The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic. —stage directions, 1.3 The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Bitmoji classrooms exploded during emergency remote instruction in Spring 2020. Bitmoji classrooms are two-dimensional scenes depicting a teacher-created avatar in a drawn classroom environment; the scenes feature a variety of imaginary objects. Part fun, part fantastical escape and part nostalgia, the Bitmoji classroom is an emergent cultural artifact that reflects a pervasive misunderstanding about distance learning pedagogy: that online learning is meant to simply replicate face-to-face (f2f) learning, albeit with a few flourishes. Educators don’t have to forfeit fun for quality online learning, but they do need to understand how to employ digital tools like Bitmoji classrooms to achieve authentic learning outcomes with their students.
As virtual learning becomes a more significant part of mainstream K-12 schooling, districts must commit to a compelling vision for online instruction that maximizes the modality’s capabilities, without forcing online education to become a two-dimensional shell of the f2f classroom. The Digital Visitor and Digital Resident continuum model provides districts a useful framework for understanding online learning and its potential. Using this visitor/resident model as a heuristic, educators can look beyond the scrim of novelty and ensure their students are engaging in meaningful learning activities, not just hype.
When Bitmoji classrooms emerged on the scene in March, many teachers used them to approximate their real-life classrooms, but most teachers took the opportunity to create their dream teaching spaces. And it was no wonder. The dearth of education funding for things like education technology and 21st century seating arrangements is real, and the Bitmoji classroom offered a chance to pretend otherwise.
Teachers built classroom scenes that included everything from cozy couches, tech tools, reading nooks, inspirational posters, and coffee stations, to twinkle lights, disco balls, and chandeliers. They longed to include resources that, in real life, their districts could not afford: Smartboards, Elmo document projectors, flexible seating upgrades, Mac computer labs.
Educators tried to achieve the ideal, but also the hyper-real. For instance, teacher and blogger Amie Bentley of Glitter Meets Glue offered several graphics packages, one of which was the Virtual Classroom Organization Templates Expansion Pack, a graphics bundle of images of plastic bins, binder clips, folders, and clipboards. Teachers were mesmerized by these function-less, fetishistic spaces augmented with fantastical baubles. They flooded her comment boxes with wishlists for their virtual classrooms:
I would love a middle school one too! Just like others commented… smart board, flexible seating, cabinets, desk, posters, …once created can other images be added? I’m a language teacher…. so I would love to spice it up…
Any plans to make a media center version? I’m thinking a bookshelf with spots to put books on display (for read-aloud recordings), a Smart Board, a computer, cute decor, etc. I love your other designs!
It was like teachers were playing an educator version of The Sims. Building Bitmoji classrooms was cathartic, an escapist fantasy for instructors who felt overwhelmed and frustrated by the sudden school closures. Teachers were using them to fill a void, a longing for the physical classroom and the familiarity of in-person instruction. One way to satisfy this longing was to simulate a happy, well-organized, well-funded modern classroom. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard says this of simulation:
When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality—a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity. Escalation of the true, of lived experience, resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared.
Baudrillard’s insight presciently describes the way that educators have attempted to replace the reality of f2f teaching with its Bitmoji representation, and the result is a simulacrum (a copy without an original) of teaching. Their obsession with outfitting a faux learning environment was a distraction that soothed teachers and entertained students, but failed to translate into dynamic learning experiences. Put plainly, the Bitmoji classroom contains the symbols of learning, but lacks the substance.
In his essay, “Tofu is Not Cheese: Rethinking Education Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” education professor and author Yong Zhao elaborates on the false equivalency between in-person and online teaching: “If the purpose of moving online is simply to make online education fill in the void created by school closures, it is a tremendous waste of the potentials.” In other words, there is not a 1:1 correlation between f2f teaching and online teaching, and the longer we ignore that fact and try to make online a simple substitute for in-person instruction, the more our students miss out.
Instead of using these simulacra as the equivalent of in-person instruction, teachers can leverage them as playful complements to more authentic digital pedagogy. To create authentic digital learning experiences, educators should consider the visitor/resident continuum.
The visitor/resident continuum challenges Marc Prensky’s popular digital native/digital immigrant dichotomy. In the native/immigrant model, Pensky refers to “digital natives” as students who belong to a certain age group and who grew up speaking the “language of the internet.” A “digital immigrant” would be a student who was not born into the digital world and adopts technology skills as if learning a non-native language. David White and Alison Le Cornu’s new visitor/resident model is more useful because 1) it shifts the focus from an individual's age and background to the way they interface with online tools and applications, 2) it is a continuum, so individuals can move from visitor to resident type behaviors at any given time depending on purpose and context, and 3) one mode doesn’t have more inherent value over another.
The problem with using the Bitmoji classroom as a stand-in for the physical classroom is that it keeps students almost exclusively in the digital visitor mode. When a student is in digital visitor mode they go online to complete a specific task. In this mode, they rarely interact with others. Even though we might think of the Bitmoji classroom as an interactive space, most are menus of hyperlinks—a Google Slide that contains cute and clickable images that take students to individual tasks. For example, students might click on the title of a lesson posted on the image of the whiteboard and it takes them to complete a worksheet. They might click on an image of a book on a shelf and get an audio recording of the author reading it. They might click a computer screen and be transported to play an enrichment game on Funbrain. In these scenarios, students are clicking things to be checked off of a list. When they engage with a virtual space in this way, they aren’t using any of the other functions endemic to digital pedagogy, like global collaboration, group processing, and authentic research investigations—some of the potentials to which Zhao alluded.
What would it look like to create learning experiences for the digital resident? For one, resident experiences are less like playlists and more like projects. These projects may not have clickable referents on the Google Slide; instead they are complex and interdisciplinary investigations that require the student to engage with the internet as a researcher. When a student is in digital resident mode, they use the Web as a place to express opinions, a place to form and build relationships. They develop a digital persona that remains a part of the digital landscape after they sign off. According to White and Le Cornu, “Residents see the Web primarily as a network of individuals or clusters of individuals who in turn generate content.” In other words, the resident sees the virtual classroom as a way to generate and process content within a network of other individuals. This description echoes the skills that students practice and acquire through project-based learning, or what they might do when they engage in authentic online discussions through Twitter chats, the comments section of a news article, or interest-based discourse communities.
Zhao reminds us: “Online education cannot replace all functions schools play in our society, but it can do a lot more than being a lesser version of f2f schooling.” To fully realize the potential of online learning, and ensure it is not a lesser version of in-person schooling, teachers should create experiences where students play the roles of digital visitors and digital residents. White and Le Cornu’s model doesn’t privilege the resident over the visitor because both modes have their purpose. Instead, teachers can implement the model according to the learning outcomes and how they want students to engage with content, that is, when it makes sense to be a visitor vs. a resident.
When it comes to Bitmoji classrooms, teachers should be mindful of their power and their purpose—of how they fit into the larger scope and sequence of the visitor-resident continuum. Avatar-teachers and cartoonish landscapes bring humor and levity to virtual school. When used as an organizational platform to archive commonly used templates and tools, or to deliver an attention-grabbing class message, they can be the launch point into more meaningful learning and collaboration. In other words, they should be used as visitor portals and pit stops, not final destinations. The merits of the Bitmoji classroom do not lie in how well they approximate f2f classrooms, but in how they help students feel connected to their school community or access the potentials of the global classroom.