Digital Placemaking in a Disembodied Age | Dr Darren Iselin

19 August 2022

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.

Embodying Place in a placeless and disembodied age

Christian educators should therefore actively seek to cultivate digital place making principles and priorities, particularly as a sense of placelessness defines our cultural moment. John Inge identifies that there has been an increasing downgrading of the importance of place within society, and this “has worked out in practice with dehumanizing effect”, suggesting “that place has much more effect on humanity than has generally been recognised” (Inge, 2011, pp. 4-5).  Such a sense of placelessness or rootlessness has been described by Walter Brueggemann as the defining mark of our current age and our lack of a sense of place has spawned an atopia or placelessness in our current generation, whereby the existential issues arising from our displaced worlds are “not emancipation but rootage, not meaning but belonging, not separation from community but location within it, not isolation from others, but placement” (Bruggemann, 1977, p. 4).

This aching sense of placelessness has significant and far-reaching implications for Christian learning communities that must confront and contest for the hearts and minds of an increasingly rootless generation who have been formed by unfettered freedom and autonomy. It is within this challenging context that we seek to respond to digital learning and the promise it unquestionably holds whilst also recognising and confronting this placelessness that is endemic to our current age.

I may be showing my age but those who watched the UK TV-series, Doctor Who, in the 1970s, may remember the Brain of Morbius series of episodes. The evil Time Lord, Morbius, had been reduced to life as a brain in a plastic bowl. He could not move unaided, though he could speak and issued a range of directives to others. The analogy through this sci fi series is very apt in our increasingly placeless, isolated and disembodied age. Charles Taylor speaks of an "atopia that has fostered excarnation which he defines as the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms and lies more and more in the head” (Taylor, 2007, p. 771).  Like Lord Morbius as a mere brain in a plastic jar, our lives and our learning have become increasingly displaced and disembodied reducing the rich complexity of human life, identity, and experience to individualised worlds of isolation, fragmentation and compartmentalisation and where digital identity and learning has become a commodity – a product to build, market, trade and promote in a competitive and depersonalised marketplace.

It is therefore imperative that our posture and our practices towards digital learning promote incarnational rather than excarnational modes and why place making as an imperative is so urgent within our digital learning places. To conceptually frame our approach to shaping digital places through embodied place making practices, we need to be reminded that effective Christian pedagogy [in face to face and digital contexts] is fundamentally underpinned by our anthropology which is informed by our theology. What it means to teach well, to learn well, to educate well, fundamentally derives from questions regarding what it means to be human and what constitutes human flourishing from biblical perspectives. Arising from these foundations, the following overarching contours are proposed regarding how placemaking that is embodied might be applied and cultivated within digital learning ecosystems.

1. Alignment of our Genius Loci to Digital Learning Places

Firstly, the intentional alignment of rootedness to a place and a culture occurs when learning communities are deliberate about the creation and maintenance of their cultures within digital learning environments. Learning within education has historically always been implaced – formed and perpetuated around clearly defined places, tightly bound relationships and learning localities, each with their own distinctive cultural stories, histories, symbolic elements, norms and assumptions. As a keen observer of culture and how Christian schools and universities sustain their vision, such alignment is mission critical and not peripheral to the activities of any flourishing school community. Allen and Badley propose that the genius of the Christian school is therefore to “create a storied community… [that] must develop and prize their own spirit of place [genius loci]” (Allen & Badley, 2017, p. 299). Such an alignment of culture to digital places facilitates the capacity for the stories, rituals, traditions, habits, symbols and structures to reflect and showcase the importance of the specific cultural story of each educational community.

Furthermore, James KA Smith suggests that every culture “has rituals of orientation and repetition that reinforce the mission, goals, and ethos of the organisation. And the best—that is, most formative—rituals of orientation and development do so in ways that work on the imagination and don’t just inform the intellect” (Smith, 2016, p. 165).  A sound understanding of these placemaking cultural practices cultivates synergies between our digital places and our learning that ‘work on the imagination’ and invite active participation in a community’s story. These practices can be applied to digital contexts in a variety of ways and can include symbolic elements and cultural artifacts to express distinctive cultural meaning and significance. Within digital eco-systems and places such intentionality can also seek to ensure that the platforms, hubs and digital landscapes are engaging, stimulating, aligned with core cultural elements and are creatively and ascetically pleasing. The use of these symbolic elements within a digital genius loci must be carefully considered and must transcend the mere branding of a system, portal or hub with a logo, scripture verse or a mission statement. 

Consideration should also be given to the policies and procedures regarding digital learning places, platforms and devices and how these reinforce the spirit of place and also how these are enacted and sustained through preferred rituals and traditions; habits and practices, modes of working and forms of communication. Being intentional about these place making imperatives will assist in establishing a firm foundation for digital learning environments and also orientate our digital places as an integral and explicit part of college wide cultural distinctives which enhance a sense of rootedness and connection with the cultural story of our communities.  In this way the opportunity to be drawn into the story of a place, the beauty of a place, the telos of a place, the calling to this place becomes animated, celebrated and aligned in both natural and digital contexts.

It is also important to understand that due to the displaced and disembodied default posture of contemporary society,  such endeavours will be constantly challenged, usurped and undermined by a libera animam (free spirit) – a license to break free from any established roots to location, community and neighbourhood, even in digital contexts. Lane states that because of this free spirit we have become in our digital worlds “a people without “habit”, with no common custom [and place] to lend us a shared meaning” (Lane, 1998, p. 10).  In some instances, this has led to an ad hoc adoption and roll out of a plethora of disconnected and displaced digital practices that disassociate mission alignment from enacted educational pedagogy and practice. Whilst digital technologies have afforded exciting new ways of engaging in education, some of these approaches have not thoughtfully considered how placemaking priorities can find expression in these new digital learning ecosystems. Being highly intentional about our placemaking priorities and our genius loci provides much to consider when navigating digital learning in a commodified and commercialised age – including whether propriety driven platforms limit our genius loci by the parameters and closed/ restricted nature of their products. It is why intentional culture making and sustaining of our core vision and values, across whatever medium or method we seek to adopt and utilize in our placeless, mobile digital age is of such critical importance.

2. Embedding core cultural liturgies for digital learning 

Closely related to the importance of aligning our genius loci to our digital learning experiences is the importance of being intentional about the specific types of digital learning habits that we seek to reinforce. Within Christian education, the task of formation of persons and not merely minds is an essential part of our mission. This includes forming a certain type of digital citizen. Such formation requires careful consideration as to what practices, rituals, habits and ways of working will shape such a citizen. David Smith, articulates the comprehensive way technology forms us when he states:

"We adopt smartphones and find that we have reconfigured not only the ease of talking to others at a distance, but our levels of distraction, our parenting, our sleep habits, our awareness of the people around us, our posture, and our stress levels. We shape technology and we are in turn shaped by it in often unexpected ways. Technology is not just a tool in our hands. It also becomes a medium or environment—part of our life world that shapes us into new habits, needs, desires, and vices." (Smith, 2020)  

Identifying and reinforcing preferred habits, rituals and practices within digital learning lies at the heart of intentional placemaking within our Christian communities. As these practices, habits, rituals and ways of doing and working are purposively embedded in our digital places, a distinctive and tightly integrated habitus can form, enabling all those placed within the learning community to embody and enact according to an agreed way of learning and being. Such habits are refined, reinforced and repeated with every digital task and activity, providing boundaries and clear parameters regarding all engagement within digital places to form a certain type of digital citizen that suitably reflects core purpose and vision. Bartholomew attests to this importance and reflects,

"the best writers on place speak of the need for attentiveness, familiarity, silence, slowness, stability, repetition, particularity, hope, respect, love… all characteristics and the fruit of Christian spirituality, but rare in our speed-driven, consumerist Western culture." (Bartholomew, 2011, p. 320)  

Embodied and implaced communities who are habited in this way also rightly order time in their natural and digital worlds – as place gives rhythm, routine, stability, and seasons: work and sabbath-rest, time to engage and retreat. Our embodied and implaced habits discipline our days and provide boundaries and borders in our otherwise on-call, 24/7 autonomous digital spaces. These liturgies and practices when used deliberately, assist in the formation of a particular type of person within our digital locales Christian educational communities that are intentional about their people and their places, their placemaking stories, rituals, habits and traditions enhance the potential to form a certain type of digital citizen who can flourish in both natural and digital learning contexts.

3. Digital embodiment through meaningful connection and relationship

Furthermore, our place making posture within digital learning environments should seek to enact meaningful connection and relationships. Learning that is enfleshed (John 1:14) lies at the heart of all authentic teaching practice and is no less prevalent in digital learning contexts. Gill asserts that

"truly embodied education means it must be lived…Teachers must be paradigms of that which we “profess” both academically and religiously…The sine qua non of an educator is the ability to communicate through embodiment." (Gill, 1979, p. 1012) 



The importance of embodying the paradigms which we profess in digital places rests upon meaningful connection with students that cannot be manufactured or artificially constructed. This necessitates that we enact postures that promote embodied placemaking in digital places that are welcoming, hospitable, caring and highly relational to counter the very disembodied oxygen we breath as our default posture when educating in this virtual age. It is important to recognise that being face to face and having a bodily presence does not assume embodied practice any more or less than engagement in virtual settings – what matters most is not body to body, but person to person – an authentic connection– and the cultivation of multistranded links between the teacher, the student and the subject matter being taught. This capacity for connectedness finds expression in both teacher to student, and student to student modes of digital communication, engagement and collaboration.

Berger confirms this by stating “The most important assessments that take place in any school…are seen by no one. They take place inside the heads of students, all day long ... these internal assessments govern how much they care, how hard they work, and how much they learn" (Berger, Rugen, Woodfin & Johnston, 2014, p. 6).  The (MOOC) Massive Open Online Course phenomenon revealed that whilst courses can indeed be free, autonomous and accessible in a digital environment – the lived experiences of an overwhelming majority of dissatisfied students was that engagement and meaningful learning could not be sustained without an authentic community, a welcoming and engaging presence, a sense of belonging and an ongoing connection in some way with the teacher/tutor to orientate the learning process (Warner, 2017).  The most successful courses and learning that utilise on-campus, online and MOOC inspired platforms recognise that without developing meaningful connection, authentic engagement, multiplexity and an authentic teacher presence and proximity in the digital space, the course delivery is for most devoid of identity, meaning and purpose.

Christian educators must ensure that their pedagogy in digital contexts is grounded in a biblical anthropological vision of what it means to be human and reiterate that connection and relationship matters within the learning process, irrespective of the mode, medium or method that is being undertaken. We also must seek to counter the various forms of disembodiment and devolved autonomy that can occur within our digital learning places and rightly reorder our priorities to reflect a welcoming, generous, and genuinely caring engagement that celebrates authentic and meaningful connections between students, teachers and the subject matter.

4. A posture that is holistic rather than compartmentalised

The importance of holistic rather than compartmentalised and siloed approaches in digital learning ecosystems necessitates that learning is viewed as something far more significant and complex than the mere transfer of information. For many students, digital learning is often impeded when teachers use portals, devices, activities, sites and learning hubs as mere content repositories of information, data and reading. Such approaches compartmentalise, fragment and isolate learning and impede complex and integrated engagement, inquiry and exploration. Like The Brain of Morbius, such approaches dehumanise the learning process and reduce pedagogy and outcomes to nothing more than an information transfer to passive, isolated and compartmentalised “brains in plastic jars”. No matter what year level, it is imperative that our place making in digital learning is one that seeks to be holistic, multi-modal and inductive and seeks creative ways of incorporating body, emotions, soulful practices and spiritual disciplines into the digital learning experience. We must therefore be discerning regarding our own practices may perpetuate excarnated digital learning approaches where compartmentalisation, competition, isolation and individualism are seeking to narrow the learning focus to mere outputs and commodified outcomes.

It is hoped that these place making themes may provide a starting point for deeper and more applied conversations regarding the intentional curation of digital learning places by Christian educators. We must embrace both the challenges and promise of digital learning and be vigilant to resist the commodified and displaced demands that can reinforce a sense of disconnection, isolation and fragmentation regarding digital learning places in our current moment. As part of God’s restorative and redemptive plan, in both the sacred and desecrated places, both in the natural and digital environments, all of those involved within Christian education are afforded a unique and strategic opportunity to curate digital placemaking.

Christian digital learning communities need to be reminded that our schools are landscapes charged with God’s grandeur, sanctified and set apart for Emmanuel, our God with us, in our place, our locality and our community. Christ’s incarnational posture means that He has “moved into the neighbourhood”,  even into our digital neighbourhood, and set up His dwelling, within our sovereignly placed digital communities. May that assurance compel us to also cultivate intentional place-making within our Christian digital learning communities. For Jesus himself has promised “there are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I would have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). In the meantime, will you go and do likewise within your digital learning community?



Allen P. & Badley K. (2017). Echoes of insight: Past perspectives and the future of Christian higher education. Abilene Christian University Press: Texas. p.299.

Bartholomew. C.G. (2011). Where all mortals dwell: A Christian view of place for today. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. p.320.

Berger, R., Rugen, L., Woodfin, L., & Johnston, M. (2014). Leaders of their own learning: Transforming schools through student-engaged assessment. San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass. p.6.

Berry, W. (1998) How to be a poet (to remind myself) in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry Counterpoint Press.

Brueggemann, W. (1977). The land: Place as gift, promise, and challenge in biblical faith. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p.4.

Craft, J.A. (2018). Placemaking and the arts: Cultivating the Christian life. Downers Grove: Illinois: Inter Varsity Press. P. 8.

Gill, J. H. (1979). Faith in learning: Integrative education and incarnational theology. Christian Century, 96, 1009–1013. p. 1012.

Hopkins, G.M. (2011) Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected poems. New York: Dover Publications. p.20.

Inge, J. (2001). A Christian theology of place. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Durham University. Accessed 15 July 2022. pp.4-5

Iselin, D. (2021). Home-coming: Restoring a theology of place within Christian education. In: Luetz, J.M., Green, B. (eds) Innovating Christian Education Research. Springer, Singapore.

Lane, B.C. (1998). The solace of fierce landscapes: Exploring desert and mountain spirituality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.10.

Melvin, J.R. (2017). Digital tools, spaces and places as mediators of youth work practice. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Brighton. p.151.

Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive surplus: How technology makes consumers into collaborators. London: Penguin Books. P.37.

Smith, D. (April 14, 2020). Digital learning: How is it shaping our families? Biologos

Smith, J.K.A. (2016). You are what you love. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. p.165.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p.771.

Warner, J. (2017). MOOCS are “dead”. What’s next? Uh oh. Inside Higher Education. Accessed 15 July 2022.


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