As educators we need to begin to teach students about branding...NO, not that kind of branding!!! To clarify, students (and teachers) need to be aware that their online image is an important part of being an effective communicator and participant in the digital age.
Jeff Utecht of The Thinking Stick blog recently wrote a blog post entitled, "When to start teaching self branding," about the importance of teaching students to consider their online image. I agree with Jeff that these are the conversations we need to be having with students. Since information on the web is persistent (it stays around a long, long time) and searchable, students need to consider what they write and produce online is an extension of themselves that will be around for a long time and be findable by people that may play an important role in their life (future bosses, coworkers, and friends).
The persistence and searchability of the web is a powerful argument for why schools (and parents) need to be discussing with students how they portray themselves online. This portrayal, or branding, begins with a safe, consistent, and simple username. Next, any image associated with them should positively portray their individuality. Keeping a consistent username and profile image makes it easier for people to identify with them by making it easier to find and remember their work.
Of course, the openness of the web creates concerns for schools to protect the identity of students. The tension between protecting student identity, while having students create authentic work that is public and theirs is becoming more real. Schools can partly get around this issue by creating generic usernames incorporating a student's first name and other identifiable information, like graduation year. This will at least allow students the opportunity to create school assignments that are published to the web. This published content can then become a student's public learning portfolio that can be used to show future schools and employers how they have used their writing and creative skills to lobby local officials to build a nature trail, or how they collaborated with students from around the world to assist in tsunami relief efforts in Asia, or simply to design an effective video demonstrating how the pervasiveness of modern-day slavery.
Just think how effective a consistent and positive self-brand can be if the nature trail, tsunami relief, and video were packaged in such a way that made the anonymous student a real person with a consistent, simple, and unique online image (or brand)?
This all leads to another interesting question that was asked by Jorgie in a comment on The Thinking Stick blog post, "(Students) want to be recognized and heard and be noticed, but what if they are recognized and noticed?"
Where do we draw the line between student self branding and online safety?
When and How do we teach self branding?
Photo credit: Keeshu, at Morguefile