Francesca Helm (U. Padova) & Melinda Dooly (U. Autònoma de Barcelona)

Exploring (and exploiting) identities in virtual exchange in education

This presentation will explore how identity are constructed in online international learning contexts. Starting from the premise that identities are fluid, multiple and they emerge as we interact with others in situated contexts, we will explore how identities emerged as participants engaged in interaction online and how this affected the power and interaction dynamics. Drawing from an ethnographic, discourse-based study of a facilitator-led, synchronous virtual exchange that specifically aimed to bring together ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ university students for criticial intercultural dialogue, the study shows that participants of online learning environments quickly began orienting to the ‘power dynamics’ of the space. Participants also moved between orienting towards ‘discourse identities’ attributed to them by others and at times, ‘resisting’ these identities.

The study found that through carefully scaffolded, sustained engagement with multiple points of view, the participants often engaged in the relationality principle of ‘distinction’, highlighting difference by challenging and contradicting points of view both within and outside the broad social group categories, resulting in ‘creative agency of the community’. Furthermore, the results indicate that through the shifting of different categories of identity, the participants were able to redress power dynamics to a certain degree.

As Virtual Exchange (including opportunities for synchronous video interactions) proliferate in language education classes, the affordances of these technologies often facililate the recognition and orientation of participants towards ‘broad identity positionings’ (‘transportable identities such as ‘Westerner’ or ‘Muslim’) as these identities may be made immediately visible (e.g. the wearing of the hijab, the keffiyeh and the beanie), Clearly this represents a risk when engaging students in intercultural dialogue and setting up projects in terms of broad identity groupings or when telecollaborative arrangements merely reinforce static, essentialist and defensive identity positionings. The pedagogical implications of this and potential relevance to other contexts will be discussed.