Anthropology, Musings

Online Education

Starting this summer I have been developing some online classes for both International Studies and Anthropology at the University of Memphis. I’m excited by the prospect, and at the same time I am facing what I hope will become a productive tension between the technology of learning and the technology of the Internet. In this blog post I want to unravel that tension and jot down some fragments of ideas for the future.

For any students who might be reading this, when I use the term “technology” here I am talking about “the use of techniques, processes, and material objects to produce goods, provide services, and connect people.” Technology is specifically not restricted to electronic devices or software platforms. A classroom with desks, a chalkboard, and a living teacher in front of a group of students is also a technology. So is teaching someone to make biscuits by hand using a bowl, two knives, and an oven. Or learning to process pork by helping a neighbor kill, shave, and butcher hogs. All of those things involve techniques, processes, and material objects–so they all count as technologies.

Many of those material objects are tools (chalkboards, knives, etc.), and tools are never neutral. Our tools make demands of us, physically, psychologically, and socially, and we–in turn–conform to the logic of our tools. A hammer demands a strong grip and a decisive strike. A computer allows some postures while discouraging others, disengages us from a world of non-verbal communication, and encourages a shift toward a flatter, less heterogeneous, social network structure. Our tools also constitute a portion of our cultural capital, and have symbolic importance on top of their designed utility. I don’t want to go too far down this road here, but the point is important: how we deliver a class, including the tools used for delivery, will shape the physical arrangement of students and materials, the psychological processes used by students and instructors, the social ties within and outside the classroom, and the symbolized meanings that we attach to the class materials and the educational process itself.

The nature of online classes also calls into question what we mean by education, teaching, knowledge, information, and participation. Many students, successfully trained through years in the education system, come to college classes expecting to be taught. This implies that the instructor is parsing out information, usually in chunks that can be absorbed by the student within the span of a single class. At the introductory course level, some of this is undoubtedly true: students come to anthropology with little formal training in the discipline and often with misconceptions (for example, that archaeologists study dinosaur bones.) To progress through an introduction and into higher level classes, students need to learn some basic vocabulary, key theories, names of important figures, and historical threads that led us to anthropology as we practice it today. But, I would argue that this is not the main point of classes, even introductory classes, at the college level. Online course technology has progressed to the point that, if transferring information were the goal, I could create a bulleted list of facts for each course, link each to a YouTube video, build a test bank of 500 questions with a randomized, auto-graded output, and call it a day. In this scenario, the physical and social components of the classroom experience are submerged and discounted. Especially in the digital age–when information on everything is available at the touch of a fingertip–doling out information to students cannot be our main job.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, is integrated into the personal, cultural, and material and can be thought of in a number of ways. Kakihara and Sorensen (2002) [pdf] provide a succinct overview of knowledge conceived as object, interpretation, process, and relationship.  For my purposes here I argue that, rather than a object that can be accumulated, it may be more useful and accurate to visualize knowledge as an ongoing process of associating facts with meanings, values, and experience1. I also argue that, while American culture values individual rationality, the process of knowledge has a strong contextual and social2 component–knowledge as relationship.

In traditional classroom spaces the processual and social aspects of knowledge are deeply discounted, and the explicit focus of most classrooms is the accumulation of objective knowledge. The drive is for students to produce output on schedule, with the completed test or paper judged based on timely delivery and quality of product. Even when students are encouraged to work together, the explicit objective of collaboration is often the development of individually-measured competencies. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the relative ease of measuring individual output and the difficulty of describing metrics for processes and relationships. The result, however, that process and relationships continue to be undervalued3.

The best instructors, of course, know that information alone is not enough. They have, either through training, through trial-and-error, or through intuition developed technologies of learning for their own classrooms that facilitate creative processes and relationship-building among students. But, in discussion with other teachers at all levels those technologies are rarely described as points for assessment, either formative or summative. The social-processual aspects of learning are themselves relegated to the tacit dimension of knowledge (Polanyi 1966)–the dimension on which explicit, measurable knowledge is based. This would be well and good, but the tacit knowledge required for participation in an online class is very different from what is needed in a physical classroom. Incorporating that tacit knowledge changes the experience from teaching to education: literally the process of “leading out.”

…networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture (Castells 1996, p. 469).

So here I get to the crux of things: the technology of the Internet is very good at delivering information–on many subjects; in text, image, audio, or video format; as full-length books and articles or as brief summaries. Meanwhile, traditional classes seem on the surface to be about information–but are at least equally about the knowledge process and the relational aspects of knowing. This is true especially for the development of an online degree program, which even more than a single course implies membership in an ongoing community of practice (Brown and Duguid 1991, 2001). The question for me is, how do you design an online course that encourages students in an intentional and creative process of culture building? This is especially challenging since many students in an online class lack either the resources or the desire to participate in an in-person class. Yes–you can get the same information online, but information is not enough. There needs to be a community that grows organically and has more connections to the University than just my email address. I’m not sure what that community will look like; the tools have changed, and the tool-logic with them. But there is no reason to think that it must resemble what we have done before.

1 Knowledge as process doesn’t mean that I have a process for gaining knowledge, although that is also true. Rather, it means that knowledge itself is a process–knowing rather than knowledge. If I “know” something, know is a verb and implies action on my part. That action is a process of drawing together memories and context. If I know the same thing tomorrow, the process may be (will be?) changed even if the result is the same. For a more thorough discussion see Kakihara and Sorensen (2002) and Whitehead (1929).
2 I also agree with Latour’s (2007 et al.) assertion that ‘the social’ doesn’t need to be confined to human-human relationships, but that is a discussion for another post.
3 The focus on measurable outputs also contributes to an increasing view of the University as a marketplace. That is also a subject for another post.


Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), 40–57.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2001). Knowledge and Organization: A Social-Practice Perspective. Organization Science, 12(2), 198–213.

Castells, M. (1996): The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. ed. M. Castells. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Kakihara, M., & Sørensen, C. (2002). Exploring Knowledge Emergence: From Chaos to Organizational Knowledge. Journal of Global Information Technology Management, 5(3), 48–66.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929): Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan.


Free-range environmental scientist, educator, writer, farmer, Aikido student.

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