Online learning practices and digital footprints

With web 2.0 technologies, we blur the line between work and learning. These two articles look at 11 self-employed workers and how their informal online learning. The older one identifies a few tensions and challenges encountered by these workers as they learned from online communities. The newer one applies actor-network theory (ANT) to their use of the Delete key in online spaces.

Thompson, T. (2012) ‘I’m deleting as fast as I can: negotiating learning practices in cyberspace’, Pedagogy, Culture and Society, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 93-112 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2012.649417

Thompson, T. (2011) ‘Work-learning in informal online communities: evolving spaces’, Information Technology and People, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 184-196 [Online]. DOI: 10.1108/09593841111137359


2012 article:

  1. Materiality and assemblages online
  2. About actor-network theory (ANT)
  3. Methodological notes
  4. The delete button
    1. Deleting what’s pushing itself on the screen
    2. Deleting what’s left behind on the screen
    3. Constant and fluid
  5. The politics of the delete button
    1. Liveable assemblages
    2. Assembling networks

2011 article:

  1. Introduction
  2. Methodology
  3. Findings
    1. Fit with understandings and expectations
    2. Leverage fluidity
    3. Boundary play
    4. Mesh with work
  4. Discussion
    1. Exposure
    2. Force-feeding
    3. Multi-purposing
    4. Network moves
  5. Conclusion



How much personal information should a person share online? The participants had concerns about the blending of their personal, social, public, and work lives with people who are to a large extent, strangers to them.

How much should a person participate? Some people spent years in online communities, sharing and caring about the people with whom they built connections. Others primarily lurked for a variety of reasons: ‘In this study, lurking was a translation of many forms of peripheral participation: uncertainty about the benefits of more full-on engagement, being parsimonious with time, acknowledging one’s position as novice, gathering market intelligence, and engaging just enough to get some benefit’ (Thompson, 2011, p. 192).

How much should you expose yourself as a learner? There was a tension when learning while also performing the same function in their jobs. ‘Several participants experienced the tension of “becoming” a practitioner while also under the expectation of already “being” a practitioner; constantly constructing the public face of competence while also trying to learn’ (Thompson, 2011, p. 192).

Actor-network theory (ANT)

ANT isn’t a learning theory; it’s a sociological one. ANT considers all objects within a network — people and even inanimate objects — and contends that each object in the network has an equal amount of agency and is equally important. And so (for example), a person, their organization, and their computer are all equally important objects within a network, and together they provide a social order that breaks apart if any one object is removed. The objects aren’t just together in a network, but also ‘both human and non-human actors create new sources of power and legitimacy as they renegotiate who is acting in the world, who matters, and who wants what’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 96).

Because inanimate objects are also part of the social order, this study included the 11 self-employed people, the Delete key, and postings, avatars, hyperlinks, etc. The people participate in small to large online communities for learning and keeping current with their practice, and use technology such as forums, email, and blogs to access the communities.


Sometimes, people delete messages from other members of the communities because the other person irritates them, or because the subject is not interesting, or because they don’t have the time needed to read the messages.

People also delete their own messages or comments posted to the communities. ‘Occasionally, these worker-learners “deleted” themselves, opting out of online spaces or trying to remove traces of themselves online’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 102). They are trying to manage their digital footprint.

Digital footprint

Over-exposure in the aggregate: The online (or digital) footprint is an actor-network that consists of the combination of your real self, the information you post online about yourself, content you create and share online, and what other people say about you online. One of the participants in this study used the same name and email address for work-related and personal forums, which together formed an online persona without her really being aware of it (she only realized when she Googled her name). When this happens, sometimes people delete the things they’ve shared online because they feel that as an aggregate they’ve shared too much. Other people start off wary of over-sharing, and edit their personal selves out of their messages before even posting them.

Effect of deleting on community: ‘[W]hat happens when a person deletes their contributions to an online forum? The pedagogic value of that conversation is likely reduced when these postings disappear…. [Deleting erases] parts of the conversation, resulting in fragmentation of ideas and knowledge’ (Thompson, 2012, pp. 106-107). Here Thompson is discussing deleting messages in a threaded conversation, but I think the same may be true of that self-censorship or deleting of self before a person posts their thoughts, too. That, too, affects the overall learning value of the forum.

Being exposed as learners: Another point Thompson makes is that online content can show a person’s progress in learning, which is problematic for some people who are deepening their understanding of their craft. If they are positioning their work as expert, then they may want to obscure any lack of knowledge they may have had along the way while learning informally from these online communities. This is another reason some people choose to censor themselves online or obscure their professional identity from the online community.

What can be done?

People have proposed various solutions to the digital footprint problem. For example, there have been discussions about having non-persistent information online. The issues are only increasing: ‘issues around privacy, online identity, data security and ownership, insidious surveillance and sophisticated analytics, intellectual property protection, and rampant and often subversive commercialisation activities online’ (Thompson, 2012, pp. 109-110).

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