Across the Distance
One of the greatest affordances of the digital world is the ability to stay connected to one another. The internet is home to not only a host of social media that allow us to communicate in forms long and short, visual and textual with our friends, family, colleagues, and others, but it also provides platforms for interaction that can make work more productive, distant collaborations possible, and systems which may seem disparate unified.
On Friday, November 11, the Office of Digital Learning, in partnership with the Digital Learning Commons in Monterey and the Academic Cyberinfrastructure Transformation Team (which spans both College and Institute), hosted a two-hour Envisioning Middlebury community-initiated conversation. About 30 people gathered — online and at both campuses — to discuss the opportunities presented by Middlebury’s widespread community, and to explore how best to utilize technology for distance collaboration across that community. Participants included faculty, staff, and members of the wider educational community who have expertise in working together across distances of time and culture.
At the forefront of this conversation was the fact that distance collaboration and remote work are not actually technological issues, but rather interpersonal ones. Using a videoconferencing platform isn’t like waving a magic wand: it doesn’t actually bring people into a room, but only gives the illusion that they are present. That illusion is key, however, because it can be as hard to bring in someone virtually as it is easy to forget they are there. And if collaboration across the community is going to work, we must practice a kind of empathy and intentionality when working with people not in the room that’s different from what we normally bring to our meetings.
People, not digital tools, are the most important technology at play in collaboration at a distance.
In a community as broad as Middlebury’s, understanding how to bring people together with a shared vision is a kind of literacy. And, just as with any literacy, it will take time and practice, and the very first step is commitment.
How do we make that commitment? What reason do we have to begin? In part, we can start by recognizing the benefits of distance collaboration and working across the community. Some of these benefits include:
- Deeper and more diverse resources for research, scholarship, and teaching;
- Greater sense of belonging to the Middlebury ecosystem;
- Innovation at the drop of a hat; collaboration that’s both asynchronous and spontaneous, depending on how we use the technology;
- Breaking down of traditional academic “silos” and increased interdisciplinarity;
- And the ability to expand students’ experiences beyond those available on either campus.
Essentially, more minds are better than fewer. And there are so many brilliant minds in the Middlebury ecosystem that walling ourselves off from one another actually works against one of Middlebury’s greatest strengths: its diversity.
Once we choose to make a commitment to this collaborative digital literacy, we can begin to take steps toward learning. Some of those steps might include:
- Always asking: “Who is not in the room who could be?” “What contributions am I missing out on that I don’t need to?”;
- Checking in across distance to see how collaborations and work are coming along;
- Allowing time in virtual meetings and collaborations for connecting and relationship-building;
- Finding back channel spaces for communication between meetings;
- Develop and be ourselves digital allies, who can act as connectors and supporters to make sure virtual meetings are inclusive and successful;
- Recognize and appreciate time zone differences. Early morning means different things to different people.
Perhaps most importantly, we must develop empathy for one another in virtual or digitally-inflected spaces. It may sound cozy to work from a home office, for example, but it also means very little time with colleagues; likewise, rushing to a virtual meeting is very different from having to cross campus to make it on time.
When we begin to look at the Middlebury ecosystem as such, instead of as a solar system with the Vermont campus at the center, we begin to realize how rich that community of expertise and scholarship is. Distance collaboration becomes possible—even second nature—when we realize we all work in Monterey and we all work in Middlebury. And this is key, because in order to develop a collaborative digital literacy and a thriving community at Middlebury, we need to be brave enough to shift our perspective away from a traditional center of gravity and see the system as interconnected, each with its deep and important history and expertise, each with its strength and pride, and each connected to each.