Harold Litwiler, The California Coast, Big Sur CC 2.0

A verse, a tweet and an invitation – Bob’s Reflection on Collaboration and Distance

Greetings from the the Digital Learning Commons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California! We are looking forward to collaborating on the community initiated conversation, “Envisioning Distance Collaboration,” on Friday, November 11th . In the lead up to this conversation I’m sharing some reflections on collaboration and distance. In lieu of technical advice and fair warnings, I offer a verse, a tweet, and an invitation.

A verse.  The work of Rudolf Steiner, the nineteenth and early twentieth century Austrian philosopher, serves as a foundation for Waldorf education. For those unfamiliar with Steiner, Waldorf pedagogy emphasizes the role of the imagination and the holistic integration of intellectual, social-emotional, and practical learning. As a parent of three children who attend a local Waldorf-inspired public charter school (kindergarten through middle school), my family has been living with Steiner’s educational philosophy over the past ten years. The verse, titled “The Healthy Social Life,” reads:

“The healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community finds its reflection;
And when in the community
The virtue of each one is living.”

I come to these words as a long time parent and more recently as a board member with the school. It is a board practice to begin our monthly face-to-face business meetings by reciting the ‘healthy social life’ verse aloud together. As we put voice to the words we glance around the room to make eye contact with each of the other members. To an observer or visiting member of the public this recitation might seem unusual, even a little strange, as a lead in to the formality of the business meeting agenda, but I have grown to appreciate the intention setting purpose of ‘the healthy social life’ verse. It is for me a simple but important performative act which focuses our attention to mindfully acknowledge each others’ presence, evoke a sense of community, and remind ourselves of the partnerships we have established with one another, the school, and the greater public we serve. The verse is grounding and clarifying. Everyone is present.

A tweet. Collaboration, in person or at a distance, requires clarity of purpose and intention. By definition collaboration is the messy process of working together towards an end. As Amy and Sean have recently posted, remote teamwork requires new kinds of attention and care. While the majority of the DLC team’s work is local, we are not strangers to working with colleagues at a distance. We each have stories of times we joined meetings as the lone Monterey voice on the teleconference line where we could not see anyone on the other end, or of being projected onto a large LED screen via videoconference into a room of colleagues meeting in person. But, things are beginning to evolve…

I tweeted this after an uplifting Google Hangout meeting I participated in while visiting Middlebury last summer. Sean brought us together to explore what the geographically distributed Academic Cyberinfrastrcuture Transformation team might be able to learn from the work of Virtually Connecting to improve our meetings. When you look closely at the screenshot there are four people represented: Autumm Caines (center) called in from her office at Capital University in Ohio, Sean Michael Morris (lower center) joined from a coffee shop with dubious wireless while traveling in Washington D.C., while Joe Antonioli and myself (lower right corner) connected from his office in the Wilson Library at the College. Not yet seeing Sean in the lower center? Here’s why this tweet is meaningful. Despite a number of attempts Sean had trouble joining the Google Hangout. The wifi network at his location wasn’t ideal, but we all new it was important for him to be there, as he was the connector between Autumm, Joe and myself. As you may now be able to gather, we carried on with the meeting. Despite the failings of technology we came to a creative hybrid solution. Autumm phoned Sean, then held her phone up to her headset so that his voice could be transmitted into our virtual meeting. What strikes me most about the memory of this meeting is how natural it was. Sure, we started the meeting a little late, but we spent that time problem solving together. Autumm took the place of Google hangouts holding her phone up to the mic on her headset so we could here Sean when he spoke. Had I been meeting with a different group of people I wonder whether we might have carried on without the remote person or simply canceled for a later date. After a follow-up meeting in August with members of the ACTT and the Virtually Connecting team, Sean tweeted a reply to Joe:

An invitation. Since these summer conversations with VC, the ACTT has continued to openly discuss our weekly meeting practices. We’ve also set aside some time for a conversation about the values that we bring to the work of the team. Here’s a screenshot from a digital post-it note board created on padlet where we’ve been synthesizing our thinking.


Our draft of team values includes: openness, leadership, adaptability, inclusivity, transparency, critical thinking, and partnership. What’s rewarding about this work is that the distance in our work together has become a source for creative problem solving rather than an obstacle. We’re exploring how these values translate into practice. We’ve begun by adapting our meetings from a hybrid of face-to-face gatherings of College team members meeting in a room joined by remote team members via video conference to our current de-centered approach where all team members, regardless of location, join a virtual meeting via available web conferencing tools like Google Hangouts or Zoom. The shift has made a noticeable difference. Where before it was challenging and admittedly frustrating for those of us joining remotely to see expressions on faces, identify voices, or to participate in the fluid discussions of those meeting face-to-face, now, with a commitment to all-digital meetings, each member has an equal digital presence.

I invite you and your teams to take notice of how and where you collaborate. If there is a distance involved that prevents meeting face-to-face, take some time in your next meeting to reflect on how it’s working for everyone. Ask those team members who are “away” to describe where they are, what the weather is like, what they see (and cannot see), what they hear (or cannot hear), where the pain points are with technologies or meeting spaces. By checking in from time to time, you may begin to uncover team assumptions and think creatively about how distance might inspire new opportunities to experiment, connect and collaborate.