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We use terms like “I’m on YouTube or “I’m going online” and it implies a sense of space.  I might say “I spent an hour on Facebook,” but I would never say, “I spent an hour on a book.” And yet, when you are online, you aren’t in a physical place. You can’t feel the grass beneath your toes or smell the scent of fresh-baked bake bread wafting through the air. Which might be a good thing if you’re trying to go paleo.

Right now you are online. You are part of a network of interconnected devices. You are inhabiting a placeless place. And yet, this is where we talk. This is where we do business. This is where we learn. This is where we connect in very real ways with very real people. More and more of our world exists in this placeless place.

So what does that mean for global collaboration?

What does it mean for online learning?

How do we create a sense of place where it doesn’t actually exist?

I’ve been thinking about this as I teach a class that is entirely online. I’m not sure there are any easy answers, but here are a few of things that seem to work:

  1. Utilize skeuomorphism. It’s the idea that you take older, outdated forms of technology and you use them in digital spaces. Fans of flat design are quick to mock skeuomorphism. It’s become the design equivalent of having a fanny pack or wearing socks with sandals. However, even in flat design, our ones and zeroes eventually create something tangible. We need objects like file folders or speaking bubbles or magnifying glasses to make platforms feel real.
  2. Leverage multimedia for communication. We tend to think of multimedia as a method of content creation. However, when we use audio and video, we add a layer of physicality to the traditional choice of text. Suddenly you have a tone of voice and body language, which in turn creates a sense of space.
  3. We can also embrace both synchronous and asynchronous communication at the same time. So, you use video conferencing but you record it on a Google Hangout. You talk back and forth on Voxer but you allow others to listen later if they need to. These constant, small interactions create a sense of proximity which in turn creates a sense of space.
  4. Go mobile. Ask people to explore their world. Think of it like show and tell. Remember how awesome it was as a kid to take something from your world and bring it into the classroom space? That’s the draw of a platform like Instagram. It’s not narcissistic. It’s the desire to be known.
  5. Create team-building experiences. I’m not referring to People Bingo or that awkward trust exercise where you have to fall backward and hope that Phil from HR will catch you. But there needs to be a chance to share our interests and our stories in a way that builds trust.
  6. Choose walls. I know, I know, the digital world is supposed to be open and democratic and all of that. However, there is a place for privacy. Walls create intimacy. They make us feel safe by creating boundaries.
  7. Embrace vulnerability. Although a sense of physicality might be impossible online, vulnerability is what creates a sense of emotional proximity. It’s what leads to trust and ultimately builds relationships.

The concept of place may not be entirely possible online. But our world is filled with things that are not “entirely possible.” We will never know one another entirely but we choose relationships regardless, because it beats the alternative of isolation. Perfect communication is not entirely possible but we still interact and communicate and make art because imperfect communication beats never being known. So, imperfect as it may be, I am convinced that we should continue creating a sense of place online.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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