Digital technologies are increasingly becoming an indispensable part of the educational experience. Through the COVID pandemic, digital learning has become the norm with many adopting such digital learning by necessity without considering the implications of cultivating digital learning environments that are grounded in biblical place making principles. Like all new technology across centuries, it is important to realise that just as we shape technology, so technology shapes us, in deep and significant ways. This is not to say that digital learning does not hold tremendous and transformative promise. But as Christian educators it is important to pause in this time of rapid change and disruption, and to thoughtfully reflect and discern both the pitfalls and promise of digital learning habits and practices through the lens of the biblical story.
I would like to provoke you to consider digital learning and the diverse ecosystems within they are located in light of a theology of place. Craft defines place as “part of who we are; it is both a physical and social reality. While our bodies must physically dwell in places, our minds also structure knowledge and ideologies in relation to places” (Craft, 2018 p. 8). Since creation, mankind has been placed somewhere, and the biblical story continually reinforces the importance of places to geography, relationships and human flourishing and experience (Iselin, 2021,). According to scripture, to be human is to dwell within a particular place –and these places shape us in deep, significant and at times unexpected ways (Iselin, 2021). Because we are embodied and implaced image bearers (Genesis 3), we find soulful purpose and meaning in both our physical settings and in our digital places.
Clay Shirky contends that “the old view of online as a separate space, a cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history…Now that computers and… phones have been broadly adopted, the idea of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are a part of it” (Shirky, 2011, p. 37). Digital places are therefore vitally important places to curate, to cultivate, and to engage as faithful stewards. Digital learning environments are the overarching term for school ecosystems and platforms where learning occurs digitally either completely online, in hybrid modes, or in traditional classroom contexts when digital devices and platforms are utilised. These virtual eco-systems have distinct features and typically when metaphors are used to describe these digital environments, they mirror physical places. They are identified as “landscapes, terrain, playgrounds, localities, communities, utopia, fertile ground, footprints, social microcosms, neutral space, meeting places, worlds, affinity spaces, learning spaces, geography, milieux and pathways” (Melvin, 2017, p. 151). These places therefore demand our thoughtful attention and the meaningful curation of these environments is an important cultural imperative for all educational leaders.
It is also important to recognise that no place, real, digital or otherwise, is beyond the reach and impact of God’s restorative and redemptive plan. Wendell Berry beautifully articulates this truth when he writes: “There are no un-sacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places” (Berry, 1998) . Every place, every square inch of that place, where we live, move and have our being is sacred and can be used for His good and redemptive purposes. This certainly includes our digital places and whilst elements of these places have at times been unquestionably desecrated: distorted and deprived of their sacred character; our digital worlds are also landscapes that can be charged with the grandeur of God (Hopkins, 2011, p. 20).
Learning, living and loving all share an intimate and lasting connection with these contours of place. Therefore, because we are placed, and not merely situated, and place is so intricately tied to our image bearing natures, digital learning places should not be perceived as benign, individualized, transactional, autonomous or isolated, but rather as interconnected and interdependent landscapes made for humans to inhabit and with the potential to be used for God’s good purpose.