By Dr. Jennifer Cramer
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University
A view of online learning from an anthropologists perspective; what does it open up?
As an undergraduate student, I was mesmerized by the colorful lectures of my anthropology professors. These professors brought Indiana Jones style stories to class. They shared fieldwork memories of being tied to trees by bandits, wading through rivers full of leeches, and having multiple bouts of malaria. These stories made me more excited and, frankly, led me to pursue a career as a professional anthropologist!
I longed for adventure and dreamed about someday being alone in the jungle or the savannah for months at a time. My experiences in traditional classroom settings focused on lectures with cultural documentaries and hands-on training with lab materials to make the concepts more tangible. Yet, like most anthropology students, this only took me so far and then I was itching to get to the field or see anthropology in action in some way.
Doing anthropology is as important as learning the core concepts. This is one reason why some undergraduate programs and most graduate programs require a fieldwork for anthropology majors. Anthropology is a field where you need to get your hands dirty and work through the concepts in real time.
A couple of years ago a senior, renowned anthropologist remarked that my position at APU is quite amazing because I have the unique opportunity to be out in the world, just like my students, without being bound to a typical academic calendar and on-campus office. Having taught classes while traveling for fieldwork and conferences, this conversation really made me reflect further on the way that the online classroom provides unique opportunities for anthropology faculty and students.
In a typical online classroom, the students have diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Similar to most college-level courses, we use text based materials with audiovisual and interactive components to learn the basic concepts of the discipline.
Peer-to-peer learning is highlighted as students exchange cultural experiences and knowledge. Students have shared their experiences navigating African markets, experiencing culture shock during deployment, and merging cultural values and ideologies with blended families from different cultural backgrounds. Through digital storytelling and hands-on community observation exercises, students creatively explore foundational concepts in anthropology such as cultural relativism, human ethics, race, and sexual identity.
Our anthropology classrooms include virtual field trips to museums and research institutions for exploration of artifacts and fossil collections. Students have opportunities to personalize homework by connecting classroom knowledge with real world experience. For example, a student can write a site report about visiting archaeological sites in the Middle East or write a comparative analysis of artifacts seen at a local museum.
Online students bring a range of backgrounds to class and are often “in the field” during class which helps classmates with other backgrounds expand their own ideas and critical thinking. Working together to explore how cross-cultural knowledge can be used as a powerful tool in designing solutions for the challenges mankind faces, our anthropology courses prepare students for service and leadership in diverse and global society. In every anthropology course, our global experience as a learning community enriches discussion of current events and the human experience so that we can deeply reflect on where humanity has been and where it is headed.
About the Author
Dr. Jennifer Cramer is a professor of anthropology at American Public University System. She is a biological anthropologist and has worked on research projects in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, The Gambia, and Ethiopia. Dr. Cramer enjoys teaching anthropology in a way that highlights how anthropology fits into daily life. She is passionate about not only anthropology but exploring the world and she greatly enjoys helping students, especially first-generation and first-year students, learn about finding a program and career they are passionate about pursuing.