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Solving the Proximity Problem?
June 23, 2010 - 8:14pm

Have you figured out any methods for mitigating the proximity problem? This problem is particularly acute in higher education, where technology enabled and infused courses rely on the inputs of people who work across departments and buildings. The modern course is no longer a solo faculty act, as the ability of technology to help bring active learning engagements to large classes depends on the coordination and ideas of a range of learning professionals. The people who may work on a course, beyond the instructor, may include a subject librarian, a learning technologist, a media professional, and a range of technical people who provide and support the infrastructure. All of these people usually do not share an office space, yet they all need to interact on a regular basis during the course development and throughout the time that the course is running.

I've been reading about the proximity problem in Ori and Rom Brafman's excellent new book Click: The Magic of Instant Connections. I'm a total sucker for books like Click (and I loved their last book, Sway). Books that synthesize and summarize academic research, are brief (Click is 4.5 hours or 224 pages), and make their points with narrative and stories.

Writing on the power of proximity, the authors note that…..

"This effect is so powerful, in fact, that the odds of a scientist collaborating with someone on the same corridor were twenty-five times greater than his or her odds of collaborating with someone on a different floor". (page 66)

Educational technology depends on the success of close collaborations between instructors, librarians, system administrators, learning technologists, and media professionals. A big part of our job is to experiment with new technologies and methods that may offer possibilities for significant improvement in teaching and learning. To do this experimentation we often need to set-up exploratory server environments and stand-up test servers and applications. Without working right next door to the technical infrastructure experts, as well as the media people and librarians that are crucial to determining and evaluating learning technologies, it becomes more difficult to achieve the agility and flexibility necessary for this experimental process. As a learning technologist I often (usually/always?) don't know what I don't know. Only through conversations with other learning professionals (instructors, system admins, librarians etc.), am I actually able to even ask the right questions.

On the importance of conversations, the Brafman brothers write:

"One explanation for the power and ubiquity of the proximity rule something psychologists call spontaneous communication. The term refers to unplanned, ordinary conversations and exchanges that occur when people interact serendipitously because they are in the same place at the same time". (page 67)

Clearly it is not feasible for all of us to share one space. We need to find methods to overcome the proximity problem. Does anyone have any good articles or ideas for addressing this issue? How have you tried to overcome the proximity problem?


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