 7 and 8 graders. Once the mistake has been illustrated and different alternatives have been discussed, thus the teachable moment,after that it is one strike and you are out. One example of a student losing their blog, is usually enough to solidify that learning. Good luck. And Beth, I do really like think.com for my students. For our 4th and 5th graders we kept them ‘isolated’ to our school. By 8th grade we have them posting on open blogs in a continuum of practice.
    Cheryl Oakes

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