Insights from Research
Why is online teacher identity important?
Identity influences teaching decisions.
The kind of teacher you think you are and/or you want to be, your pedagogical beliefs and values, the educational goals you seek, will all impact the learning activities you will want to create for your students, as well as the training you will seek to continue to improve your teaching practice.
Identity influences teachers’ self-efficacy.
How you perceive yourself as an online teacher will also have implications for your level of confidence when teaching in this format and your belief in your ability to impact your students’ learning, which in turn will affect your willingness to explore innovative approaches.
What is online teacher identity?
There is no clear definition of teacher identity.
Despite agreement on the influence of identity on teaching, there is no agreed-upon definition of teacher identify and online teacher identity, and researchers have assigned different meanings to these terms in their work. We find Luehmann’s definition of teacher identity as “being recognized by self and others as a certain kind of teacher” (based on Gee’s definition of identity) to be especially valuable in the context of teacher education.
Agreed-upon elements of professional identity.
There is consensus, though, that identity is constantly changing as a result of a person’s experiences, is composed of multiple sub-identities that interact with each other, and is socially constituted (that is, influenced not only by personal factors but also interactions with others in specific professional contexts).
Online teacher identity as a component of teacher identity.
As most teachers think of themselves primarily as a math teacher, higher education faculty, or professional who also wants to be able to teach online, it may be more productive to think of online teacher identity as a component of a teacher’s broader professional identity. Yet it is still valuable to study online teacher identity as a “sub-identity”, since the kind of online teacher one aspires to be will affect important instructional and professional decision when teaching online.
What can influence the development of one’s online teacher identity?
Role of participation and recognition in identity development.
Gee suggests that identity development is constituted through the complementary processes of participation in activities and discourse within the targeted community of practice, along with recognition of that participation “as a certain kind of …” by self and others. In the case of online teaching, participation may not only involve engaging in teaching online, but also participating as a learner in online courses. Recognition of these activities may include many kinds of reflections/ debriefing where each novice online teacher’s experience is privately or publicly examined vis-à-vis their aspirations, beliefs and values as online teachers.
Identity-related challenges encountered by novice online teachers.
Common key challenges for people who are starting to teach online, as reported in the literature, include: fear of having inadequate technological knowledge and skills; negative perceptions about online education in one’s field; threats on one’s self-esteem as an experienced professional for veteran traditional teachers training to teach online. Negative prior experiences in online courses taken as a student also often contribute to negative perceptions about online learning and teaching. These challenges needs to be acknowledged and worked through as part of the process of identity development.
Recommendations for Practice
What are implications for how we approach the preparation of online teachers?
Teaching skills and techniques is not enough.
Teaching future online teachers about how to use specific digital tools or a Learning Management Systems is not enough – as when and how these teachers will use these tools will depend on the kind of online teacher they aspire to be.
Need to explicitly address identity development.
Preparation programs should be clear about what kind of online teacher they aim to prepare, and purposeful in supporting participants’ development of an identity consistent with those goals – by paying attention to key factors affecting identity development.
How can we support the development of an identity as a certain kind of online teacher?
Value of “experiences as online learners”.
One of the most powerful ways to affect one’s views of online teaching and learning is to have them participate as a student in online learning experiences that have been purposefully designed to illustrate affordance and limitations of specific online teaching practices. This represents a valuable form of participation even at very early stages of an online teacher preparation program, and has been shown to be especially effective at addressing misconceptions due to prior negative experiences with online learning.
Value of “scaffolded experiences as online teachers”.
The most obvious participation activity when learning to teach online is to actually “practice” online teaching with some expert supervision – and indeed this is already a common element of program preparing online teachers, especially when participants are current teachers. However, to encourage participants to engage in more innovative online teaching practices, it is also important to design online teaching opportunities that provide sufficient support to ensure success in these first online teaching experiences.
Value of structured reflections.
To fully leverage the power of “experiences as learners” and “experiences as teachers”, these experiences need to be accompanied by reflections and discussions purposefully designed to help participants see their implications for the kind of online teacher they aspire to be and receive recognition by self and others. In addition, assignments that ask participants to explicitly articulate the kind of online teacher they aspire to be, and/or to identify the progress they have made towards that goal and possible next steps, would provide other valuable recognition opportunities.
Next Steps to Learn More
Seminal reading about teacher identity and its impact on teacher preparation:
- Luehmann, A. L. (2007). Identity development as a lens to science teacher preparation. Science Education, 91(5), 822-839. doi:10.1002/sce.20209.
For a valuable literature review on teacher identity:
- Beijaard, D., Meijer, P. C., Vermunt, J. D. (2004). Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(2), 107–128
For an example of empirical study grounded in identity theory:
- Richardson, J., & Alsup, J. (2015). From the classroom to the keyboard: How seven teachers created their online teacher identities. The International Review of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 16(1), 142-167. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v16i1.1814 - View Reading
To get a sense of how a course preparing online teachers informed by identity theory may look like and what impact it may have on the participants:
- Borasi, R., Hafsa, F., & Miller, D. (2019). A course preparing online teachers with a focus on identity development.