Is there a place for Bitmoji in Higher Education? How might it serve as a means for humanizing the students and educators behind computer screens, creating a pathway for meaningful learning and collaboration?
It was the peak of the pandemic and educators across the country were in a perpetual state of figuring it out. In many ways, I was in the same boat. I had accepted my position as executive director for teaching innovation at Ball State University. I was preparing to move from Illinois to Indiana. I was forecasting my first steps in a new job, with a new team, just as COVID was picking up. I needed a creative and mental release. Surprisingly, it came in the form a cartoon version of myself called a Bitmoji.
Is There Room for Whimsy in Higher Ed?
As a previous K-12 art educator, I often approach my role with a creative, humanized approach. It’s important to me that team members and other audiences understand who I am and what I’m about at the very start so I can set the scene for meaningful reflection and partnership moving forward. When I first learned about the Bitmoji craze it was through an Online Art Educators K-12 group.
Shortly after K-12 educators across the country made the shift to online instruction due to COVID, we started to see conversation percolate in the Online Art Educators K-12 group on ways to liven up and humanize online spaces and approaches to learning.
A Bitmoji is an “accessory app for social media platforms that people use to create little cartoon versions of themselves, which they then use on their various social media accounts. It’s a very simple service: You create an avatar of yourself and create various comics, GIFs, expressions, and reactions that use this avatar” (Lacoma & Beaton 2021 para. 3).
As a previous K-12 art teacher, the draw of leveraging a whimsical, fun cartoon version of myself to engage learners and humanize online curriculum was alluring. Particularly during a time when students and teachers were forced to be physically apart yet keep the learning train on track.
But is there room for this sort of tactic at the higher education level? I tested the waters a bit when I started my job with the Division of Online and Strategic Learning by sharing a virtual introduction of myself in Bitmoji form. The product was a Google Slide deck with my Bitmoji sharing previous work and field experiences, as well as my goals for team moving forward. I found it easy enough to download and incorporate my Bitmoji self into different platforms and use it for various messaging.
The team responded positively to the presentation. It demonstrated my enthusiasm and passion for my new role, illustrated my communication style, and provided a peek into my work outside of the Teaching Innovation Team.
After reflection though, I realized something bigger was at play. Admittedly, I was using my Bitmoji character (or the creation of it) as a bit of an escape. This was my way of recreating some of what was lost during the pandemic. When I didn’t move into my on-campus office, I created a digital office for my Bitmoji character. When I wasn’t able to meet team members in-person, I recorded audio tracks for my Bitmoji to introduce myself. Like K-12 educators around the country, I was building an idealistic and dream version of my new little world at Ball State University.
Sarah Pazur (2020) likens the Bitmoji phenomena to a version of The Sims, with educators escaping into a digital rendering of the classrooms they were missing. Pazur’s critique of the Bitmoji movement in education resonates with me as evidenced by my own escapism above. During my first read of Pazur’s work I found her words harsh and perhaps a bit too critical of K-12 educators. After sitting with her words a bit more though, I realized she was on-point.
Pazur writes, “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” (para 7). While this statement may be true for those who haven’t quite figured out how to push past the allure of a new instructional approach, there is learning potential here, and particularly when educators ask students to utilize the Bitmoji as a vessel for their own reflective practice and reporting.
Instead of escaping into and living in Bitmoji world, Pazur (2020) suggests leveraging the tool as a “playful” complement “to more authentic digital pedagogy. To create authentic digital learning experiences, educators should consider the visitor/resident continuum” (para 9). Now, this is something I can get on board with.
Dip Your Toe in the Bitmoji Waters
I have a few suggestions if you are someone like me, who is interested in using Bitmoji as an extension for exploration for students, but not as a replacement for serious learning. The following ideas are engagement strategies you might try out to humanize with your students:
- Emotional Check-Ins: Bitmojis can express different emotions and can be useful for instructors who conduct either regular or periodic emotional check-ins in the classroom. Students can share a representative Bitmoji with their instructor directly, with a peer, or with the class at-large.
- A Familiar Face: Fostering a sense of community is important in any modality of instruction. The playful Bitmoji style can encourage a sense of shared space. Some instructors include a Bitmoji image in their regular announcements in Canvas. Some include a Bitmoji version of themself in their course syllabus. Some project their Bitmoji at the start of a lesson.
- Tell Your Story: In instances when you are teaching online synchronously, and meeting with learners over Zoom, consider creating a Bitmoji background to highlight a few elements of your personal or professional life to students. Encourage learners to do the same. For students who may not be comfortable sharing their background in live video calls, this might be particularly enticing.
For additional conversation and step-by-step directions for getting started with Bitmoji check out this article from Edutopia (Minero, 2020).
So, is there a place for Bitmoji in Higher Education?
I think so.
I feel it can serve as an interesting attention-getter for learners. It can provide a bit of a release for learners and educators. It can serve as a launchpad into meaningful learning and collaboration. Pazur (2020) puts it nicely. She reminds us that, “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” (para. 14).
Continue the conversation with us in the comments by sharing one of the Bitmojis you use, how you’ve used Bitmojis with your learners, or any other technologies you’ve used to humanize.
Lacoma, Tyler & Beaton, Paula. “What is Bitmoji? Everything You Need to Know.” Digital Trends, September 22, 2021. https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/what-is-bitmoji/.
Minero, Emelina. “Educators Turn to Bitmoji to Build Community and Engagement.” Edutopia, August 14, 2020. https://www.edutopia.org/article/educators-turn-bitmoji-build-community-and-engagement#:~:text=The%20most%20popular%20use%20of,materials%20and%20resources%20for%20students.
Pazur, Sarah. “The Menagerie, Myths and Merits of the Bitmoji Classroom.” Hybrid Pedagogy, September 20, 2020. https://hybridpedagogy.org/bitmoji-classroom/.
Dr. Sarah Ackermann’s background is in educational technology, instructional design, teacher leadership, and art education. She has experience teaching and leading in online, face-to-face, and hybrid formats. Her most recent research is in the area of teacher response and professional development during the COVID pandemic. Additionally, she has written and illustrated a children’s book which encourages young learners to identify their personal strengths.