Student Feedback on Digital Anthropology Class in Three Modalities: Zoom, Minecraft and (Pandemic) In-person

Since the beginning of the semester, the Digital Anthropology class has examined the material natures of the digital, the deep time of digital devices, and the way that human and non-humans interact in larger assemblages. We have looked at the different propositions for what digital anthropology might be and how we might consider the virtual and actual as both real.

At the same time, since the beginning of the semester our class has been meeting virtually on Zoom and in Minecraft. These two different platforms have allowed us to consider the various aspects of presence and examine what it mean to be digitally human.

After using these platforms for some weeks, about two weeks ago the class met in person together in a classroom on campus—observing the COVID protocols that our university as established for classes to meet in person. That Thursday morning we sat at least 6′ apart with masks and had class.

The three different modalities—two online and one in person—set up a really interesting moment for comparing the different contexts and putting to the test some of the observations that various anthropologists have shared about digital culture. After our in person meeting students prepared a short essay discussing the three modalities and questions such as: How are the experiences of self and community different? Where are “we” when we are on Zoom? Where are “we” in Minecraft?  Where are “we” in person? What connects our class and holds our community together?  Are we one class meeting differently, or do the modes of digital interaction make us a different class? We were particularly interested in how we might discuss these multiple embodiments in terms of indexicality (Boellstorff 2012, 50-53). Built into the essay assignment was an opportunity for students to apply some of our recent readings to reflect on the ways following Horst and Miller (2012), that the digital: 1) “intensifies the dialectical nature of culture”; 2) is not one iota more mediated; 3) is most usefully studied holistically; 4) can be usefully studied in terms of cultural relativism;  5.) can be considered in terms of openness and closure; 6.) are just as materially cultural as other aspects of human culture.

The essays that the students prepared offer interesting reflections on the different modalities. I have collected a selection of the comments made by students at the end of this post. We talked about them today in class and students were willing to have them shared here. I have bolded some of the key words in the comments they made.

Some interesting themes emerge from the collected essays the students wrote. First, it is clear that as we approach a full year of pandemic life that there is a lot of fatigue and frustration with learning both remotely and in person. No one modailty was universally desired. Both virtual and in person are distant, but for different reasons. Different platforms offer different aspects of class and are appreciated or not by different people for various reasons: Zoom offers faces but not bodies and gestures. Minecraft offers space and color and novelty. In person offers expectations and community accountability. Sound is a problem online, and curiously enough also in person after a long period working remotely. Disconnection and distance are alienating in person and provide refuge and security from digital observation.

I noted that control is an interesting theme that cuts across a number of comments. Some students like the control of being in their own homes where they can manage their space, adjust the temperature and entertain themselves at will by using their phones, engaging in social media or even shopping online during class. Other students worry that they lack control and prefer in person class so that the discipline of expectations of the classroom will keep them from their phones and help them to focus on class.

Interestingly, as students wrote about the different modalities of class, none of them directly assessed or commented on their relative value as spaces of learning. Folks wrote about engagement or boredom or novelty or disinterest. I don’t know if it was the way the assignment was worded that led to this result. I have a personal hunch that virtual spaces are already so overdetermined as spaces of play and entertainment, and the visual culture of the screen already so habituated as a place of passive consumption, that culturally reformatting it as a site-of-education must always be an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, the comments the students shared are very interesting and suggest that our class has always been entirely virtual and different modalities offer with subtly different sensory data about what that class is. Different students experience and interface with the different flows of information in different ways. Here are the raw comments. In some cases I have made very small corrections to writing errors:

Meeting In Person

“So, that’s what they look like in person…[after being entirely online for the first three weeks of the semester]”

“One of the biggest differences between being online, whether it be Zoom or Mineclass, and being in-person is that you can’t check-out as easily when in-person because there are people to pull you back in.”

“[I feel] more accountability, physically…”

“[I] wanted to find anonymity even in physical space…”

“Silence in person, was it a Zoom habit that transferred?”

“Easier to read the room…[when meeting in person]”

“I have noticed that people, including myself, tend to participate more via Zoom than they did in-person. I think the reason for this is due to the fact that there is a chat option. If you feel uncomfortable speaking in class you can message the class or privately to still be able to participate and that isn’t an option in-person.”

Less personal, not in a space I can control. Not near my pets…temperature…”

“When we are in person for class, it feels like a more ‘educational’ experience.”

More anxiety at talking…”

“When we met in a physical classroom we were all in the classroom, while mentally some of us could have been thinking about a number of different things so I’m not sure if it’s right to say we were all there mentally and physically.”

“I did not mind meeting in person. It was refreshing, more focused, and I felt more accountable to learn.”

“After the first weeks of getting to know my classmates in this virtual space, it felt slightly uncomfortable to see everyone in person.”

“I was sitting and staring at the back of these actual peoples heads, spaced out 6 feet apart, and it felt totally different. Once we started talking and acknowledging how others felt about meeting in person, it made me feel almost a sigh of relief.”

“Learning in an in-person setting allows me to focus much more intently on what we are discussing. My phone stays turned off in my pocket, I take in more information from the lecture, and I feel a sense of community that I don’t get on Zoom or in Minecraft. I need to differentiate between my room and my classroom, because if they blend into one place, I find that I can’t relax or focus. When my workspace and living space are the same thing, I can’t separate myself from the feeling of wanting to relax and the feeling of constantly stressing out over schoolwork.”

“I have to say that meeting in person for class…it was mostly awkward...”

“The class felt impersonal because of the same space between each person, the unmasked faces and, staring at the backs of everyone’s heads. These three aspects lead me to feel impersonal while in person class, which was weird since I spent 14 years being in person.”

More engaged with class content, but more socially engaged on Minecraft…”

“…I say ‘meant to be sitting next to them’ because at that distance [6′] is it really ‘next’ to you?”

“One thing that is similar is that it still feels disconnected. What I mean by that is because we are so far from one another it feels the same as online.”

“When in class, you could feel the energy in the room was more anxious. People were more fidgety, talked less, and just stared straight ahead. It was far more uncomfortable in class than usual and I believe that part of that is from being so used to being online now and being concerned with the pandemic.”

Fewer distractions…”

“Unusually sensitive to sounds…”

“You can also see first hand how the etiquette and habits have blended together. One example of this was when we were in-person, when the professor wanted to know how people were doing, many just gave a thumbs up which is what you do in Zoom so that everyone isn’t speaking over one another. Another really good example of the etiquette crossover is when we all went to Drew Science in Mineclass. We all walked in and picked a spot and then didn’t move which is very similar to what we would all do if we were in-person.”

“I noticed, and we talked about, that when we all met in the classroom in Anderson we still seemed to be ‘on mute.’ I think we got used to not feeling accountable; someone else will unmute and answer.”  

I think I found the [classroom] space particularly offensive because it felt [very] depersonalized…”

“Being in the classroom, I was still feeling awkward because on Zoom, I can easily say something but I can’t “turn off my camera” in person.”

Meeting on Zoom

“As someone who feels like being able to read the face or body makes the space/conversation more intimate or casual, being able to see everyone’s face on Zoom is much more enjoyable to me than being separated from everyone else by a few feet with masks on covering half of our faces.”

“When class is just a zoom I feel like my presence is less because I can be offline in a sense with my mic and camera off and just disappear.”

“The main thing I’ve noticed is that it takes effort to appear in the world of digital learning. In a physical classroom a student is in the room, and the energy of that space lends itself to learning. However in a digital classroom, the physical environment that helped keep me focused on learning is absent.”

“As the physical walls go away so does my focus, it takes more concentration and effort to remain in the digital classroom because no one will know if you go on your phone or zone out.

“We are spread apart, all in our respective homes, however we can still see each other’s faces which in and of itself feels more intimate now after getting used to only seeing people’s masked faces for a year.”

“Each setting has a different feel to it, and the class functions differently depending on where we are learning.”

“Zoom makes my room feel like a small prison when I just sit at my desk for eight hours a day, not moving. Minecraft alleviates this a bit by allowing me to move my avatar around and see a 3D representation of my classmates, but I still feel stuck.”

“I feel as though Zoom is the most personal as we can see people’s faces and their expressions. I would also say that I feel the most comfortable in Zoom because I am in a place that is comfortable and that I am used to. I would also that, I feel like I am in control which gives me the feeling of familiarity.”

“Online in Zoom is a bit different than being in person whereas every one, including the professor, is in a grid like formation on the screen. This is odd because in-person, we usually only see the professor’s face but online it’s like everyone is facing each other. Someone in class mentioned how it felt like we are all on the same level via Zoom and I have to agree with them.”

“Zoom class enables students to go to class while not going anywhere and allows people to be comfortable in that they are in their own space—a space with the most availability and ownership, however, students do not experience a collective space ownership or experience.

“When I could not connect to Mineclass, I wanted to leave the Zoom call and go do other things while listening. I write this, in a Zoom call, for another class, “listening.” Zoom allows us the bare minimum of participation in that it allows us to see and hear each other but it also means students feel more comfortable in the physical space we already occupy rather than the digital space in which we should be occupying.”

“On Zoom, there’s a way of dodging a question, not being able to see the whole body of a person (only showing half of a person), ignoring the collective community, and being able to experience the classroom setting without any data stream.”

“…the ways in which I can dodge things that I might not want to answer in fear of my interpretation being wrong might be what makes me more comfortable with Zoom than in person.”

“At least in Zoom I can see expressions and feel as though I am really in a class…”

“In Zoom, as we discussed in class, our presence feels more flat– like we’re just moving pictures without any sound (most of the time), projecting a listening image to the other people who are present. Our visual presence is indexed, but everything else disappears.”

“…erasing opinions I want to share and giving meaningless thumbs up emoticons, only to do the same in real life.”

“For me personally, I’m not interested in existing in digital spaces. I find myself struggling to learn when I’m not in a defined space, and I don’t like the idea of being so disconnected from my classmates. However, I do see a lot of value in studying it from the point of view of our textbook authors, since digital spaces have become so prevalent. I like the idea that anthropology can extend to many different facets of human expression and culture, and the digital is a very different but exciting space to study during this point in history.”

Meeting in Mineclass

“In our online classroom, perhaps this can be demonstrated through our use of Minecraft and the debates it has brought up. Is it a useful mode of education? Everyone in the class has a varied opinion as we weigh the pros and cons. For some, it provides comfort to be occupying a space with everyone else, where one can move and build while participating in class. For others, it can be frustrating and maybe even distracting, especially when unable to connect to the world. In addition, outsiders are looking in, weighing into our experiment and eagerly watching as it goes on. By trying out a new form of digital learning, we have created an intense dialog about it.”

“Yet, face-to-face interactions are culturally inflected, and the digital has helped us to make us more aware of those frames.

“I feel more socially engaged on Minecraft…”

“Minecraft for me is different from both in person and Zoom. It feels almost like a middle ground. When moving around in Minecraft and seeing everyone else moving, it gives the sense that we are all in a classroom together.”

“…However, Mineclass makes it seem more personal. Although it is not in-person, it feels like a field trip. It’s still interactive in a way, with our avatars and chatting, even though we are not physically together. Our avatars are an aspect of ourselves, and are put in place of our actual beings. We can move around with each other, and although we can be distracted, it is still in an environment where we feel like we are in class…we have our own little world we can interact with and learn with.”

“…Minecraft allows more movement and [we are] not boxed-in by Zoom. I do not have to worry about my movements or think about the camera so I can interact more freely in the digital plane versus when we are on Zoom there is more of a stiff wall and a boxed-in feeling.”

“When we are going back and forth from Minecraft to Zoom lecture I keep flipping into other tabs and it makes it hard to keep my attention. The switching of platforms just loses my focus and I am not sure where I should be present for the camera or make my avatar present in Minecraft.  When we are just in Minecraft and our cameras are off it is much easier to interact and actually play then when we are in Zoom and Minecraft.”

“Meeting in Mineclass feels more like a space. We have created a world together. It has classrooms, elements of actual campus such as Old Main and Drew Science. Unlike the actual world however we also have everyone’s personal touch in Mineclass. People of all different skill levels have made their mark on our space.”

I feel the most connected to the class as a whole when we are in Mineclass with our cameras on in Zoom. I can see people’s faces but we are also all together in a virtual space where we are free to move, build, and collaborate.”

“Meeting on Minecraft or Zoom is much more than just downloading the game and watching the screen. Each program comes with a set of norms and rules and also implies a different space.”

“When I look at Minecraft as a class space, I am going to be honest I do not feel anything about it really. In the beginning I felt a little frustrated when there was issues however, now I feel nothing. I end up being in Zoom almost the entire class period because I do not really like Minecraft. It is distracting to me, and I feel awkward starting at avatars.”

“In Mineclass, I’m also more focused on the task at hand, particularly because of the ability of the game to tap into the tendency of being “in the zone.”

“I feel far more connected to the game world class room and the people in it because their presence is more completely indexed: I can hear them walk, and see them fidget around or express reactions to things as they move. I see the avatars they choose, and how that reflects the ways they choose to present themselves in a material way. I want to be clear—I do not feel attached to the avatar, I see it effectively as a puppet which reflects how I want to interact with that space, but it does help tie my own self expression into the space.”

“Despite feeling more present, our class feels fairly loosely connected, though I also feel closer to the people in my breakout room than I do to most of my other classmates across all my other classes.”

“Being online in Mineclass is kind of like the best of both worlds in terms of providing a wonderful “meetspace” (as discussed in class). You have this really fun and creative space to learn with avatars of the classmates and professor while learning as if you were in an actual class setting. People are allowed to make this space their own and share it with the class all while following along with the class lecture. This is a cool, creative way to feel like you are in person while having to be distanced. With this platform comes distractions as well, just like any digital world. Some people are more proficient at building in this world than others and they will sometimes build random things in the middle of class which can be quite distracting.”

I learned very quickly that it is much harder for me to pay attention online than in person. My main struggle was that I would get distracted easily, mostly because I don’t have the sense of responsibility and presence that I do face to face. I still struggle with keeping myself accountable. I know that if I go on my phone I will stop listening, but now I am the only one who can tell myself not to do that; a professor is not going to tell me to stop. In Minecraft, I feel more present and less like I am just watching something but am not a part of it. It helps me stay engaged.”

“Minecraft makes lectures more fun and interactive, and it feels like something that I would do in my free time instead of just during class.”

“There is freedom in the cave classroom. Mineclass is easily owned by the people who participate in it, despite its availability being just as restricted as a normal classroom.”

“Like I said in class, I thoroughly enjoy the use of Minecraft in this class and I think it definitely makes online learning more interactive. As someone who gets fidgety easily and has trouble focusing sometimes, I think having that ability to figuratively transfer my body into an avatar, move about, and build things makes sitting and listening much more bearable for me.”

“I think this might also connect to the ambiguity of virtual spaces because it expanded our ways of communicating, building, and educating as opposed to just sitting at a screen for an hour and a half. In my mind, it makes the separation or gap that is present between each of us on Zoom shrink ever so slightly and makes class more animated, lively, and enjoyable.”

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