Narcissism, Selfies, and Student Engagement

If we engage with our more sceptical colleagues about technology, and its place (or not) in education, it won’t be long before a familiar trope elbows its way into the conversation. Narcissism. I use twitter. “Dave, no one cares about your updates on your stupid running obsession”. I have an Instagram presence. “Dave, why would you do that? To share pictures of your breakfast? Who wants to see that?” You get the idea.

More widely, we find numerous “think pieces” asserting that popular culture is surfing a wave of self-regard. There are some that counter this trend, but they’re a minority. If we rank the opprobrium heaped on various forms of social media expression, Dave’s Hierarchy of Sneers if you like, you will find peak-contempt reserved for ‘selfies’. Here, us self-regarding narcissists shout ‘look at me! I’m (as I currently am) on a bloody train!’. ‘Look at us! Enjoying these doughnuts/this gig/walking/breathing some air”. The cynic would remind us to get over ourselves, that no one cares and to grow up (though why someone so cynical and hostile is browsing my Instagram is probably worth asking at some stage). I am old and gnarly enough to ignore a lot of this, and embrace my (awesome for someone who was a child in the techno-desert of the 19070s) ability to do cool stuff with technology. But my interest in Social Media for education was more focussed in other areas, and I eschewed the pedagogic potential of the selfie.

Then I found myself, not entirely by accident, at AACE’s e-learn16 conference. Towards the end of the event, I was lurking in the exhibition hall, stealing pens (I haven’t bought a pen, in a rather Alan Partridge-esque big-plate tendency that I am not proud of, since about 1993), and breathing Fisherman Friend’s breath (I had a bad cold) over VLE salespersons. Towards the end of the semicircle of tables and posters, a less corporate set of images caught my eye. This table had some posters, that looked like school kids, not poster designers, had been involved. There were hand cut bits of paper, letters and a rather intriguing big book. I began to quiz the presenter, who was by her table. This turned out to  be Lori Grata, from Portage Area School District (USA), who is an ‘emotional support teacher’, working towards her Master in Special Education. I asked about what had led to the pictures I was looking at. Rather than explain it in my own, second-hand, words – I’ll use the conference abstract that Lori provided for the event:

Students were to complete a scavenger hunt through photos. I gave a point value to the different picture options. For example, some teachers want the journalism students to complete a task in their classroom for their photo, or some require a photo with an entire sports team. Students are paired in partners, and they are assigned a class day to go out into the school to complete the project. Each student group member must also appear in the photo since it is the selfie project. The students are required to edit their photos and put them together on a poster board to present to the class. A student can easily use their cell phone to take photo with local chain mascots, retail store managers, local representative, at their local post office, etc. Students can build a digital portfolio for free online. They can build a photojournalism website with brief descriptions of their photos

file-01-03-2017-14-50-11You can see more about Lori Grata’s work over in a short interview about her project, that we did by email – once I remembered – in another (forthcoming!) blog post.


What interested me was the way that the leaners involved were all having, obviously, a bit of an adventure, and relishing going to places that normally would be unvisited, and completing tasks that would normally be done, if at all, in a half-hearted way. Given that I mostly attend conferences to steal ideas (and for the snacks), this got me thinking. What really benefits our students, but we struggle to drive initial engagement with? I pondered this as I returned home, then promptly forgot it. Until today, when I was working with a Learning Technologist colleague, on refreshing the content of our (fantastic) e-tutoring course (our PGCAP students take it, but it also operates as a free-standing course). The section we were editing looked at Instagram, and I was putting in a hyperlink to something by Eric Stoller on Snapchat, straining my tiny brain to think of something more to say about selfies. Selfies? That reminds me of something.. And here I am later that day, blogging about it on an overcrowded train.

So what have I got in mind for a little Selfie Project here in a University setting? I have in mind something to do with induction. But, like Lori, think they need to do more than take a selfie in a bunch of locations. I’m going to shamelessly plagiarise aspects of her project, and require them to show me that they’ve done the things. So, to get a selfie with our (fantastic) subject librarian for humanities-type subjects, I imagine she’ll require them to show they have copies of subject guides we offer in their hands. I imagine their personal tutor will only allow a picture after the discussion about their engagement with university processes like electronic management of assessment. I will want to see them with actual open journals with content that matches their modules, to get the points for the journal selfie. I will probably put them in small groups, assign points for various selfie-options, and then give them two weeks. I will incentivise them with prizes (as my students have learned over the years, my prizes are rubbish, but I enjoy giving them, and I might make an exception here) – and they might even have to assemble the selfies in a portfolio (is it too mean to say Mahara here?). I will need to persuade some colleagues, and overcome the selfie-as-narcissism cynicism (not serious academic enterprise, etc): but I’ve got form in smiling, buying people coffee and persuading them to engage in schemes. So come the next wave of student induction: I’ll be back to report on academic peak-selfie. I might even appear in a few of them…


3 thoughts on “Narcissism, Selfies, and Student Engagement

  1. Yes, I agree, this is a truly worthwhile aspect of selfies: evidence of engagement in a learning process out in the “real world.” I keep encouraging faculty to set up assignments like this in college/university courses, but I only get a few takers. We did have an assignment in a required “Critical Thinking” class that consisted of student selfies of real-world reminders they’d made for themselves of the steps being taught in a review process– they had pictures of themselves with t-shirts, mugs, etc. It was a popular assignment.


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